Whatever Happened to The Reformation?

There is a sense in which Luther's Reformation was an utter failure, for it failed to reform the (Roman) Catholic Church. Had the Reformation been successful, in the manner in which Luther intended, the corruptions within the Church would have been eradicated and perhaps today what would have existed are Eastern churches (Eastern Orthodox Church, with its various expressions) and Western churches (with, perhaps, its own expressions) -- again, if all had unfolded in the manner in which Luther intended.

But, in fact, Rome would not be reformed theologically, according to Luther's initial theological complaints. Rome experienced moral reform, to be sure, but stood firm in some of its theological errors. Hence Luther’s zealous followers were forced either to recant and stay with Rome or to depart. The result is Roman Catholic and Protestant (as well as Orthodox) Church history.

Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain in 2010; and according to BBC News, it was "the first papal visit to Britain since 1982, when Pope John Paul II's six-day tour drew huge crowds." But what did Rome want with Canterbury? Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams remarks: "I'm sure I speak on behalf of Anglicans throughout Britain, in assuring him that he would be received with great warmth and joy." Why all the excitement, and joy, and what was the Pope's purpose for the visit? The Pope was going to support the "beatification [canonization] of Cardinal Newman -- England's most celebrated convert to Roman Catholicism." The ecumenism was poignant, but whatever happened to the Reformation?

Perhaps we should think not of the Reformation but of reformations. Though there were early signs of reformation attempts with Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and John Duns Scotus, Luther's bold stand against the corrupt teachings of the Church was only the beginning of what would come to be not reformations but schisms. (Let us not forget that Protestants Luther and Swiss Reformer Zwingli became bitter rivals regarding the Eucharist, hence schisms were present even among the Reformed.) The Anabaptists argued for baptism by immersion of adult converts only (or at least pouring, as opposed to sprinkling infants), argued for reform, yet produced further schism; and many of them paid for the schism with their lives (incidentally, by the hands of Luther and Zwingli, et al.).

Philip Melanchthon (German Reformer) differed from his mentor Luther on some theological points, and the Lutheran Church to this day follows many of his Reformed principles more so than Luther their founder. John Calvin's (Genevan Reformer) successor Theodore Beza (Reformer in Switzerland and Geneva, as well as the Netherlands) elaborated and expounded upon his mentor's theology; while his pupil, Jacob Arminius (Dutch Reformed Reformer), sorely disagreed with his mentor and sought to reform the Calvinistic Dutch church. "The Reformation," then, is not some static monolith to which all Protestants can adhere. There are various reformations of varied theological nuances within the broad Protestant Reformed tradition.  

Let us also not forget England's reformations, as well, with her break from the Roman Catholic Church to form the Protestant Church of England. The Protestant Church has been reforming ever since the early fourteenth century. Or, should we admit that the Protestant Church has been splintering since then? Indeed, the difference between reform and schism is paramount.

The apostle Paul made a stunning observation of the church at Corinth: "Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine." (1 Cor. 11:19 NRSV) The Corinthian Church must have been a sorely schismatic one, for he appeals to them "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." (1 Cor. 1:10) He warns them that, "as long as there is jealousy and quarreling" among them, they are not acting in accord with the unity of the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 3:3) Yet the factions demonstrate not only their disunity but that one group is, in fact, right! One group is holding to biblical tradition and the other group is schismatic. Our task is to identify the biblical group and side with it. That is a seemingly difficult task. 

Whatever happened to "The Reformation"? Instead of reforming, perhaps many Christians have devolved into conforming to the culture (Rom. 12:2). Scripture explicitly teaches that God gives disobedient people over to their depraved natures, to do those things which ought not to be done without their conscience warning them that such behavior is deserving of the wrath of God. (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 28) -- their end is destruction. (Rom. 1:32) Therefore, why would any believer condone destruction? Is this a tell-tale sign that such a "believer" is one in name only? Could such be those who "live as enemies of the cross of Christ"? (Phil. 3:18) The frightening aspect is that their end is destruction, their god is their own appetite, or lusts, and that their only glory is their shame -- their minds being set merely on earthly, worldly, carnal things. (Phil. 3:19)

Nothing is any more clear to me than that the Church of Christ Jesus worldwide is in need of a genuine Reformation with a capital R. As she currently stands (visibly, outwardly), she more resembles what the authors of Scripture state of her just prior to the Lord's return: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron." (1 Tim. 4:1-2) She does not realize that she is "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked." (Rev. 3:17) Still, her Savior calls out to her: "buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see." (Rev. 3:18)

Note the three items which Christ tells her to get from Him alone: 1) gold, representing genuine faith (1 Peter 1:7: for they were "poor," though they believed that they were "rich"); 2) white robes, representing the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev. 19:8: for they were "naked" and "pitiable"); and 3) salve, which will cleanse their eyes so that they can truly see (for they were "blind"). Christ's Church needs less splintering and more unity, certainly. But mostly, she needs reforming, a Reformation which begins by each believer making Scripture, as viewed traditionally by godly and Spirit-enabled reason, as guiding authority. I will be the first to affirm biblical Creeds, Catechisms and Traditions, but I think this three-fold formula trumps them all.

Sources Consulted

James D. Tracy, Europe's Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community, second edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006).

The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Harper Perennial, 1968).


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.