Today marks the 500th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther (might have) nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. While the historicity of that famous event is in dispute, what is not in question is that the Saxon monk provided the spark that lit the European powder keg that had been being built for several centuries. What is also not in doubt is that this Reformation was the first great revolution of the modern west, though many more would follow.
Unsurprisingly, there are many opinions about how we should feel about this day. Many Roman Christians condemn the celebration of it outright, saying that we are celebrating schism. Some evangelicals view the day with a similar spirit of sorrow, arguing with their Roman brethren that the revolution marks a sundering of the body of Christ.
On the other side, there are evangelicals who will signal the day as a triumph because it is the founding of a new purer church, a church faithful to Scripture and prepared to call the world to repentance. For many American evangelicals, especially older evangelicals, this will be the most common and comfortable response.
All of these responses are… unsatisfying. The danger of the Roman response is that it dramatically underestimates how bad things had gotten in parts of Europe by the early 16th century. To read the writings of John Tetzel, for example, is both to encounter a profoundly evil man and a man trusted deeply by Leo X as a fund-raiser. Here he is:
Don’t you hear the voices of your wailing dead parents and others who say, ‘Have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me, because we are in severe punishment and pain. From this you could redeem us with a small alms and yet you do not want to do so.’ Open your ears as the father says to the son and the mother to the daughter . . ., ‘We have created you, fed you, cared for you, and left you our temporal goods. Why then are you so cruel and harsh that you do not want to save us, though it only takes a little? You let us lie in flames so that we only slowly come to the promised glory.’ You may have letters which let you have, once in life and in the hour of death . . . full remission of the punishment which belongs to sin. Oh, those of you with vows, you usurers, robbers, murderers, and criminals – Now is the time to hear the voice of God. He does not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live. Convert yourselves then, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, to the Lord, thy God. Oh, you blasphemers, gossipers, who hinder this work openly or secretly, what about your affairs? You are outside the fellowship of the Church. No masses, no sermons, prayers, sacraments, or intercession help you. No field, vineyard, trees, or cattle bring fruit or wine for you. Even spiritual things vanish, as many an illustration could point out. Convert yourself with all you heart and use the medicine of which the Book of Wisdom says, ‘The Most High has made medicine out of the earth and a wise man will not reject it.’
To be sure, it is possible to overstate how bad things had gotten as well, but in our quest for historical accuracy we must not miss things like the above “sermon” from Tetzel and we must also not miss the fact that the man giving this sermon was held in high esteem by the supposed heir to St. Peter. Evangelicals have much to learn from the example of the Roman church in thinking about the poor and the obligations we owe to them. But we must not forget that Rome too has a long history of exploiting the impoverished. Before there were prosperity preachers, there were the late medieval popes.
The angsty evangelical response is similarly unsatisfying for the simple reason that, like the former response, it does not wrestle with how bad things had gotten and because it attempts to lament schism without, you know, actually resolving what by their own admission is a schism. We’ll have more on this later in the week.
But the evangelical response that would treat 1517 as the day the sun rose after centuries of darkness is similarly unhelpful. Indeed, the best rejoinder to this belief is likely something like the following: From the perspective of the Gospel, the Reformation wasn’t actually that big a deal. It was simply one of many examples of members of the church falling into error and then being corrected by faithful preachers filled with the spirit who returned to the Scriptures and called the church to repentance. Biblically, this is a normal thing. Indeed, multiple apostolic writers anticipate that it will happen, which is why you find Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all warning their readers about the dangers posed by false teachers. False teaching coming into the life of the church is not a surprising thing to the biblical writers. It is precisely because it is a normal thing that we are called to vigilance.
We should press the point further, though: When Protestants functionally behave as if the church started in 1517, we give up our birthright as members of the church catholic. Indeed, the contention of virtually all the magisterial reformers is that theirs was not a new movement but precisely what it has come to be called: a reform movement. And reform is not the birthing of something new, but the reordering and correcting of something old. The reformers themselves were clear on this point, which is why you find them regularly citing the church fathers. Indeed, some of them cite the fathers more often than their Roman opponents do. Augustine loomed large with many reformers. Luther also bore a large debt to Bernard of Clairvaux, a 12th century Cistercian monk. Even Thomas, that bete noire of many Protestants, has some significant overlap with Calvin, most notably on the question of predestination.
Further, if it is really the case that the church passed through centuries or even a millennium of darkness, as some wrong-headed Protestants have said, then that would rightly prompt many to ask what of our teaching on the perspicuity of Scripture? If Scripture is not sufficiently clear in essential matters of faith to ward off hundreds or even a thousand years of false teaching, how can we plausibly defend a teaching like sola Scriptura? If the church can pass through such a long age of almost entirely unmitigated darkness, surely that is the best argument of all for a Roman-style magisterium, endowed by God with the infallible ability to guide the church in matters of doctrine?
What we are celebrating at the Reformation is the recovery of several significant ideas and the clarification of key truths. Again, this is not uncommon in church history. It has happened many times. If, for example, we were to suggest that the church did not confess Christ as God prior to the controversy with Arius, we would be in error. Rather, the controversy helped to clarify what was always true. It was not, then, the beginning of the faithful orthodox church, but a moment in the continued life of that church in which significant questions about justification and ecclesiology were debated and resolved.
When we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we say that we believe in one holy catholic church. In some churches I’ve attended, the word “catholic” has been put in parentheses, as if to suggest that we are saying it because it’s there in the creed but… well, we feel kinda awkward about it.
We should not. The claim of the Reformers was not that theirs was a new movement, but that theirs was a movement to reform the church catholic so that it would heed the call given to it by its Lord. Evangelicals should not, then, cede the historic church to Rome, nor should we give up the word “catholic” so easily. It is a good and beautiful word. And one that we can—indeed, must—claim as our own.