The Reformation: A Cause for Celebration? Or Not?


The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is here.  Most historians recognize October 31, 1517 as the beginning of the Reformation as this was when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany.  As a Lutheran-turned-Catholic I may have more interest than most in this singular occurrence. Many will celebrate the event.  I am a little less enthusiastic.

The reformation does not get much attention in the Catholic circles which I have inhabited for the past twenty-five years.  And it is not as though much pre-Reformation Church history got much attention from those corresponding circles during my days as a Lutheran.  So perhaps this year’s commemoration of the event will get all of us thinking about it, if only for a few moments.

There have, of course, been some successes.  The Reformation gave the Catholic Church a good kick in the seat of the pants which led to some much-needed self-examination and reform.  A spotlight was shone on some abuses (the use of indulgences for fund raising is, of course, the most famous) which led to this abuse being authoritatively stamped out.  Many reforms resulted from the Council of Trent and the creation of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), who made notable contributions in evangelization and education.

The Reformation has also resulted (if only indirectly) in a large group of ordinary people across the spectrum of Christianity who know their scriptures quite well.   We can argue about whether this is enough (because the Catholic believes that scripture is important but is not the totality of the faith) but who would dispute that more knowledge of scripture is a good thing?  Of course the invention of the printing press played no small part in this phenomenon, leading to printed Bibles that became much more widely available.

The schism has also forced some (though not enough) Catholics in the pews into a deeper knowledge and understanding of what we believe and why we believe it just as it has forced many on the Protestant side of the divide to do the same thing.

Unfortunately, the Reformation has also done some (so far) lasting damage to Christianity as a whole, which has been weakened and is without a clear voice in today’s world.  A world, I would add, that attacks the faith from all sides even as it needs more of what true Christianity has to offer.

In my view the primary failure of the Reformation is that it took Western Christianity and broke it into pieces, many of which continue to fracture even today.  We all know that the Reformation came completely undone as a single movement almost immediately.  Luther’s concept (mostly Catholic but with some things removed) and the wildly different concept of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin (of a radically reformed theology that bore very little relationship with Catholicism) had serious doctrinal differences.  Luther, for example, retained a preference for individual confession while Zwingli and Calvin jettisoned the practice entirely.  And where the Calvinists proposed that certain are predestined for Heaven or Hell, the Lutherans would have none of this concept.

Add in the English Reformation which came along about fifteen years later (after Catholicism, marriage and politics collided during the reign of Henry  VIII) and we have a third variety.  The Church of England was somehow the most Catholic of all yet the most violently opposed to Catholicism at the same time.  So within the first forty years or so the movement divided into three completely different strains of Christianity that were quite unlike one another, except for their agreement that the Pope and the Catholic Church were full of beans.

Within subsequent generations each of these chutes has further divided and subdivided.  There was still inter-denominational agreement on most of the big issues through the eighteenth century, but then came the outliers like Christian Science, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Seventh Day Adventists, to name just a few.  Really, is there anything that binds these disparate (and often contradictory) strains of Christianity together beyond their insistence that Rome is wrong?  Say what you will about Christian doctrine as it had developed for the first 1,500 years, it was at least something whole and coherent.

So as we fast-forward five hundred years, what do we have?  I propose that we are faced with a landscape that is a “Caveat Emptor” kind Christianity.  Caveat Emptor was the old latin phrase for “let the buyer beware”, a concept that undergirded the old common law as it applied to private transactions.  Applied to the Christian faith, the phrase suggests that it is up to the believer to decide what he will believe, but to be careful about it.  Do you like liturgy?  Or do you prefer the full light and media show?  Do you like your Christianity to bolster your conservative political views?  Or do you look for one that feeds your inner leftist?

We are so used to this pluralistic landscape of choices because it has been the norm in the English-speaking world for so long.  But is this a good thing?  The one idea lost here is whether there is a set of non-negotiables, or some everlasting and incontrovertable truths at play that are genuinely universal and not something that reduce to mere preference.  And if there are (which should not be a difficult concept for the Christian to accept), how can any of us be sure that our choice is the right one?  In our modern world it would almost qualify for a universal protestant truth that God doesn’t really care where or how you worship.  Except I suspect that many protestant congregations would disagree.  Because (say some) Jesus would never condemn gay marriage.  Or (say others) give a pass to those who ignore the killing innocent unborn babies.  Are we really left with a choice to accept either the equivalent of a Democrat and Republican versions of Christianity or a Christianity that is free of all doctrinal content beyond “Jesus loves you”?

And is any of us really equipped to be our own theologian?  I am certainly not, but the modern post-reformation landscape almost seems to require just that.  It might help if there were an authority to which we could appeal to in order to settle the matter, but all of those disagreeing Christians would likely hold up the same Bible (though in different translations) in defense of their favored view.

There has been a little progress.  It has been twenty years since Catholics and the Lutheran World Federation decided that we do not have a disagreement over the doctrine of justification after all.  But it would seem that the target continues to move.  After all, how many other Christians would accept the Catholic/Lutherans conception of justification given that so many come from movements that broke with Luther over 450 years ago?  I fear that our traditional concepts of ecumenism, which involve discussions between large bodies of Christians, may be doomed to failure as the communities that make up the modern protestant landscape continue to evolve faster than the discussions can keep up.

On balance I must conclude that the Reformation has not been one of Christianity’s better moments (or five centuries).  In a world in which more and more are walking away from any faith at all and where non-Christian movements are flexing their muscles, our divisions are doing great harm to our ability to fulfill our duties of Christian witness.  After all, how can such a fractured and divided bunch of people have anything of value to say to an increasingly unbelieving world?

Note: Cover art by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872.  Source: Wikimedia Commons





8 thoughts on “The Reformation: A Cause for Celebration? Or Not?

  1. Well reasoned. Having always been a non-Catholic Christian, I see positives in the way things turned out. I am suspicious of a centralized church structure for the abuses it can create on a large scale. And what if that structure promotes doctrine that, to another man’s thoughtful, studied, prayerful reading, does not stand up? And if a lost man finds the simple, saving love of God in a Church of Christ, or a Church of the Nazarene, or a Meeting of Friends, then he is blessed indeed. I don’t claim to be doing the same level of analysis in this comment as you did in your post, and I do not mean to excuse or justify the real challenges of denominationalism.


    • This is a tough topic for all Christians. We know what we are born into or what we have come into in adulthood. It is difficult to conceive of any other way things could be.

      You undoubtedly noticed that I offer no solution here.


  2. Being a CRC Calvinist I’ll start with “Yay Luther!” however that’s oversimplifying, and not as well reasoned as anything above this line. However I think you’re throwing an awful lot of baby out with that bath water.

    One of my wife’s close friends who started out as a new Christian eventually became Catholic, finding the answers she was looking for in the structure and all encompassing-ness of Catholisim. This led us to do some reading and conclude that there are different types of people who need to relate to God in different ways. Society has splintered and the Church meets different needs for different people.

    I do know some highly anti-Catholic people, and I recently had to grit my teeth through a Catholic funeral service while the priest hurled vitreol at the deceased’s Protestant relatives. Don’t recall seeing those approaches listed in the fruits of the spirit.

    At any rate, given the way society in general is going it’s better to concentrate on what we have in common. We work for the same guy, different franchises.
    Christianity is hard, it’s always been hard because it’s supposed to be hard. Anyone who says it’s easy or that they have it all figured out is either kidding themselves or selling something. Maybe that’s a cop out, but I don’t think I need to have everything figured out. I’m just one guy trying to do the right thing most of the time.

    I have a solution, and my solution (as always) is beer. Catholics and Protestants need to sit down and have a beer together. It’s important to spend time together now, because we may be sent to different remedial classes in the next life. So JP, next time we get together we should have an ecumenical beer. Currently my favourite is Nickelbrook Head Stock IPA.

    Maybe if they’d been doing more of that 500 years ago it wouldn’t have been so schism-like.


    • And to think that the Reformation began in Germany where good beer was plentiful. 🙂

      That the English version of the Reformation was so bitter and bloody continues to affect those of us in the English speaking world today. Swept under the rug is the fact that so much of the Reformation was about politics and money, in addition to theology.

      And I completely agree with you that we must all do our best to work together. None of us was involved in the split but we are all here now and are accountable for how we treat our neighbor.


  3. You make several good points here, especially about the fact that Christianity lacks a clear voice in the modern world, but I also find that your focus on the causes of the Reformation in this piece might be a tad myopic. Especially in terms of Lutheranism in the territories around modern-day Germany and the English Reformation, it can’t be overemphasized that these theological differences were allowed to thrive as a direct result of state-sponsored resistance to the massive political sway that the Catholic Church held over much of Europe at the time.

    The idea of the Reformation as a unified movement which necessarily had a single aim that then broke apart soon after seems to be a bit revisionist, unless that aim is defined as to reject the theological, social and political authority that the Church then wielded. Theologically, I agree that the notion of the individual as the interpreter of scripture opened a Pandora’s box to the splintering we see today (with no small amount of strange and warped ideologies that can barely be called Christianity).

    I’d be interested to see arguments that assert that the Reformation was not necessary to address the corruption and abuses that had calcified within the Church over hundreds of years, and that it was not, essentially, inevitable given the political situation in Europe at the time.


    • The idea that the Reformation began with Luther and cracked up from there does ignore that there had been many minor revolts (if we can use the term) previously. However Luther led the first of these movements to gain critical mass (No pun intended 🙂 ) and with a hole punched in Catholicism’s bulkhead, the others sort of followed.

      As for the issue of reforms within the Church, I read a good article this morning on this very topic.

      There is no doubt that politics, power, money and the printing press took some simmering issues of theogy and Church governance and added enough powder to blow things apart.


  4. I am completely non-religious and associate Luther mostly with the dour stereotype of Lutherans (not to mention vague memories of snickering about the Diet of Worms in high school history). But a recent article in the New Yorker portrays him as personally very interesting, and ultimately a happy and loving family man. Not sure if this is available to non-subscribers, but here’s the link:


    • Thanks for the interesting article. Luther was indeed a complicated figure. Adding to the complication is 500 years of biographies that have been colored by the larger struggle between the two sides.


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