How to View the Flaws of the Reformers

Some of the reformers had pretty severe, shortsighted flaws, but we honor them nevertheless for their faith and their faithfulness; while at the same time not justifying the mistakes that they made.

From the: The Pillars of the Reformation Conference || GCC Laredo || Nov. 10-12, 2017

View the full Question & Answer session here.


Jeremy: Well, I'll just kick it off with the first one. As we celebrate 500 years from when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses upon the Wittenburg Cathedral doors, we are undoubtedly speaking highly of men like Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Zwingli and the truths they heralded and established. However, inevitably, conversation comes up about, for instance, Luther's anti-Semitic writings, or Calvin's involvement in the death of Servetus, so the question is this: How should we consider these men who were so monumentally used by God for great good, and yet we see either glaring flaws or blind spots in their lives. How should be see them, feel about them, if we find genuinely troubling truths about their personal lives or even perhaps a doctrinal stance they may have held?

Phil: My answer to that is the same answer I would give if you asked about the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. You read that list in Hebrews 11 and it includes men like Samson who in so many ways was a spiritual disaster. He was dedicated by his parents at a very young age to live the lifelong role of a Nazarite, which meant that he couldn't cut his hair; he wasn't supposed to touch wine or any of the fruit of the vine, and he wasn't supposed to touch dead bodies. He did all those things. And he ate the honey out of the corpse of a lion and then boasted about it. Just lived a profligate life. Dishonored his parents because he wanted to marry a Philistine girl and they were appalled by that idea. So he married a pagan girl. That got him into a fight with her in-laws in which he had to kill a bunch of them. You look at his life in terms of 21st century moral standards and you say this man was a disaster. He was an absolute disaster. And yet, Scripture lists him as one of the heroes of the faith. And the answer is: we're all flawed. Some of us are flawed more than others, but all men are flawed. And God has always used flawed men. David committed adultery and murder. And those are sins which admittedly would disqualify a man from leading the church today. If I knew someone who wanted to be a pastor, and he had committed adultery and arranged for the death of his paramour's legitimate husband, I would say there's no way that man can ever be above reproach. Even if he's repented afterwards, I wouldn't want to see him in a pastoral role because he's not above reproach. And that's the first requirement for a pastor. And yet, the Lord kept him as king of Israel and he is the one from whom the Messianic line descended. (Incomplete thought) [The Lord] justifies the ungodly, right? It's not that He throws out justice. And it's not that He throws out morality. Be sure your sin will find you out. And in all those cases, it does. But the fact that men have flaws doesn't mean God can't use them. And it doesn't mean that we shouldn't honor them for their faith and their faithfulness where they were faithful. I think Calvin's flaws are often grossly exaggerated. He didn't personally kill Servetus. He simply said by the laws of the time, what Servetus did - teaching heresy and sedition and he was an anarchist - was worthy of the death penalty by the civil laws of the time. And Calvin actually pleaded for a more merciful form of execution than burning him at the stake. And it was the city council who said no, we're going to burn him at the stake. So, Calvin in that, I think, is often portrayed as a murderer and a bloodthirsty man, when he was not. If you know Calvin's character and read his sermons and all that, you find he's a much better man than either Catholics or Arminians want to admit. It's true that Luther became anti-Semitic. He didn't start out that way. But as time went by, he believed that once the Gospel was clarified, and he had dug out the doctrine of justification by faith from under centuries of Roman Catholic tradition, he believed that the Jewish people when they heard the Gospel, would respond, and when they didn't, he grew frustrated, and wrote some pretty harshly anti-Semitic material. And there's no excuse for that. There's no way to way well, that wasn't really so bad. It was bad. And there were other things Luther did that were bad. He had vile mouth. Now everything Luther said, even privately was taken down by students of his and published posthumously in a collection called, "Table Talk." And you'll find, most of the outrageous things Luther said you'll find in his "Table Talk," not in his commentaries or his thoughtful writings. So in a way it's not fair to Luther to think that things he meant to be in private discourse; things where he might have been joking even; things he didn't write himself - other people took it down. And if you've ever had other people take down your words and tweet them, they never get it exactly right either. And whatever you say that sounds bad is going to be exaggerated by the people who record it. So you do have to cut Luther a little slack on that, but there's no question, he was a flawed man. And some of the reformers had pretty severe, shortsighted flaws. But we honor them nevertheless for their faith and their faithfulness, while we recognize their flaws and say there's no way to justify that. One of my favorite theologians in America is R.L. Dabney. He was a Presbyterian theologian. And I firmly believe that he would be remembered as America's greatest theologian ever, except that he got embroiled in the Civil War. He was a southern presbyterian during the time of the Civil War. He was the chaplain to Stonewall Jackson. So he was actually in the military and fought for the South in the war, and when the South lost, he became embittered and never really got over it. And some of his later writings also are racist. Just racist. So much so that when the Banner of Truth published his collected writings on essays and stuff like that - it's called "Discussions" - it's actually my favorite set of books of all the books on my shelf. That's the one I would least like to lose because there's some brilliant material in there. It was originally four volumes. And when Banner of Truth picked it up and published it, they made it three volumes, because there was so much racist material at the end that they had to take out. So they deleted half of volume three and most of volume four and put it in three volumes. And I look at Dabney and I think what a shame! I mean, he was a product of his times. And what a shame that he couldn't rise above that and see beyond that because he understood doctrine and loved the Scriptures and loved Christ, and I'm sure his level of spiritual maturity was far beyond mine. So, I feel bad even criticizing him, but you have to step back and look at that and say, he, like all those reformers, was a flawed man. And sometimes our flaws outlive and sometimes even overshadow our good qualities. It's one of my fears, frankly, because I've put a lot of stuff on the Internet, and over the years, some of the things I've written on the Internet have made people angry. And I hope succeeding generations don't look back and say that the thing that stands out about me is that I was a sarcastic bad-mouther. I recognize, I have flaws just like those men. And it's a shame when our flaws overshadow our good things. But I don't think that's the case with the reformers. I think the benefits of their ministries really outshine their flaws. The flaws are undeniable. But just because you realize a man has a serious character flaw isn't necessarily a reason to write off his legacy entirely, if he's a man whom God used in a mighty way. And there are lots of biblical examples of that. Samson being the one I cited. David being another. There are others who did heinous sins and yet, Scripture commends them for their faith.