2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. While many evangelicals celebrate this historical event, I see its underbelly….and it’s not pretty. Popular legend has Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses, entitled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” to the Wittenberg Castle church on October 31, 1517. It was his intent to use this effort to encourage debate over questionable church practices and beliefs. But, it set off a firestorm that we know today as the Protestant Reformation. Significant, yes. But in many ways, damaging.[featured-image single_newwindow=”false”]
Whether reformation of the Roman Catholic Church was needed can be debated. However, I agree with Christian historian Jaroslav Pelikan who identified the reformation as a “tragic necessity.” In this post, I write about five unintended negative consequences brought about by the Protestant Reformation.
1. The Reformation unintentionally helped produce a secular society and church.
Historian Brad Gregory writes, “In getting from the early sixteenth to the early twenty-first century,…’incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved the path to a secular society.” (The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Brad S. Gregory, p.2) In this case, secular means “God removed from the world and everyday life.”
Secularism is effectively described by Fr. Stephen Freeman using the analogy of a two-storey building – God lives on the second story and humans live on the first. God looks down on humanity while humans seek to manage life and the world on their own with an occasional assist from God. He writes:
This (secularism) was part of a much larger culture forged in the crucible of the protestant reformation and the birth of the modern world in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today it is the dominant shape of the universe shared by most centuries of the modern western world [Christendom]. It is the universe in which modern believers live. It is also a universe increasingly hostile to religious belief.
The two-storey universe is as though the universe were a two-storey house. We live here on earth, the first floor where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal natural laws while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a “miracle.” (Every Where Present, Stephen Freeman)
Prior to the protestant reformation the world was seen as a one-storey universe where God was everywhere present and filling all things. We know this as a sacramental worldview. Divine immanence was the dominant understanding of God’s relationship with humanity in both the Eastern and Western Church.
Since the Roman Catholic Church adhered to divine immanence, John Calvin reacted adversely emphasizing the transcendence of God. Calvin taught that God’s work in the natural world ceased once the scriptures were formed. God’s ordinary work in nature, people, and creatures was not needed once scriptures were completed.
Scholar Carlos Eire writes of Calvin in his book War Against the Idols:
Calvin’s denial of miracles in the material sphere is the capstone of his metaphysical (study of existence, reality) assumptions. Uneasy with any intermingling of the spiritual and the material, he takes the miraculous out of the ordinary and moves it into the realm of revelation. Only when God decides to break into this world to communicate with humans does he appoint specific instances where the natural material order is changed. Aside from such extraordinary events which God intends as proof of His revelation and not as ends in themselves, there is no intrusion of the Divine spiritual sphere into the material. This world operates on its own divinely appointed principles. Religion then, does not seek to change the way the material world operates but rather to understand it as it is, eternally subject to God’s will and as always incapable of transmitting any spiritual power in and of itself. To believe otherwise, says Calvin, is to transfer God’s glory to His creation and this is the trap of idolatry.
Calvin lived in a two-storey universe with God removed from this natural material world out of his fear of idolatry. However, it seems obvious that God and His glory are experienced everywhere in creation from a stunning sunrise to a delicate rose. All beauty is God manifesting Himself in it. Yet, when it is believed that God has no part in the natural world, it is a small step to believe He is removed from everything in the world. In this way, Calvin and many reformers planted the seed of secularism in the 16th century. It blossoms thoroughly today.
2. The Reformation set denominationalism in motion.
Doctrinal disagreements brought about by the individual interpretation of scripture resulted in branches of Christianity never seen before the reformation. Soon these branches formed groups of people calling themselves church. Instead of one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church, there was now multiple churches each claiming to possess the truth.
Today, the number of “Christian” denominations and organizations range from 30,000 to 40,000. “Christian truth claims vary greatly across different individuals, congregations, churches, and traditions. In countless ways they conflict with one another.” (The Unintended Reformation, p.75) Yet, they all claim to be Christian. Though there have been heretical maverick groups from the beginning of the Church, which have been condemned by the Church, the reformers tacitly endorsed the practice of insurgency. This may have been necessary due to the abuses and errors of the Roman Catholic church. However, an unintended consequence of breaking away in protest, was the destruction of Church unity for which Christ prayed (John 17.20-23).
3. The Reformation proliferated doctrinal disagreement.
Once the dogma of the Catholic church was rejected, there was a mad scramble to establish new theological structures. How was human life to be made more genuinely Christian if Catholicism, both Eastern and Western, was not the answer? “Reformation leaders thought the root problem [of specious Christianity] was doctrinal, and in seeking to fix it by turning to the Bible they unintentionally introduced multiple sorts of unwanted disagreement. This constituted a new set of problems…What was true Christianity and how was it known? Doctrinal controversy was literally endless, and religious-political conflicts between Catholics and magisterial Protestants…were destructive and inconclusive.” (The Unintended Reformation, p.21)
You might get the impression that as the reformation began, all reformers were on the same theological page. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They had a common enemy but lacked a common system to dismantle it. Doctrinal disagreements with Roman Catholicism is obvious. But the doctrinal battles between the reformers is often swept under the rug. It often looked like this: Ulrich Zwingli, Swiss reformer, wrote, “I know for certain that God teaches me, because I have experienced it.” And Luther counters, “Beware of Zwingli and avoid his books as the hellish poison of Satan, for the man is completely perverted and has completely lost Christ.”
Dr. Gregory comments on the extent of these disputes, “Doctrinal disagreement…is the most fundamental and consequential fact about Western Christianity since 1520…” (The Unintended Reformation, p.45) From destructive religious wars to vehement arguments on the internet, Gregory’s evaluation holds true.
Thanks to the reformation, dissent about truth claims, allegedly originating in scripture, dominates the Christian landscape.
4. The Reformation inspired radical individualism.
“It is widely agreed among the vast majority of modern Christians that whatever its content, religious conviction is a highly personal, individual matter. Only each person can determine what is right and best for her or him.” (The Unintended Reformation, p.75) The Reformers trade one Pope for tens of thousand individual popes. The authority of the Church is rejected and each individual becomes an authority unto himself or herself. Each person is widely thought to be his or her own sovereign authority. This is “freedom of religion” in the minds of many Christians. You are free to believe…whatever.
When I discuss the “one, holy, apostolic and catholic church” with friends, the most common reaction is a strong statement of individuality. “I need to be in a church where I’m free to express myself.” “What about being free to believe what I want?” “I like/believe/want _______, so I want a church that has that.”
Gone are the days when the Church shapes us. We operate as free agents able to determine for ourselves what a Christian is and how to live like one. This is a result of breaking away from a spiritual authority outside ourselves, championed by the reformers.
5. The Reformation fostered scriptural innovations.
For over 12 centuries, the Church practiced and articulated her understanding of God in relative unity. This ecclesiastical and doctrinal unity was severely damaged by the Reformation as the Bible began to be upheld as the sole authority. Practices that were within the guidance of scripture and part and parcel of Church life were rejected based on innovative scriptural interpretations. Church Tradition was rejected based on individual understandings of the Bible. Luther contorted faith in Christ to mean faith alone and tried to undermine large sections of canonical scripture to fit his new view. 1200 years of a sacramental understanding of scripture and Christian living were rejected because Calvin thought “the infinite could not be contained in the finite.” (Yet, the Virgin bears God, God takes on human flesh, and the Holy Spirit indwells humans.) According to Zwingli’s individual interpretation of scripture, baptism and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) were merely symbolic not withstanding 1500 years of the Church’s understanding and practice.
“Sola scriptura” seems to make sense. An authority is needed. The scriptures are declared to be that authority. But, a major problem arises when the scriptures are considered the only authority. Let’s be honest; that’s not really possible. The scriptures must be interpreted. Therefore, in actuality, the interpreter is the authority. Individuals place reasoning, experience, Holy Spirit leading, or theological biases on the scriptures and reach certain conclusions. That is how innovations come about.
The question then becomes, who has the legitimate authority to interpret scripture? In reality, the reformers could never give a true answer to this question (without pointing to themselves). A void of authority was created such that everyone could interpret according to their own understanding. Innovations about the meaning of various scriptural teachings are another unintended consequence of the reformation.
Another: The Reformation unwittingly caused a shift in focus from salvation being a relational encounter with the Triune God towards union with Him to salvation being belief in a set of propositional concepts about God including a forensic or legal understanding of the atonement.
Salvation and the Christian life have become more about what you believe than who. Faith in the five “solas:” Scripture alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, Faith alone, God’s glory alone rivals faith in the person of Jesus Christ. Can a person reject the five solas and still have hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus? Those within the reformed tradition might be hard pressed to answer.
Why does this matter? Because much of what modern Christians struggle with and much of what causes problems for evangelical-protestant churches (secularism, denominationalism, doctrinal conflict, individualism, scriptural understanding, and salvation) comes as a result of the protestant reformation. Perhaps the 500-year celebrations need to be tempered by clarity and a good dose of reality.
You don’t have to agree with all of this. But, perhaps you can see the Reformation a little more clearly.