On that fateful day in 1517, when Martin Luther posted his now famous Ninety Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche, he more than likely had no idea what an impact his simple exposure of the abuses of the Roman Church would have for Christianity. While Luther merely sought to address the specific abuses he detailed, his actions eventually led to the Protestant Reformation. It is this Reformation that we must address herein, both the good and the bad of it. In doing so I hope to establish the essential problems in the Church today, demonstrating why it is impotent to influence our culture and the sociopolitical future of Western Christians, as well as potential answers to these problems.
Evangelicals generally take a very myopic, if not fantasy filled, view of the Reformation. And while these very same evangelicals note the problems in our churches, they do not understand their root, and so we must have a better grasp on the history of our faith. What most Protestants fail to come to terms with is that Luther did not set out to challenge the Catholic priesthood, the Liturgy, or even the papacy itself. He had no grand scheme to lead a schism from the Roman Catholic system, nor did he seek to establish an entirely new church. He was a faithful member of the Roman Church, as well as a good Augustinian monk. However, he soon found himself facing, and thus exposing, the fallacious historical and theological foundations of the papacy, the abuses of the ecclesial system, the issue of salvation by faith, and many others. This opened a proverbial can of worms that resulted in others also addressing concerns about Roman Catholicism, and like Luther, without having any recourse to the hermeneutic of continuity, but rather a libertarian approach to the church and scripture. This hermeneutic I speak of must influence not only our theological approach, but also our historical approach, and how our history can influence our future in both positive and negative ways. On the purely ecclesial level, this is not to suggest that the issues raised about the Vatican need not have been addressed, as they certainly did and continue to be a very real problem today with the Vatican being a force for Modernism, Naturalism and even Cultural Marxism. It is to say though, that the way in which things are addressed is every bit as important as how.
It appears that God, despite the obvious problematic issues in the Reformation movement and Rome’s tantrums, indeed did inspire many of the Reformers who followed on the heels of Luther. Having said that, what needs to be understood at the outset is that the Reformation is a lesson in what can only be called the law of unintended consequences. Not all of the fruits of the Reformation were the result of the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, but rather the deviations and misunderstandings of well meaning reformers under the influence of inherited depravity and a zealous effort to distance themselves from all things perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be “Romish”. The only segment of the Reformation to successfully avoid this extremism was the English Reformation, which permits orthodox Anglicanism to be a via media between the traditions of the Church through the ages which do not violate Scripture, and the centrality of Sacred Scripture and the emphasis on salvation by grace through faith, and a personal relationship with Christ. Of course, it must be noted that the notion of a personal relationship was not altogether new, but really the product of the great mystics of Christian history, such as Therese of Avila and John of the Cross.
On the positive side, the Reformation certainly did much to reinvigorate Christianity, moving it back toward a Biblical orthodoxy and away from the accretions of non-Biblical ideas and practices. By focusing on Sacred Scripture as the rule of faith the Reformation undermined a misguided hierarchy that routinely abused their positions for personal gain, since they held the power of the Sacraments and of understanding Scripture. It also moved the faithful away from mere ritual observances and, in some cases, external and empty acts of piety, to a living, vibrant relationship with Jesus Christ, at least conceptually if not in reality for all involved. It insisted on the Bible being read by everyone in their own language (a positive for both the spiritual and educational foundations of European culture), in order to better foster that relationship. And yet with all of this good, the Reformation has given us some bad unintended fruits as well. Protestant leaders began to influence the politics of their respective regions, some for good and some not. Rather than using their influence to promote the unity of European Christians, in many cases they sought the persecution of fellow Christians who believed slightly differently on matters of theology, using the apparatus of the State to do so. In short, they became a miniature of what they claimed to have fought against in Rome. Many Protestant groups sided with the liberal ideology of the Enlightenment and republicanism, which has only led to a gradual move toward secularism, liberalism, cultural decay and the attempted eradication of any sense of Christian influence in the public sphere entirely.
Another bad fruit was that of the division of the Church and the continuing spirit of division we see today. The Church, as seen in the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, understood that it was a united entity. That unity did not mean there would be no disagreements, but rather that disputations within the Church should be addressed and settled in councils. This ensured the Church spoke with one voice, even as Her Bridegroom spoke with one voice with the Father. Even after the division between the Eastern Church and Western Church, there was still a desire for that unity to be restored, as that was how the Church should be.
While it was not Luther’s desire to cause division in the Church, that was the eventual result of his actions and those of the reformers who followed after him. While it is indeed true that it was Rome who made the break from Luther in its action to excommunicate him, and that Rome is in grave heresy, it remains that his actions, justified as they were in some circumstances, contributed to the subsequent division. While the Vatican did not meet Luther’s challenge to examine the issues raised with the appropriate Christian response, but with malice, anger, and an obvious fear of losing power, it is also true that Protestants did, and do, the same when challenged today. As an Evangelical, and a keen student of the early Church, I believe that the Ante-Nicene expression of the Christian Faith is the answer the Reformation sought, as it is a faithful reflection of the principles and doctrine of the early Church, and thus, the balance of all Christian theology and experience, which is really what we need today: balance and a healthy Church culture.