In just a couple of days from now, on October 31st, the world will remember one of the most life-altering days in the history of the world. Yes, many will celebrate Halloween (and I’m good with that). But many will also remember this day of October 31st as it particularly relates to the year 1517. It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
Luther’s actions began the movement that would later be identified as the Protestant Reformation. It is truly amazing to think it has been a full five hundred years since the Reformation was set in motion.
In particular, Luther’s 95 Theses were questions and propositions he desired to debate with the Roman Catholic Church, the religious power of the Western European world. It was Luther’s fresh reading of Romans 1:16-17 – particularly the verse, “The just [or righteous] shall live by faith.” – which led him to dispute many of the practices of the Roman Catholic magisterium, the church’s leadership that consisted of the Pope and his bishops.
There is little doubt that the Protestant Reformation was deeply needed. The oppressive power of the Roman Catholic Church – which was just as much social, political and cultural as it was religious – stripped the general populace of any sense of God’s grace, forgiveness, love, generosity and kindness. Abuses were plentiful within the Church’s institutional system of merit and questionable practices in light of Scripture.
It was out of the Protestant Reformation that the reformers began advocating the five solas:
- Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
- Sola fide (by Faith alone)
- Sola gratia (by Grace alone)
- Solus Christus (by Christ alone)
- Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone)
One great point worth noting – one that is very rarely talked about – is how the Protestant Reformation has led to a slow and measured reformation within the Roman Catholic Church itself. I don’t so much speak of the counter-Reformation as identified with the Council of Trent (in the mid-1500s). Whew, that was a reactionary event that basically labeled all Protestants as heretics! Rather I speak of something unfolding over the past five hundred years since the Reformation, particularly summed up in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. I will also note that I believe more change is still needed within the Catholic Church.
In all of the good that truly came from the Reformation, there is a lot of bad to recognize as well. I originally thought of titling this article, “The Protestant Reformation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
So there is bad and there is also ugly.
What are some of the bad and ugly moments?
In all our efforts in championing the priesthood of all believers, summed up with the practicality of placing the Scriptures in the hands of all people for their own personal reading and interpretation, we have to consider how this has led to the thousands of denominations and church splinter groups worldwide. Matter of fact, in the 20th century, one might say this continued and rapid splintering was foundational within the Protestant evangelical movement. Each new group had finally figured out what was the truest and most biblical version of Christianity as God had originally designed. Each one believed they inched ever closer to what we find in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament.
I know, I used to believe this. It was/is a bit naive. Somehow we knew better than 1900 years of Christians before us.
I now believe the church of old has more to teach us than the church of now.
Of course, I don’t believe we need retract the priesthood of all believers – though I would redirect it from our individualistic lens of the west. When Peter speaks of us being a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet 2:9), he speaks of a collective people with that people focused on the mission of God – “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Also, I believe at its core all should have access to the study of Scripture. I would simply remind us that God has given some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as shepherds and teachers . . . (Eph 4:11).
Not only did the Protestant church become more and more fragmented, but it also learned the way of its predecessor. Whereas power once lay in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, it was now shifting into the hands of the Protestant Church. This newly formed segment of Christianity desired its own expression of religious, social, political and cultural rule.
The Hugenot Wars and Thirty Year’s War saw millions of people perish (both Rome and Protestants are to be implicated in the evils of these wars). Not only that, but much of Protestant Christianity got wrapped up in colonialism. As western empires looked to expand their power into “new” lands, institutionalized Protestantism of the west was able to develop its own horizons. With such, we have the tragic realities of how Africans, Native Americans and the like were treated, many times in the name of Christ. Even more, in recent decades, the Protestant-evangelical church has found itself lagging behind (or worse!) in the defending the rights for African-Americans and women.
Part of our ugly Protestant history also includes our treatment of Roman Catholics. There have been plenty of Protestants and evangelicals who have marked out Rome as the Beast of Revelation and the Pope as the anti-christ. I remember when all Catholics used to be considered “unsaved.” Our disdain for this group is appalling. Thankfully much has changed these days (though there is still much work to be done).
In all, if we are honest, we have to admit the Reformation and it’s legacy is a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. To deny such is, I believe, to deny history.
I am grateful to God for his mercy in the midst of our own brokenness and my hope is that the way toward healing and reconciliation is continually paved.
As we joined together with our church this morning, remembering what was begun by the great Luther those five centuries ago, I was freshly reflecting on the Reformation. I had actually been reflecting on some things for many days, knowing the anniversary was upon us. And as we were worshipping this morning, a very clear comparative picture came to me.
The Bible recounts a story of an ancient people who lived in the land of the Chaldeans (the plain of Shinar) long ago. It’s a well-known story found in Genesis 11. We call it the Tower of Babel. Interestingly enough, we read that the whole world had one language, a common speech (11:1). With this background, we find that the people come together and make an astonishing declaration: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4).
We know how things play out.
God confuses their language and what they had hoped would not happen did happen. The people were scattered over the earth (11:8-9).
Confusion. Division. Scattering.
And, so, when we come to the pages of the New Testament, particularly the festival of Pentecost as detailed in the book of Acts, we read an interesting account. “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” had come together for this festival (2:5). It was an annual festival that would remember God’s giving of the law, the torah, at Mt. Sinai. Following the pouring out of the Spirit of God, we read “each one heard their own language being spoken” (2:6). You have people present from all over the then-known world and all of a sudden they hear folk speaking their own language seemingly at random.
Not your average festival, eh?
What many theologians see happening here is a reversal of the curse of Babel. Whereas the united people of Shinar became confused in language and, thusly, were scattered over the earth, we now find God’s people from every known nation of that time coming together and hearing “the wonders of God” in their own tongue. What a turn of events!
At Babel, unity was turned to disunity.
At Pentecost, disunity was turned to unity.
How does this relate to the Reformation?
What came to me this morning is this: The Reformation was truly needed five hundred years ago. It was needed religiously, socially, politically and culturally. It was a literal deliverance for the people of God from an oppressive system that had held a deep stronghold for approximately one thousand years.
To use the words of the Babel scene, a scattering was needed.
But, just as the famed Pentecost of Acts 2 reversed the disunity of Babel, forging a fresh togetherness in God’s people, so it is time for a reversal of the Reformation and it’s scattering, separatist trajectory.
For five hundred years we have watched the church splinter and splinter and splinter. Not only that, but we’ve found ways to form our own oppressive systems wherever we find our home.
It is now time for something better, for something new; it is now time for a reversal of the division that started on October 31, 1517.
As Stanley Hauerwas stated in a recent article in the Washington Post:
“In short, the Reformation seemed to us to be “back there,” and I felt no need to defend Protestantism because it seldom occurred to me that being a Protestant was all that important or interesting. The antagonism of the past simply seemed no longer relevant.” (bold mine)
Further along, he articulates:
“That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.”
Is it time for the Reformation to end?
In a sense, no. We remember it and remember the good that would unfold because of Martin Luther and his companions. And as many Protestants and evangelicals would remind us, we must always champion the call of Ecclesia semper reformanda est – “the church is always reforming.”
However, in a sense, it may be time for the Reformation to end. It may be time for something anew (or Great Emergence, as Phyllis Tickle calls it).
Because it’s time to put to bed the division; it’s time to end the casting out of Roman Catholics; it’s time to lay aside oppressive ways through the entanglement of our own religion, culture and politics.
In a sense, we need to move on from what our fathers and mothers handed us. There is a better way for today. That better way is a reversal of the curse of Babel, one that truly unifies, heals and reconciles. We need a new work of the Spirit to build the New Jerusalem that we read about in Scripture.