The Lutheran church down the street from our house has a sign that proudly proclaims,
Celebrating 499 years of the Protestant Church
It makes me feel a bit nauseous every time I pass because there’s one thing we shouldn’t be doing as we consider the 499th anniversary of the Reformation it’s celebrating.
Now I know there are those—scores of them—that see the Reformation as the virtuous Christians ripping the true Christian Church out of the clutches of the evil and corrupt Catholics. Or, there are others, who see the Reformation as something necessary but benign—maybe their view of Catholics is more tame, less considered, or really not considered at all.
But whether pridefully in favour or faultlessly unaware of the history of the Protestant Reformation I’d argue that it’s something we all take time to pause and consider before going on with the rest of our day.
And especially before celebrating.
Here are five things you need to know.
1. Martin Luther Didn’t Intend to Start a New “Church”
Historians of all stripes readily agree that when he began writing against the Catholic Church Martin Luther, a Catholic priest himself, didn’t intend to start a whole new church.
Instead, Luther was writing to express his concerns and criticisms to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. He began with the hope of reformation from within and never considered the idea of breaking off from communion with the Church that he himself considered to be founded by Christ.
But things rapidly spun out of control.
2. Martin Luther’s Personal Struggles Impeded His Perspective
Likewise, historians agree that Luther’s personal demons greatly influenced his theology—which greatly influenced the Reformation, and the Protestant denominations which it spawned.
Luther struggled with what the Catholic Church calls Scrupulosity, a psychological predilection to feeling guilt, distress, and depression regarding one’s moral state. In other words, Luther struggled, as a Christian, to feel truly forgiven for his sins after confessing them.
The practice of confessing sins to a priest was an ancient tradition in all of the Christian Church since the beginning, drawing authority from Christ’s charge to His apostles in John 20:23,
“If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”
But Luther struggled with feeling forgiven and so searched for a theological interpretation of Scripture which would allow for him to feel assured of his salvation and help him to stop worrying about whether he was truly and rightly forgiven.
What Luther found in his searching of the Bible was what he thought was a new way to understand exactly how it is that we’re saved and assured a place in Heaven. This personal quest, and the resulting theological discovery, would shape how almost all Protestant denominations would understand salvation.
3. The Printing Press Played an Important Role, But…
The invention of the printing press around the time of the Reformation caused two important things to happen.
First of all, it allowed for a more widespread dissemination of the Bible in print. Suddenly, Christians had access to the written Word of God at a level never possible before. Previously, a parish church might own a copy of a Bible which would’ve been painstakingly hand-copied from another edition at an incredibly high cost.
With the printing press, Christians were finally able to access the Bible for themselves and numerous translations of the Greek and Hebrew biblical texts began to proliferate.
But secondly, it’s important to recognize that while we, today, celebrate Luther’s emphasis on making the Bible accessible to the everyday Christian Luther himself lamented its widespread availability almost immediately.
Luther recognized, quickly, what the Catholic Church had understood all along. Not that the everyday Christian should be deprived of the Bible but that without some education, including basic literacy education, they wouldn’t understand what they’re reading.
Misinterpretations would abound.
And they did.
While, previously, the Bible was proclaimed within the context of the church by the priest or deacon it was now, suddenly, up to the individual Christian to understand what he or she was reading.
For the uneducated masses this was a huge problem.
4. Lack of Access to Early Church Documents Revived Old Mistakes
While the Catholic Church was unequivocal in its core teachings since early in its history, the Protestant Reformation, with its hands on the now readily available Scriptures, would take many fundamental doctrine back to the drawing board.
Doctrines which had been established by the Early Church and written about shortly after Jesus left the earth and ascended to Heaven. In fact, it was a fundamental lack of historical context which caused Luther and the other Reformers to revive mistakes of interpretation which cropped up at the very beginning of the Christian Church—over a thousand years prior.
While Luther and his Reformers had access to the Bible, they lacked access to the documents which immediately proceeded it. Documents written by those disciples who were taught by the writers of the New Testament. Disciples, bishops, and martyrs who wrote about decisions the Christian Church was making in its early days—decisions on key pieces of doctrine like what it meant to be saved, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
Without these foundational documents Luther and the early Reformers necessarily skipped over a thousand years of Church history.
A cursory examination of how Protestants understand Church history even today reveals the same challenge still exists—as if from the time of the New Testament until the Reformation nothing at all happened in the history of the Church.
This is made even more confusing if one considers all the Christians who lived between the time of the Early Church and the 16th century Reformation.
If Luther truly discovered something in the Bible that was hitherto misinterpreted by the Catholic Church then what happened to all those Christians who died believe that they were in relationship with Christ and His Church.
It’s kind of shocking to consider.
5. If Jesus Prayed for Unity We Should Seriously Pursue It
Fundamental in an understanding of the Protestant Reformation, I think, is that Jesus prayed for unity.
In fact, He prophetically predicted Church schisms like the Reformation and His charge to us is plainly recorded in the Gospels in John 17:21,
“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.”
In His last recorded prayer on earth, Jesus not only predicts the disfunction of the Church He was founding, but prays we may be united again.
So that the world might believe.
That’s how fundamental our unity is.
And that’s why I have such a hard time with celebrating the birth of the Protestant Church: because Jesus prayed that it wouldn’t be so; He prayed that we’d be one, not many.
I’ve written before about the importance of our unity and how we need to make more efforts to work together rather than do things on our own and if we’re not sure why we need to make this sort of thing a priority I’d say, simply, because Jesus said so.
As part of his last earthly remarks.
And that’s something to be taken seriously.
6. Consider This Perspective, and Pray
So when contemplating the Reformation, whether for the first time or the hundredth time, I’d pray that you consider this perspective for a moment.
That the Reformation was never intended to break apart the Christian Church; that it was, fundamentally, driven by the personal theology of its Reformers; that the printing press not only helped fuel reform but helped populate misinterpretations too; that many of the Reformers were directly at odds with the Early Church; and that Jesus, ultimately, prayed that we all just get back together again.
Of course, none of this is to speak ill of those that have followed in the footsteps of the Protestant Reformers—or even the Reformers themselves.
As an Evangelical Protestant, I was a spiritual descendent of the Anabaptist Reformers although I didn’t know it at the time. It took, for me, a deep study of the history of the Christian Church to help me decide that reuniting with the Church my ancient predecessors had left was the right thing to do.
And it was an intentional act of Christian unity for whatever small part I played.
It was important for me.
Because on the eve of Reformation Sunday, it’s important to recognize that many of us inherited a spiritual heritage that we knew, and know, very little about.
Consider, then, another perspective informed by history and historians and, most importantly, pray to understand your place in it and the small part that you, like me, can make in helping to honour Jesus’s most unequivocal prayer into a reality.
That we may be one.
And that the whole world might see.