How the Reformation Failed

The Reformers did not start out with a plan to found separated churches. Their goal was to reform the entire Latin church. In this they failed.

The paradox is sharp, and we need to feel its point and its edge if we Protestants are to reckon honestly with our history during this year of celebration.

The Reformation was genuinely a recovery of the gospel. Scott Hendrix (Recultivating the Vineyard) has argued that the Reformation was an effort to re-evangelize and Christianize an officially but superficially Christian civilization. In many ways, they succeeded, setting the church and the world on an unprecedented course.

They blasted erroneous medieval theologies of grace that, in practice, encouraged people to believe that God helps those who help themselves. The Catholic church had never denied the priesthood of the laity, but the Catholic church had obscured and compromised it in many ways; the Reformers restored the biblical understanding of Christian priesthood. The Reformers trained ministers to teach the Bible, and taught the Bible to the laity; they developed institutions of oversight and discipline to ensure that Christians and their leaders were living Christianly. Partly (though not entirely) provoked by the Reformers, the Catholic church went through a significant reformation of its own.

Some have charged that the Reformers were willing to split the church because they had little interest in visible unity, but that is false. All the Reformers and all Protestant confessions stressed the unity and catholicity of the church. Calvin lamented the “mutilation” of Christ’s body.

Far from denying or downplaying the visibility of the church, the Reformation was an effort to make the church visible. The Catholic church was certainly visible, but what was visible was the church’s power and wealth and social prominence. Yet the essence of the church – the communion of the saints – was hidden. If you walked into a sixteenth-century Catholic church, you’d see a priest performing the Mass but you wouldn’t see the laity sharing the Eucharistic meal; if you walked into a Protestant church, you’d see the saints eating bread and drinking wine, holy ones receiving the holy things, the table communion of saints made visible.

All this merely sharpens the paradox of the Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel, and emphasized the unity and catholicity of the church as an implication of the gospel. Yet they left the church divided.

As Lee Palmer Wandel (The Reformation) has pointed out, the fragmentation of the church was pervasive, deep, and unprecedented. In 1500, the word “Christian” was univocal; by 1600, there were a variety of definitions of the word, and Christians of one sort didn’t necessarily recognize Christians of other sorts as Christians. In 1500, a Christian could travel from one end of Europe to another without fear of persecution; by 1600, every form of Christianity was illegal somewhere in Europe. In 1500, the Latin Mass was the church’s liturgy throughout Western Europe; by 1600, several different, mutually exclusive, Eucharistic liturgies were enacted across Europe.

The division penetrated to families and neighborhooods. Catholics whose children married in non-sacramental Protestant weddings considered their own grandchildren to be bastards. Time was reckoned differently in different parts of Europe: Catholics and Protestants lived in different time zones.

How did this happen? How did a Reformation committed to the gospel, catholicity, and unity shatter the Western church and European civilization?

The Catholic church itself was one of the main culprits. Luther complained that his arguments were never engaged or debated. When he appeared before Catholic authorities, they simply demanded that he recant. Luther was excommunicated within a few short years of the 95 Theses, without receiving a serious much less a sympathetic hearing. During the early decades of the sixteenth century, reformers within the Catholic church were squeezed out or silenced. Among the “what might have beens?” of the sixteenth century, this one is central: What if the Catholic church had recognized Luther, as many Catholics do today, as a “witness to the gospel”?

More theologically, the divisions were God’s mysterious work. God makes and remakes the world by dividing and reuniting. He created by separating light and darkness, waters above and below, land and sea. He created Eve by splitting Adam in two. Every prophet sent to Israel came with a sword. Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus: All of them gathered people who wanted to hear Yahweh’s word, and aroused the hostility of those who closed their ears. Splits happen, and when God begins to renew His church, we can expect division.

Yet this cannot be an excuse for Reformation divisions, or a cause of complacency. God divides in order to reunite: Adam becomes Adam-and-Eve so that the two might become one flesh; Israel and Judah separate in order to be reunited centuries later; Jews and Gentiles are dividedby the cut of circumcision in order to be reunited in the Messiah’s circumcision on the cross. Besides, to say that God creates and recreates by division doesn’t justify every division. Some divisions are necessary; some are legitimate but temporary; some are mutilations of the body of Christ.

The story of Reformation fragmentation is a complicated one, but we can isolate one central thread: Luther and Zwingli divided over the issue of the real presence at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. Once they divided, their followers perpetuated the division. Each side, of course, was convinced it was defending the true Reformation and that the opposing side had compromised or distorted the gospel. So convinced, they maintained separated traditions in order to protect the purity of the gospel.

Two factors loom large in the perpetuation of Protestant division. The first is rhetoric. Without its lively, entertaining, penetrating polemics and polemicists, the Reformation would not have succeeded. As Peter Matheson argues (Rhetoric of the Reformation), Reformation polemic was liberating, clarifying, empowering. Polemic was a tool of the powerless against entrench powers, and Luther was its master. Yet, the Reformers eventually turned their considerable rhetorical powers against each other, creating stark polarities and treating every dispute as a cosmic war of light and darkness, truth and error. Reformation polemic descended into propaganda, which bolstered the group of identity of separated communions by demonizing other churches. For all the virtues of polemic, Lutheran and Reformed would often have been better served by gentle answers.

The second factor was confession-writing and confessionalization. Confessions were written to unify divided Protestants. The Formula of Concord ended the war between Lutheran and Lutheran, and the Consensus Tigurinus unified Swiss Protestantism. Yet every confession also divided one tradition from the other. By defining Lutheran doctrine over-against Reformed tendencies within Lutheranism, the Formula of Concord drove the Philippists (followers of Philip Melanchthon) underground or into Reformed churches. Every confession was an over-against project, part of the deliberate perpetuation of separated traditions that took their rise at Marburg.

Confessionalization – teaching and enforcing a confession’s teachings – perpetuated the confessional divisions. It wasn’t enough to write a confession. Pastors had to be taught the Confession, and mechanisms had to be developed to ensure that pastors continued to teaching confessional doctrine in the churches after they were ordained. Even in the best of circumstances, when an opposing viewpoint was treated fairly and charitably, confessionalization reinforced and deepened confessional division. And circumstances were not always best. Teachers and pastors didn’t always treat opposing views with charity and fairness. More often than was necessary, wise, or charitable, they adopted the severe rhetoric of the Reformers.

The initial division at Marburg in 1529 was unwanted. Marburg began as an effort to unify the Protestant movement. But once Luther and Zwingli parted ways, the development of separate Lutheran and Reformed traditions was intentional.

Had the Reformers been permitted to remain in the Catholic church, had the Catholic hierarchy been amenable to correction and repentance, the Reformation might have succeeded. The Reformation would have been more successful if it had remained a unified movement. Forcibly expelled from the Catholic church, divided into separate traditions, the Reformation failed: Failed in its initial and over-arching aim – to reform the Western church according to the gospel, to Christianize Christian civilization in Western Europe. And the Reformation will not ultimately succeed until the wounds of the Reformation and post-Reformation (not to mention, the pre-Reformation) church are healed.

Protestantism will not reach its end goal until the Reformation’s divisions end.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.

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