The Divisive Fruit of the Reformation
This Saturday is October 31st, the day of annual celebration in which children array themselves in strange and wonderful costumes, visiting their neighbors under the cover of night to nail a list of ninety-five grievances to their front door. I am, of course, speaking of Reformation Day, the commemoration of Martin Luther’s famous protest against the excesses and errors of the Roman Catholic Church.
Timothy George over at First Things wrote of the holiday,
“It was around two o’clock in the afternoon on the eve of the Day of All Saints, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, hammer in hand, approached the main north door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg. There he nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses protesting the abuse of indulgences in the teaching and practice of the Church of his day. In remembrance of this event, millions of Christians still celebrate this day as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is not a day for the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween but a time to remember the Reformation, especially what Luther wrote in thesis sixty-two: ‘The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.’”1
We are fast approaching the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic disobedience. The Protestant project has been underway for nearly five centuries, and in many ways we can see it as successful. Accessible and readable Scripture is nearly ubiquitous across the entire world; the number of people who have no access to a version of the Bible in a known language, either in a physical copy or online, is shockingly low.2 While the Roman Catholic Church has rejected many tenants of the Reformation, reform has nevertheless taken place (e.g., Vatican II).
However, in surveying the religious landscape of the world today, I have to ask myself, “What has the Reformation really accomplished?” For all we learn in the average American high school, the impetus of the Protestant movement largely seemed to boil down to dissatisfaction with a power-hungry leadership in the Roman Catholic Church. A non-believer investigating the matter further may find the theological squabbles underpinning the resistance of Martin Luther and other leaders arcane—or perhaps even negligible. To a certain extent, there is some truth to that; Luther, after all, intended at first to reform the Roman Catholic Church, not splinter it. However, what does the average believer even today really know (or care) about the efficacy of baptism, or whether the presence of Christ in Communion is real or symbolic? How many Protestant laymen can actually articulate why sola scriptura makes more sense than apostolic succession when we discuss authority? Are we closer to the truth today than we were five hundred years ago? Are we closer to God?
The question of authority certainly hasn’t been solved. While I belong to the Protestant tradition, I’ll admit the doctrine of sola scriptura presents some logical difficulty. Scripture, for one, does not incontrovertibly claim ultimate authority for itself. Neither is it clearly self-explanatory; if it were, the creeds and councils of the early centuries wouldn’t have come to pass, and I think there would be no need of the various Protestant confessions and statements of faith we have today. Further, the Bible is not the Quran; unlike the holy book of Islam, our text is not a divine incarnation that emerged from the mouth of a single prophet. It is a collection of accounts and letters written over a period of centuries; it’s generally held by historians that the first time we see the modern canon is in a letter from Athanasius in 367 AD. A pre-Scriptural authority had to exist in order to assemble our authoritative Scripture, and it’s not evident from either Scripture or history that ultimate authority passed to the text afterwards—particularly given how difficult the Bible is to interpret.
In fact, in Scripture itself, we see a different sort of model than sola scriptura:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him…And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:26-31,34-35)
In this model, we see the Apostle serving as the interpretive authority. The eunuch struggles with the passage, and Philip, having been granted authority by Christ, explains it to him. This seems to me to lend credence to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox model of apostolic succession and authority. Again, I belong to neither of those traditions, but the Protestant case for sola scriptura becomes admittedly difficult as we try to untangle the logic of it all.
There is, of course, the objection that the Holy Spirit guided the formation of the Bible and guides our interpretation of the Bible today. I have no doubt this is true. However, when it comes to interpretation of the Bible, it is not necessarily true in every case. Two dissimilar interpretations of a passage may be correct; there could, for example, be both a historical truth and a spiritual truth. There may be multiple valid and non-exclusive spiritual truths in a passage. However, there cannot be two contradictory interpretations. Paradoxical, yes, but not contradictory. Jesus may be both fully man and fully God, but he is not both “fully man and fully God” and “fully God but only seemed to be a man.” If two individuals present opposing interpretations of Scripture and claim inspiration from the Holy Spirit, both cannot be correct. There must be an authority to break the tie. It is either that or schism.
That’s what it comes down to for me. As I contemplate the fruits of the Reformation, I struggle with the exponential fracturing of the Church over the last five centuries. In my small town of 7,000 residents, there aren’t just Methodists, Pentecostals, and Baptists—there are multiple denominations of each. Churches and denominations are dividing today over recent legal decisions and political shifts. Worldwide, the Anglican church struggles to hold itself together. 3 4 Luther envisioned a priesthood of all believers, and we got that and more: every believer is not only a priest, but a Pope!
So, happy Reformation Day, everyone. I apologize if today’s article comes off as pessimistic, but hey, if you don’t like it, you can go start your own denomination.
1. George, Timothy. “Reformation Day.” First Things, October 31, 2014. http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/10/reformation-day
2. The International Mission Board puts the “completely unreached” population of the world about 121 million. That is a very small slice of the world’s population!
3. Graham, David A. “The Archbishop of Canterbury: Dissolving the Anglican Church to Save It.” The Atlantic, September 16, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/09/the-end-of-the-worldwide-anglican-communion/405736/
4. Bingham, John. “Justin Welby launches ‘last throw of the dice’ to avert worldwide Anglican split.” Telegraph. September 16, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11869056/Archbishop-of-Canterburys-last-throw-of-the-dice-to-save-Anglican-church-from-split.html
Photo: Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder. December 31, 1528.