Thoughts on “the Reformation”

art, cathedral, Christ

October 31st, in the 1517th year of Our Lord. This is traditionally considered to be the day on which Professor Martin Luther — a Roman Catholic priest, Augustinian Monk, and theologian — nailed Ninety-Five theses to the door of a chapel in protest against Johann Tetzel and the Pope who authorized Tetzel, namely Leo X. The beginning of “the Protestant Reformation” is often dated here, and perhaps justly so. Luther’s protest led to the spread like wildfire of various reforms and revolts throughout Medieval Europe.

This year (2017) marks the 500th Anniversary of the nailing of Luther’s theses. Since October 31st is only a few days away, what can we say about “the Protestant Reformation?”

In my opinion, we might say many things. First of all, we may certainly say that it is erroneous to think of “the Protestant Reformation” in a singular sense. Probably the sole major uniting belief among the various “Protestants” — particularly the Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Calvinist Protestants of the “Magisterial Reformation” — was contempt for the Pope and the rejection of the validity of his office. The most famous example of the immediate discord between Protestant sects is probably the notorious disagreement between Lutherans and Calvinists regarding the ontology of the sacrament of communion (Luther favoring “consubstantiation” whereby the real substance of Christ’s Body and Blood dwells alongside the substance the Bread and Wine, and Calvin espousing a middle way between Lutheran and Zwinglian ontologies of the Eucharist that involves Christ becoming not physically, but spiritually present to the communicants through the sacrament). Furthermore, there were also the so-called “radical Reformers”, principally the Mennonites and the Anabapists, who would not have agreed with certain aspects of the Magisterial Reformers’ expositions of doctrine. In short, what we encounter looking back five hundred years is not a single united “Protestant Reformation”, but a fairly large number of divided, independent “Protestant Reformations” [1]. Whatever the first Protestants were, they were not undivided.

Second, we ought to observe that in the time period during which Luther lived and died, religion and politics were by no means separate entities. This is no less true of the Protestants than it was of the Roman Catholics. Luther would have been burned at the stake (as Jan Huss was, for example) if it were not for the favorable political ties that enabled him to evade capture by the Roman Catholic Church. On both sides, political factors are at play all throughout. This is not by any measure to diminish the genuine role that religious discussion — especially soteriological (relating to eternal “salvation”) and ecclesiological (relating to the nature of the church and its authority) discussions — did play in the Reformation. It is simply to call attention to a trait that this time period does not necessarily share with many Westerners today.

Third, we should remind ourselves the profound role that the Reformations played in shaping modern society. We are who we are because of the debates over soteriology and ecclesiology that were encapsulated into Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and the Council of Trent.

Fourth, and finally, for those of us Westerners who still hold to the truth of the Christian religion, the sacredness of its Scriptures, and the ontological reality of its Church, we ought to take to heart the words of Hans Urs von Balthasar [2]. Balthasar reminds us that in the divisions between Protestants and Roman Catholics, we are faced not merely with differences in theology and ideas (although differences there of course remain). We are divided also by blood, scars, and bruises [3].

[1] See especially Reformations (Carlos M. N. Eire) and Reformation Myths (Rodney Stark).

[2] The Theology of Karl Barth (Hans Urs von Balthasar).

[3] I take the Roman Catholic side of this ecclesial dispute. (Perhaps someday I will get to blogging about that.) I consider Irenaeus Against Heresies III.3 essential reading for Protestant Christians. It can be accessed online for free here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103303.htm.

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