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