I always thought the word “Reformation” meant, “that period of time when Luther led countless faithful Christians out of the bowels of the corrupt Catholic Church and back to the standards of the New Testament.” But that’s not a reformation is it? That’s more of an exodus. A reformation happens internally and stays internally. Either it succeeds by changing the Magisterium or by replacing it via a revolution. The Protestant Reformation did neither. Rather they separated from the Catholic Church.
But to be clear – and this came as a surprise to me when I first learned of it – Luther, the herald and recognized leader of the Reformation, had no desire to leave at first. His “Reformation battle cry” was in the hopes of reforming the Church he knew and loved, not leaving it. It was only when he became aware that the measure he was calling for would not be met and that inquisition charges awaited him that leaving became the only option.
It also came as a surprise that Luther had imagined himself as fulfilling the role of the Pope in some ways. That is, he strenuously and mercilessly opposed other Protestant leaders who disagreed with him on any point of theology, none being so vile as those “rebaptizers” (i.e. Anabaptists).
So technically, the Reformation was a failure.
And yet technically – for those with an eye on long-term outcomes – it was a success.
I don’t think an honest and knowledgable Roman Catholic could look back at the Catholic Church prior to the sixteenth century and conclude that it was not corrupt from the top down. Despise the Protestant Reformation all they wish. Mock the quadrillion splinters that exist today because of it. But be thankful for it. Because if the Reformation accomplished anything, it brought awareness to the corruption that existed in the Catholic Church which ignited the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits (who are like the Catholic version of Puritans), made way for the Catholic Bible to be translated into the languages of the common people, rekindled the Catholic spirit for the poor, restored Catholic interested in theological precision which in time included greater emphasis on the doctrine of Grace and Justification without going into the extremes of those doctrines that many leader Protestant Reformers fell into.
History is ugly and complex and, in a way, can never accurately be presented. The best we can do is hope to capture a snapshot from this angle, and another from that angle and perhaps another angle still, and put those Polaroids together while acknowledging the countless details which escaped the purview of the camera lens and prevent us from ever having a complete picture.
I’m glad I don’t live in those days though. Because from the snapshots we have from the different angles available to us one thing is for sure. More damage than good was caused during that hundred years, more blood shed, more hatred and ungodliness – in the name of right theology, and more pain. One thing is for sure: if we celebrate, we ought to celebrate together – Catholics and Protestants, and not just Protestants as though we were the heroes of the story. Because history is uglier than that and in a way, I wonder if any of us has the right to celebrate at all.
Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013.