Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Successes and Failures of the Reformation

489 years ago, the world was changed by a someone tacking a notice up to a church bulletin board. Who knew?

Okay, it wasn't a bulletin board. But that was what the door of the church in Wittenburg was used for. Martin Luther couldn't possibly have imagined the impact. He was hoping to start a limited discussion to reform a specific abuse within the Church; he ended up unleashing a huge movement that irrevocably altered the nature of the church as a whole. And therein lie both the successes and the failures of the Reformation.

Luther's immediate concern was the issue of indulgences. He did not, at the time of posting the 95 Theses, challenge the authority of the Pope or the sacramental system. He was only beginning to come to an understanding of justification by faith through his reading of Galatians and Romans. The last thing he was looking for was to break off from the established church and start his own.

Yet all these things he did. It is seldom noted how much the Reformation illustrates the law of unintended consequences.

The Reformation breathed new life into a Christianity that had grown corrupt with wealth and worldly power. It established the Bible as the sole authority of Christian faith and practice, removing the power of the Church from that position. It reawakened an understanding of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, independent of the mediation of the Church and its sacraments. It put the Bible back into the hands of the people so that they could have access to God's special revelation for themselves. It reduced, to some degree, the gulf separating clergy from laity, reestablished the dignity of all work (not just clerical work), and indirectly fueled a movement toward literacy and free enterprise that had profound socioeconomic effects on the modern world. Martin Luther was arguably the most influential person of the last millenium, and we should thank God for the wonderful things that his courage and insight have bequeathed upon us.

And yet.

The great benefits of the Reformation came at the expense of the division of the Church. For a millenium after the council of Acts 15, there was a sense that the church was a unity, that debates and disputes should be brought to councils and settled, so that Christianity could speak with one voice. Even after the division between East and West, there was still a sense that this was not how things should be, that the divided halves of the Church would one day be reconciled. Luther did not intend to break the Church again, but that is what his actions did. I do not argue that this was unnecessary, and it was not, after all, Luther who did the breaking; the Roman church broke him off, and with him, all those who saw the truth of what he was proclaiming. In the early years of the Reformation there was a dream of a unified Protestant movement, a new True Church raised up in opposition to the decadent false one, a dream that was shattered when Luther wrote on a table at Marburg, "This is my body."

The weak side of the sole authority of Scripture and the priesthood of all believers was the inability of these believers to come to unity on the meaning of Scripture. And once the precedent had been set to divide rather than compromise what one believes to be the truth, division became the hallmark of the Protestant movement. We have divided over the meaning and administration of the Lord's Supper and Baptism; we have divided over various forms of church government; we have divided over differing understandings of the respective roles of predestination and free will; we have divided over differing forms of church services, over differing understandings of spiritual gifts, over differing understandings of the role of believers in civil society. We have divided and divided and divided and divided. Is it any wonder that an unbelieving world increasingly says, "A pox on all your houses"?

What all this division has accomplished, in the long run, is the inability of the Church to function in a unified way to accomplish the goals set out for it by God through Scripture. One of the things that the Reformation did was to change our understanding of the nature of the universal (once called catholic) Church. We pay lip service to the idea that The Church of True Believers as God Sees It is spiritually unified; pity that there is no evidence of it on the ground. Most of our cities are dotted with small churches, each struggling for survival, each competing for its share of the shrinking portion of the population that thinks that Christianity has anything meaningful to say to contemporary life. If only we could find a way to work together! If only we could offer the unbeliever one choice, not dozens!

I don't have an answer. I am a Protestant; I believe in sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia. I am deeply grateful to Martin Luther, to William Tyndale, to John Wesley, to them and countless others that struggled, were persecuted, and in some cases died, to give me a Bible in my own language to read and the understanding of access to God and forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ alone. But as a result of being a Protestant, I belong to a particular church that has a particular position on all the topics I have listed above. There is no way, in the contemporary context, to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The great failure of the Reformation was simply that it didn't actually reform anything. It created something new, in which people who believed something different could have a place to exercise that belief. But it didn't create the opportunity for people who have differing doctrinal convictions to be able to work through those convictions, perhaps come to a mediating position, and perhaps find unity and continue to worship together.

Perhaps we need a new Reformation, to tie up the loose ends of the old one. With that thought in mind, Happy Reformation Day.


  1. I think this is one area where the emergent movement has a good idea. Focusing on historic creeds provides a framework for cooperation that (theoretically) we can all agree upon. I wish I were more hopeful that this kind of "evangelical ecumenical-ism" will become reality.

  2. The division is less of an issuie in Germany, where house churches have a much smaller influence. Here, it's Catholic or Lutheran and (usually) they work well together. More of a concern in Germany is Luther's apparent anti-semitism.

  3. AS -

    By "more of a concern," do you mean that Luther's anti-semitism tends to push people away from the church, or do you mean that his influence tends to cause anti-semitism among Lutherans?

    It seems to me that Luther's anti-semitism was a combination of the common prejudices of the time in which he lived and his disappointment at the fact that Jews didn't flock to his version of the Gospel as he had hoped. He was pretty acerbic toward anyone who opposed him in his later life.

  4. Excellent and interesting analysis, as always. Thank You.

  5. Interesting how Protestants basically assume that, at the time of the Reformation, the only Church was the Roman Catholic Church. They always forget about the Eastern Churches. The Eastern Churches were never under the jurisdiction of the Pope, never believed in Purgatory, Indulgences or Priestly celibacy, never added extra words to the Creed, etc.
    Luther had 3 choices: Stay and fix the Roman Church, leave and start his own church, or seek out and be in communion with Churches that already existed. Unfortunately, he chose to interpret the Bible all by himself and start a "new" and novel form of Christianity, which divided and re-divided into the mess we have today.

    It is interesting to note that, even though they have been out of communion with each other for over 1500 years, the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox churches beliefs are still 99% the same. Unlike the distorted mess we have with Protestantism!

  6. You are correct, it did not reform the corrupt institution as Luther and others desired because the RCC was beyond reforming. It did start new woks, many of which brought the false doctrines of the RCC with them. As an independent baptist, I do not consider myself a protestant. I believe there were many groups of believers throughout the world that had never been a part of the RCC, holding to the tenets of the Reformation.