You see by the question mark in the title that I come not opining, but asking because I truly want to know. I’ve shared in a recent essay of my background in various churches that came, not due to purposeful hopping, but rather because I was the child of a broken home and depending on others to deliver me where they would. As a result, I got delivered several different places, both Protestant and Catholic. I was an equal opportunity spiritual seeker and I still am. I find beautiful and truthful expressions of Christian experience in a wide range of writers. Lately, Protestant that I am (though I can’t think of anything I’m really protesting), I have been reading Catholic writers almost exclusively.
To my way of thinking we revere … we worship … we love in common the most holy and perfect expression of God, our Savior Jesus Christ. He is grace to us and, at the same time, mystifying truth. C.S. Lewis likened this tie that binds to dining together at a banquet in a great hall. For our more intimate gatherings we like to adjourn to private little rooms off the great hall … rooms named after our denominational preferences, particular theological schools of thought or for which side of the Reformation we have taken. Some don’t see it this way. Some see these differences as deciding factors in salvation. I recognize this thinking, though it isn’t exactly what I want to talk about today unless you sincerely believe the question I am about to ask has for its answer the issue of salvation at its core.
Martin Luther sparked the Reformation when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Born into a Catholic household and baptized the day after his birth, Luther seemed a Catholic of Catholics just as the Apostle Paul was a Hebrew of Hebrews (Philippians 3:5). He could claim a Catholic childhood as well as a purposeful pressing into Catholicism that led him as an adult higher up and farther in than most. He was dedicated first to Augustinian monastic life, then ordained into the priesthood and finally obtained a Doctor of Theology award from University of Wittenberg where he also spent the rest of his career as Doctor in Bible. So when he nailed those 95 Theses on the door, he was likely looking for small-r reformation rather than plotting the big-R Reformation that would divide the Church and change history.
Conviction that certain practices were leading the Church far afield drove Luther to broach subjects and ask questions that he hoped might restore sight of the central truths of Christianity, namely that righteousness cannot be bought with money or earned by works. Luther contended that righteousness is acquired as a free gift from God only through faith in Jesus Christ. Other points of contention included his assertion that the Holy Spirit guides believers into truth, that popes do not have the sole right to interpret Scripture and are not infallible. He further espoused that believers are priests one to another in the ministering of their various spiritual gifts and in the practice of Christian life and love.
Despite Luther’s little-r mentality, he got big-R results that he didn’t really want. Please forgive the oversimplification of an event that has not ceased in five centuries from being the subject of chronic analysis and that was influenced and complicated by many factors and by many persons besides Luther. What might have started from a spark of scholarly and religious debate became a forest fire aided by the whirling winds of cultural, economic and political unrest.
Whatever the case … intentional or accidental … my question is this: What was gained and what was lost in the Reformation? I invite you to consider not making an either/or response such as “everything spiritually legitimate was lost in the Reformation” or “everything spiritually legitimate was gained in the Reformation.” Could it be that both Protestants and Catholics could consider some things lost and some things gained by it? What would those things be? For example, as a Protestant I lament the loss of unity (no, I do not mean lockstep conformity), both with Catholics and among Protestants. By unity, I mean that thing that allows us dissimilar folks to sit at the banquet table and have a rousing, but civil conversation around the feast of Christ’s saving work … and to gladly pass the bread to the person who can’t in good conscience eat the meat and to scoot over and make room when another person we saw engaged in that questionable activity in the street arrives late. It pains me that we broke in the first place … and it pains me that we Protestants keep breaking. Perhaps in the beginning the breaks were over weightier issues, but we have devolved and degenerated and now we form new churches over ever more narrow issues. Our law seems not to be Love, but zeal over our pet spiritual obsessions.
Several years ago I was reading a commentary on the book of Revelation by J. Vernon McGee. Regarding Revelation 3:2, McGee, a Protestant, equated Protestantism with the church at Sardis, “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God.” Having quoted this verse, McGee went on to say, “This is a frightful condemnation and is a picture of Protestantism today. We need to recognize that all of the truth was not recovered by the Reformation.” He was not explicit in stating his meaning, but it seems clear he viewed the Reformation as an event in which truth was gained, but not fully. These words of McGee’s have stayed with me for a very a long time and sparked the thought that the theology behind my mostly Protestant upbringing might be somehow incomplete in and of itself and not just because of any formational weaknesses, either personal or educational, in me. (Could I pick a better Protestant commentator? Yes, but for this purpose, McGee’s simple but memorable statement was like the string from a ball of yarn that I pulled behind me through a couple of decades and later tied to another idea.)
Reading about Martin Luther clarified certain thoughts for me and muddied up a few others. Was he pure Protestant or conflicted Catholic? My take on him is that he never thought of himself other than Catholic though he was Protestantism’s most famous Protestant. He disliked that term and viewed it as a label better suited to the overzealous hangers-on who tried (and in many ways succeeded) to hijack reform and turn it into a protest that often became violent and ultimately created a rift he was never able to mend, though that is what he longed to do. That rift seems also to have left Luther with a degree of bitterness … perhaps toward himself, perhaps toward his opposition, perhaps toward those seemingly on his side who pushed the movement too far and too fast, perhaps toward God for permitting this strange and unexpected life’s journey or perhaps for a confusing mix of all of the above.
During my quest to figure out what truths were lost or gained in the Reformation, I also began reading the writings of some Catholic writers … and please, I mean some. I’m no historian. My knowledge in this area … okay, in any area … is like a piece of Swiss cheese, more voids than substance.
G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic, wrote in Orthodoxy, “The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.” Although I read this quote many years after reading the comment by McGee above, I instantly linked them in my mind as touching the same subject, though from different perspectives.
Chesterton went on to say, “only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination … he was damned by John Calvin.” (Chesterton seemed not to love John Calvin.) Perhaps Chesterton would consider the Protestant embrace of predestination, especially in the 17th century, to be a major post-Reformation loss.
As an aside, I have read in more than one place that both G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis were mightily influenced toward Christian faith by the writings of George McDonald, a Scottish preacher with Congregationalist roots. One might think McDonald’s influence would lead to their faith being in common with his. Interestingly, both men diverged from McDonald, as well as from each other, in faith practice. Chesterton became a Catholic and Lewis an Anglican.
So Monks, as we consider gains and losses resulting from the Reformation, let us be respectful of each other and humble in the offering of thoughts and opinions. Some might come with long comments resulting from extensive knowledge of theology and Church history. Some might come with thoughts and opinions rooted in personal experience and first-hand observation. I pray no one will come disrespectfully. Christendom’s most brilliant thinkers have neither resolved this issue for themselves nor created any significant unity within the Body of Christ over it. We may do no better, but we might have an interesting conversation, an opportunity to gain some perspective and a chance to demonstrate generosity and grace toward each other as we listen.