The Reformation: A Tragic Necessity

By Joshua Penduck 

499 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on a door in Wittenberg, and in doing so hammered in the nails of the coffin to Medieval Christianity. Christianity was returned to its true self, and Europe was never the same since. That’s the official story, at least. The reality was much more complicated. For one thing, not that many people noticed Luther’s actions at the time. Furthermore, it ignores how the Reformations in Germany and Switzerland grew up virtually independently from each other. Indeed, rather than speak of ‘the Reformation’ we should rather speak of multiple ‘reformations’ that developed throughout Europe. These reformations can retrospectively be seen as a great ‘reforming’ movement across Medieval Christendom. However, there was as much as that divided them as unified them. But for the time being, we can use the word ‘Reformation’ has a handy encompassing term for the myriad of violent diversity that sprung up over Europe in the 16th Century.

Was the Reformation a good thing?

For some Protestants, especially in the Reformed and Lutheran camps, the answer is an obvious ‘yes’. For them Reformation Day is like Christmas. ‘Of course it is!’ they say. ‘This is the time that Christianity was restored to its biblical roots! This was the time when God raised up great reformers like Luther and Calvin to bring the church back on track!’

For some Catholics, the answer is an obvious ‘no’. ‘Of course it’s not!’ they say. ‘This is the time when the unity of Christ’s body was torn apart, where Christ’s garment, the church, was rent! This was the time when great heresies arose, leading to an inevitable deluge towards the secular world we know today!’

For me as an Anglican, the answer is more complicated that either of these. For me, the Reformation was a tragic necessity.

The church in the late Medieval era had reached a point of deep corruption. Indulgences, though maybe initially an excellent form of social bonding, had become a exploitative way of enriching the church for great building projects. Purgatory had become an industry. The Papacy was increasingly losing moral authority (despite its victory over the Conciliarists in the 15th Century) due to the corruptions increasing at Rome itself; at the same time, it claimed an increasingly theologically necessary role for itself – no salvation outside of communion with the See of Peter. In folk religion, Christianity had become increasingly imminentist in the sense that there was a blurring between divine and created categories. For instance, a bishop visited a village in western Spain and was greeted in the name of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her brother the Holy Trinity! Mary herself had become in many areas nothing less than a fertility-cult figure. Theologically, the Scotist and Occamist Schools had led to a more voluntarist notion of God, who was distant and unknowable, yet demanding the holiest of lives. Christ was distant; only Mary and the saints could act as intermediaries.

Christendom needed reform. It was a necessity.

What the Reformers introduced was in many ways the reform which was needed. The Scriptures and the Liturgy were given back to the people in their language; a deeper sense of respect toward the distinction between God and creation was reintroduced to folk religion; the Bible was returned to the centre of theological discussion; Christ was restored to the theological throne; grace overthrew works once more; justification was clarified as a God-centred matter, not man-centred; the sacraments were returned to the people; preaching was once again in a central place within the liturgy. With the exception of the ongoing debates concerning justification and grace, has not Rome also followed suit in these areas since Vatican II? Can the Roman Catholic Church really deny that these Reforms were good reforms nowadays?

However, the 16th Century church had reached a point when any reform became a political challenge. This meant that some of the criticisms of the Reformers towards the established churches were met with hardline reaction from the Papacy and hierarchy, which in turn caused hardline reaction amongst the Reformers. Overreaction produced overreaction. The Reformers in many places were forced to leave their Mother Church because of this overreaction; others simply followed them, knowing that reform was not on the agenda for many in the hierarchy.

In many ways, the Reformation truncated the traditions of Christianity, ones that took until the 19th and 20th Centuries to grow back. The beautiful artworks in Europe’s churches were quite literally smashed. The liturgy, though overgrown in the late Middle Ages, was in many places reduced to a bare rump. Even the wondrous theology of the High Middle Ages – of Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Hugh of St Victor – was gradually ignored, despite the engagement of the Reformers with them. Any sense of devotion towards Mary and the saints was rejected as ‘Popish’ in many places. The rich Apostolic line of bishops – which at the very least can be interpreted as continuity with the ancient church – was halted in much of Europe. The hospitality of the monasteries towards the poorest vanished along with the monasteries themselves. But worst of all, the body of Christ was divided in Europe. Lutherans, Reformed, Anglicans, and Anabaptists arose, followed by more and more denominations. Ironically, for a movement that prided itself on being rooted in the Scriptures alone, the Reformation created a theological space for that great anti-Scriptural heresy, schism.

Had the church hierarchy been more flexible towards the Reformers, these extremities may not have advanced so far. Yet I still believe that the Reformation was necessary, even if tragically so. I still believe that the Reformers were forced into a position of separation from Rome (Luther, after all, was excommunicated), and had to create their own denominations through the extremities of their Mother Church. It’s not as if this is all in the past now: despite the great reforms of Vatican II, some of the main issues of the Reformation still exist between Roman Catholics and Protestants. I still believe that Rome must reform itself in many ways, especially in regards to the belief in the infallibility of the Church centred in the Pope. If the church of Jerusalem and Antioch have erred, why cannot Rome also err?

Yet I still weep for what happened to Western Christianity in the 16th Century. I still wishfully long for a way that things could have been otherwise. The Reformation was a tragic necessity. It was also necessarily tragic.

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