Reformation or Reformations?

There is a genuine sense in which Luther's Reformation is an utter failure, for it fails to reform the (Roman) Catholic Church. Had the Reformation been successful, in the manner in which Luther intends, 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 originally intends. We have, then, not the Reformation but reformations.

But, in fact, Rome will not be reformed theologically according to Luther's initial theological complaints. Rome experiences moral reform, to be sure, but stands firm in its theological errors -- according to a Protestant hermeneutic. Hence Luther's zealous followers are 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 visits Britain in 2010; and according to BBC News, it is "the first papal visit to Britain since 1982, when Pope John Paul II's six-day tour draws huge crowds." But what does 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 is the Pope's purpose for the visit? The Pope is going to support the "beatification [canonization] of Cardinal Newman -- England's most celebrated convert to Roman Catholicism [from Anglicanism]." The ecumenism is poignant but whatever happened to the Reformation of Luther?

Perhaps we should henceforth think not of the Reformation but of reformations. Though there are 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 is only the beginning of what appears to be not reformations but actual schisms. (Let us not forget that Protestants Luther and Swiss Reformer Zwingli became bitter rivals regarding the Eucharist, hence schisms are present even among the Reformed during their own time.) The Anabaptists argue for baptism by immersion of adult converts only (or at least pouring, as opposed to sprinkling infants), argue for reform, yet produce further schism; and many of them pay for the schism with their lives (incidentally, by the hands of Luther and Zwingli, et al.).

Philip Melanchthon (German Reformer) differs from his mentor Luther on theological and soteriological 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) elaborates and expounds upon his mentor's theology; while his pupil, Jacob Arminius (Dutch Reformed Reformer), sorely disagrees with his mentor and seeks to reform the Calvinistic Dutch church. "The Reformation," then, is not a static monolith to which all Protestants can adhere. There are 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 and the authority of the Pope 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 makes 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 and impossible task.

Whatever happened to the Reformation? Instead of reforming, perhaps many Christians devolve into conforming to the culture (Rom. 12:2). The post-postmodern hipster movement in the Church is a disaster -- it breeds a rootless tradition that is shallow and emotional (think Hillsong). The statistics demonstrate that young people are leaving the Church in droves, not joining the hipster Christian fad churches, not embracing the "Christian" subculture of a Christian subculture.

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), 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 are "poor," though they believe that they are "rich"); 2) white robes, representing the righteous deeds of the saints (Rev. 19:8: for they are "naked" and "pitiable"); and 3) salve, which will cleanse their eyes so that they can truly see (for they are "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 Creeds, Catechisms and Traditions, but I think the authority of Scripture takes utmost priority.

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.