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Reformer’s Syndrome

Among the many theological ailments that can strike in Reformed churches, “Reformer’s Syndrome,” is one of the more troublesome. What is “Reformer’s Syndrome,” you ask? Reformer’s Syndrome is the personal belief that you are a sixteenth-century reformer, reincarnated for the present day, ready to take on all forms of authority regardless of how inane and convoluted your ideas might be. How does this happen?

When people come into the Reformed church, they are initially dazzled by the heady history of the Reformation. They read of Martin Luther’s confrontation with the Roman Catholic officials at the Diet of Worms where he was commanded to recant his views, but he responded, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” Some legends say that Luther turned his back to the gallery, held his hands up in the air like a victorious bullfighter, and triumphantly marched out of the room.

Naturally, when people read of such things, they are inspired, and want to do equally great things all for the glory of God. But I like to remind my students, if you look at church history, theologians like Augustine, Luther, Hodge, or Machen, and the conflicts they engaged in, are somewhat rare. Chances are God will call us to more humble and mundane service. Keep in mind, when all of life is lived coram Deo (before God), there is a sense in which nothing in life is mundane—all can and should be done to the glory of God. But if we’re looking for notoriety and the recognition and praise of our fellow man for how great our service to the Lord is, then we can quickly become infected with Reformer’s Syndrome.If we’re looking for notoriety and the recognition and praise of our fellow man for how great our service to the Lord is, then we can quickly become infected with Reformer’s Syndrome. Click To Tweet

We begin to believe our theological cause, no matter how ridiculous, is like Luther’s stand at Worms. I have seen a number of people ride their theological ponies all the way to the General Assembly of my denomination and have scratched my head in bewilderment as to why they wanted the highest court in the church hear their case. In these situations, people have labored for years going through the appeals process and each step of the way have their cases rejected. Their circumstances could have been resolved by a simple admission of guilt for a minor infraction or by being willing to suffer a wrong (1 Cor 6:7).

Is it possible, therefore, that you could be the next Martin Luther making your stand at Worms? Sure, I suppose so. But is it likely? Probably not. When we begin to think that we’re the next incarnation of Luther or Machen, perhaps we should seek the counsel of trusted friends, a pastor, or a session, and check to see whether our crusade is a legitimate one. Another question to ask is, “Is the gospel at stake?” While this question is not a sure-fire litmus test, it certainly can cause us to meditate upon the nature of our cause. If the gospel is at stake, then proceed. But if you are the chief beneficiary of your cause, then prudence dictates that you surrender. Beware, therefore, of Reformer’s Syndrome and remember that above all else we should seek the way of the cross, which to the world, and even many within the church, will appear like foolishness. But such is the wisdom of God compared with the wisdom of man (1 Cor. 2:1-7).

This post was originally published on Dr. Fesko’s blog.

J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS Jackson. He has been an ordained minister since 1998 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a church planter, pastor, and now teacher. Dr. Fesko has authored or edited more than twenty books including Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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