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"A Remarkable Exercise in Honest Thinking:"
Reformation Day 2009

For Sunday November 1, 2009

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Ruth 1:1–18 or Deuteronomy 6:1–9

Psalm 146 or Psalm 119:1–8

Hebrews 9:11–14

Mark 12:28–34

           This week many Christians will observe October 31 as Reformation Day. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther (1483–1546) posted his Ninety-five Theses on the castle church in Wittenberg and jump started what we now call the Protestant Reformation. This year also marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of the French reformer John Calvin (1509–1564).

            So, what exactly was the Reformation, and why is it important today?

           Global Christianity's family of two billion adherents consists primarily of three siblings that have resulted from two divorces: the eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches separated in 1054, and then Protestants split from Catholics in 1517. Today there are roughly 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide, 346 million Protestants, and 216 million Orthodox Christians. But there's more to the Christian family, thanks in particular to what the Reformation wrought.

           David Barrett (World Christian Encyclopedia, 2001) has documented the explosion of “neo-apostolic” movements around the world. Distinct from Protestants, and numbering about 400 million Christians in 20,000 “movements,” these are Christians who “reject historical denominationalism and restrictive or overbearing central authority." These groups epitomize the internal logic of the Reformation's "protesting" and "reforming" impulses.

Martin Luther (1483–1546).
Martin Luther (1483–1546).

           The original Reformation was many different and complex things; it radically altered every sector of European society — church, culture, politics, economics, universities, governments, education, and the everyday lives of ordinary people. By the end of the seventeenth century, European religion had become a function of geography in a badly fractured continent — cuius regio, eius religio: "where you come from decides your religion, and within that region no other can be tolerated" (MacCulloch, 160). Christians tortured, burned, beheaded, and quartered each other over the nature of baptism and the Lord's Supper. From the Peasants' War in 1525 until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the Thirty Years War, there were precious few times and places without barbaric warfare. "It was a process of extreme mental and physical violence," says MacCulloch,

           Eventually, toleration and generally peaceful co-existence did result. Hereditary and state powers as divinely sanctioned rights succumbed to rule of law and the voices of citizens. Individual conscience displaced institutional coercion. The Reformation also protested clerical corruption and church hypocrisy that had festered for a millennium. People had had enough of religious authoritarianism, exploitation and abuse. Purification of the church and restoration to its original integrity, however idealistic, became the order of the day.

           The Reformation also birthed what Alister McGrath of Oxford University calls a revolutionary and dangerous idea — that ordinary Christians, as opposed to any centralized religious authority, could and should read the Bible for themselves in their own everyday language, and draw their own conclusions from it. That Bible, by the way, is now available in 2,370 different vernacular languages. As a consequence, says McGrath, "uncontrollable" forces were unleashed 500 years ago by Luther and his kin (Christianity's Dangerous Idea).

           The most fundamental question of any religion, notes McGrath, is who has the right or authority to define its faith (3, 209). For Protestants, the answer to that question seems to be "no one," for "what [has] distinguished Protestantism. . . is its principled refusal to allow any authority above scripture" (221). Thus, McGrath calls Protestantism "a method" and "not any one specific historical outcome of the application of that method" (465).

           This "dangerous idea" of religious authority represented a radical departure from eastern Orthodoxy, which observes how both Catholics and Protestants ground religious authority in an external norm. For Catholics, this external dogmatic authority resides in the teaching magisterium of the church as expressed in the primacy and infallibility of the papacy. For Protestants, there arose the famous Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura ("scripture alone").

           But whereas Catholicism and Orthodoxy disagree about the nature of theological authority, they agree in their rejection of the Protestant alternative. Two Protestant hallmarks deserve special mention: the relationship between Scripture and tradition, and the relationship between Scripture and the church.

John Calvin (1509–1564).
John Calvin (1509–1564).

           First, when Luther burned the books of Catholic canon law at Wittenberg's Elster Gate on December 10, 1520, he symbolized an important Protestant distinctive. Whatever honor Protestants bestow upon tradition, they deny that its authority is coequal with Scripture. Luther wrote, "What else do I contend for but to bring everyone to an understanding of the difference between the divine Scripture and human teaching or custom?" Calvin objected to the "tyranny of human tradition which is haughtily thrust upon us under the title of the Church." The Reformers did not reject tradition outright, as a reading of Calvin, Luther, or Wesley easily shows. But they objected to the elevation of tradition to the status of Scripture.

           Second, the Reformers placed the Scriptures above the church. They insisted that the Bible interprets itself, and that through the Holy Spirit, God instructs its readers in a direct and individual manner rather than binding their consciences to the supposedly reliable teaching of the church. On April 18, 1521, Luther appeared before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, in order to defend his writings. With a stack of books and pamphlets on the table in front of him he was told to change what he had written. He said he would gladly change them if it could be shown that what he had written contradicted the Scriptures.

           Again ordered to recant, Luther uttered the words which altered the history of Europe and, eventually, the whole world: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”

           It is precisely this view that elevates one's personal conscience and Scripture above both tradition and the church, and that encourages private interpretation, that the great Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky once called "the sin of the Reformation."

           Catholics knew that encouraging individuals to read the Bible for themselves, in their own vernacular, would undermine the authority of their hierarchy. Thus, the Roman Index of 1596 prohibited translations of the Bible into everyday vernacular, and publically burned such Bibles as they could find. Catholics also rightly predicted that sectarian zeal devoted to privatistic Bible-reading would fragment the church into scattered shards. Today we have over 20,000 Protestant "denominations," not to mention Barrett's "neo-apostolic" movements, every one of which justifies its existence to some degree by claiming that it alone "has the magic," or at least more magic in a more pure, original, and authentic form than other Christians.

John Wesley (1703–1791).
John Wesley (1703–1791).

           As a Protestant, I'm thankful for the Reformation. But I'm also painfully aware of the carnage, the fragmentation, and the institutionalization of the gospel that followed in its wake. Aware of my own many faults, the slow pace of my progress as a believer, and of how far short I fall of the gospel ideal, I'm uncomfortable obsessing about the failures of the church or of other Christians.

           Instead, I like the dictum that emerged among those early Reformed communities: ecclesia reformata sed semper reformanda, "the church reformed, but always needing to be reformed." The Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers called this "correcting the correction." The work of genuine reformation, whether of the institutional church or of an individual life, is never finished.

           The Protestant Reformation spawned a historical way of thinking from which we continue to benefit today. MacCulloch calls this "a remarkable exercise in honest thinking" (680). However violent, shocking, and even incomprehensible we might find the age of the Reformation, "we have no right to adopt an attitude of intellectual or emotional superiority, especially in the light of the atrocities that twentieth-century Europe produced because of its faith in newer, secular ideologies" (683). Besides, the reformers and their time "were as capable of ruefulness and humility as, at our best, we can be" (ibid.).           

For further reflection:

* What relationships do you have with Christians outside of your tradition — Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Methodist, etc?
* Recommended reading: Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, editors, Evangelicals and Catholics Together; Toward a Common Mission (1995), and Your Word is Truth; A Project of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (2002). Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2004). Alister McGrath, Christianity's Dangerous Idea; The Protestant Revolution — A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007), 552pp.

Image credits: (1) Seton Hall University honors program; (2) Christianity in View; and (3) Project Canterbury.

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