The Tragedy of the Reformation

Amidst all of the celebration, amidst all of the talk of Luther’s “discovery” of the Gospel, amidst all of the rousing renditions of “A Mighty Fortress,” I believe we’ve missed part of the story.

Usually the story goes something like this: back in the day the “Catholic” church had stopped listening to the Bible. People had started selling indulgences, teaching people that they could buy God’s forgiveness. People were even taught that they had to earn their own salvation by their works. But then comes along the wise Martin Luther. You see, Luther had read the Bible and knew this wasn’t right, so Luther bravely nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg and told the church that they had to stop. Brave Martin Luther even started his own church so that people could hear about the Gospel of Jesus that he had rediscovered.

This is how we usually tell the story of the Reformation. And while we could pick apart the historical inaccuracies or lack of subtleties in this telling of the story, that’s not what I’m interested in doing here. I’m interested in the big picture of the story, the overall arc. Normally, it’s a story of triumph. It’s about the success of the Reformers over against their Roman opponents. It’s a story of the valiant defenders of freedom and the truth of the scriptures over against those who were tied down to their tradition and their unscriptural doctrine.

And I want to say that there’s a lot of truth to this narrative. After all, that’s why we tell the story in this way so often. Luther did bring something to the consciousness of the church of his day that had been getting ignored. The church of the late middle ages was in desperate need of reform on so many fronts. Luther and others attempted to begin this process. These are men that we as protestants really ought to look up to not only as our own fathers in the faith, but also as noble Christian people in history who were doing the work of the Gospel in their time and place. The church overall would be worse off if it weren’t for the traditions that began with these men.

Of course, most importantly, there’s the issue of justification by faith. This was the main focus of Luther’s work and the central feature of the Lutheran reformation. This is a fundamental truth of the faith that we never want to give up and for that we can be eternally thankful that God worked though Luther and others to bring the full clarity of this truth back to the church.

Yet, at the same time, I think we need to recognize that the Reformation is also a tragedy. Yes, Luther brought the fullness of the Gospel back to the church, but not all of the church listened. In fact, the majority of the church wanted nothing to do with it. Sure, Luther and his movement were really popular in a lot of ways, but the Reformation was only a partial reformation. From a wider perspective it was less of a full reformation of the church and more of a schism of the Western church.

Now, of course Luther never intended to split up the church, not at all. He wanted to work within the church and truly reform it, not schism it. But that’s not what ended up happening. And while there are some good historical reasons that we really can’t lay the blame for the schism of the Reformation entirely at Luther’s feet, it doesn’t deny that this was the result of his work. Sure, it may be the case that it was less of an issue of Luther breaking away and starting his own church as it was the Roman church refusing to listen to the doctrinal issues and kicking him out because of the issue of papal authority. This may be the case, but it’s still what happened. And schism of the church is never a good thing.

Schism of the church may be a necessary thing, and in the case of the Reformation, I think that the reformers were right to refuse to concede theologically to their Roman opponents. But that doesn’t mean that their breaking away is like a Protestant Declaration of Independence from the Roman church. Rather, it’s a necessary evil.

This is what I mean by the tragedy of the Reformation. If the goal was to reform the church as a whole, then that goal failed. Sure, a portion of the church was reformed and for that we can celebrate and be thankful. But most of the church was not reformed. Most of the church rejected Luther and the other reformers. Not only that, but in many ways the Reformation opened the door to all kinds of other sectarians and schismatics. There’s something to the common Roman Catholic critique of Protestantism that there are so many thousands of churches and denominations. We shouldn’t deny that this is a problem. We should properly look out over the thousands of contemporary denominations and weep. This is not Christ’s will for his church. The night before he was to be crucified he prays for his church to be one:

I do not ask for these only [i.e. the apostles], but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

-John 17:20-3

Now, it’s also true that Christ does not will for his church to be teaching the commandments of men as the doctrine of God (Matt 15:9). Christ does not will for the truth of his Gospel to be obscured in any way or by any means. And that’s something that was definitely going on in the late middle ages and the reformers were right to respond to it.

So this means that we live in a tension. On the one hand we are bound to teach the word rightly, in its full truth, yet on the other hand we are bound to recognize that the church should be one.

It’s too easy for us to tell a triumphalist story of the Reformation that ignores this second reality. We champion a return to teaching the truth, and we should do this because the Reformation was a return to teaching the truth in certain areas of doctrine, but the Reformation was not only that. The Reformation was also a schism and splintering of the church and that is never a good thing. A necessary thing? Probably. But not a good thing.

This is why we should be able to recognize that the Reformation was in part a tragedy. The splintering of the church that resulted from it is truly tragic. It was never the goal, but it happened. That’s part of the story and we can’t gloss over that fact.

What Now?

I’m not saying that we need to repent of the Reformation. That’s an unhelpful and misguided statement. I’m not saying that we need to pursue external unity despite serious doctrinal differences. That goes against the spirit of the Reformation and a proper Christian love for the truth of God. What I am saying is that we need to at the very least be able to pray Jesus’ prayer with him. It’s too easy to make the unity of the church only an eschatological reality, something that only happens when Jesus returns. And while Christ’s church will only find full unity when Christ comes back, this does not mean that we do not pray for unity now and pursue what unity we can here and now in earnest.

After all, Christ does not have thousands of churches. He has one church. This church is not the Roman Church or the Lutheran Church or the Reformed Church or the Evangelical Church. Christ’s church is the body of all people who believe in him through the word of the apostles (John 17:20). We all have the same Holy Spirit, the same Jesus, the same faith, the same Baptism. We are all part of the same universal church that spans all times and all places.

But it takes the eyes of faith to see this. Externally, the church appears to be hopelessly fractured and broken. But the church really is one. We’re all on team Jesus.

Now, we need to think and act carefully as we try to live this out. There are lots of pitfalls to be avoided on many sides. But at the very least we need to be able to value both right teaching and unity in the church. And at the same time we recognize that Jesus is still Lord of his church. He has sent his Holy Spirit who is still present in and among us. We might not like how the Holy Spirit runs his church; we may even think that we could give him a few pointers on how to do it, but he’s still the one in charge. Part of having faith is having faith that God knows what he’s doing with his church and will continue to be faithful to the promises he’s made. We repent of where we have gone wrong and we trust the Holy Spirit to continue to guide us.

See also: What’s Up With All These Denominations?


Image: “Luther at the Diet of Worms” (1877) by Anton von Werner from Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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