By Nathan Handley
JACKSON, Tenn. — Union University celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with the REF500 festival March 9-11. The festival included lectures, music, theater, film, sermons, and a public reading of the entire Bible.
Ray Van Neste, professor and director of the Ryan Center for Biblical Studies at Union and organizer of the event, said the Reformation is something to be remembered, carefully thought about and celebrated.
“I’m convinced that if we look back carefully, we will see forward more clearly,” Van Neste said. “Our hope is that as we look back at how God renewed his church at the Reformation we might learn truths to help us today as we seek renewal once again.”
Four plenary addresses were given by Timothy George, Carl Trueman, David Lyle Jeffrey and Peter Leithart. Each speaker discussed how the Reformation has shaped the world and highlighted lessons from the Reformation for today.
George said the Reformation was a movement of retrieval for the sake of renewal, retrieving the principles of the New Testament for the spiritual renewal of the church. Trueman discussed the cross-centered theology of Martin Luther that emphasized the necessity of suffering and warned against Christians seeking their own glory.
Jeffrey demonstrated how the Reformation led to a new flourishing of literature, quoting significant portions of Scripture and classic literature. Leithart probed the impact of the Reformation on modern culture.
Nathan Finn, dean of Union’s School of Theology and Missions, spoke at a chapel service during the festival on the Baptist contribution to the Reformation. He said the earliest Baptists were third-generation Protestants who attempted to reform the Reformation by applying Protestant principles to matters of the local church.
“The goal was to recapture as much of New Testament life as possible … while also holding to the five solas of the reformation,” Finn said.
He said Baptists rejected mixed membership, infant baptism, clerical authority over laity and an overly cozy relationship between the church and state.
Finn said Baptists committed themselves to the principle of a regenerate church membership. He said New Testament churches were meant to be communities of disciples who had been born again and were walking together through this life and into the next life, an idea that had been lost in the Reformation idea of mixed membership. Finn said Baptists should recommit themselves to regenerate church membership.
“I am deeply, deeply grateful for the Reformation and its legacy,” Finn said. “But I’m also grateful that my Baptist forebears were willing to reform the Reformation by applying those principles to the life of the church, especially our understanding of church membership.”
Union’s music department gave a concert Friday night in which they debuted a new cantata written by Dan Musselman. The new piece built on the hymn “In Christ Alone” written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend, interspersing other poetry from Christina Rossetti and John Donne. The Union University Singers will also sing this piece on their tour in Germany later this month.
Christian drama duo Charlie and Ruth Jones performed two plays that told the story of Luther. “Luther and Katie” told the story from the perspective of Katie Luther, Martin’s wife, and demonstrated the strength of their marriage. “Melanchthon” recounted the story of the deep friendship between Luther and his colleague, Phillip Melanchthon, from the perspective of Melanchthon and his wife on the first anniversary of Luther’s death.
“I expected them to be good, but I was amazed at the careful research behind them and their emotive power,” Van Neste said.
Union’s art department also hosted a Reformation-themed art contest during the festival, with more than 50 entries submitted by high school students across West Tennessee. Allison Szulewski from Briarcrest Christian School was awarded “Best of Show” for her piece, “A Hopeful Self Reform.” She received a cash prize plus a $1,000 scholarship to Union. Each of the top three entries received cash awards and scholarships.
The REF500 festival also included several parallel sessions led by Union faculty and guests. Video of all addresses will be posted soon at uu.edu/events/ref500. A book, published by B&H, was produced from the conference as well: Reformation 500: How the Greatest Revival Since Pentecost Continues to Shape the World Today.