The Reformers: Not Like Us
Today marks the 497th anniversary of what is often hailed as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the day when Martin Luther nailed a set of 95 theses for academic disputation to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. If you have looked at Christian blogs today, chances are you have seen something about this. Many have already chronicled the basic historical features of the Reformation and others have detailed its lasting relevance for today. Rather than repeating any of that myself, I want to take a slightly different tack.
In this post I want to mention several things that you may not already know about the Reformation. In particular, several of these things are intentionally intended to create a historical distance between “us” and “them.” The Reformers of the 16th century are not the same as the evangelical Protestants of the 21st century. To be historically accurate it is necessary that we recognize this and that we do so more often than is commonly acknowledged. What’s more, acknowledging this historical distance is crucial to learning anything of value from the reformers. So first, 4 theses on the distance of the reformers from us, then a 5th thesis on how this actually allows us to learn from them.
1. In the context of the 16th century, it wasn’t just “Luther and Calvin”
In most contemporary remembrance of the Reformation there are two names that are known, Martin Luther and John Calvin. These were “the great Reformers,” it is most often thought. There are several problems with this statement however. For one thing, it is more accurate to repeat the words of one senior Reformation historian of a past generation: The Reformation was Luther and Luther was the Reformation.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517 he was 34 years old and John Calvin was only 8. Calvin is properly a second generation Reformer while Luther is a first. Moreover, while Calvin through his writing became extremely influential for later generations, in the 16th century Martin Luther overshadowed every other Reformer, in popularity and in theological influence.
However, while Luther was so central, it is also crucial to recognize that there were in fact dozens of other Reformers, many of whom are largely forgotten today but who were also extremely influential in Europe at the time. The translations of eastern church fathers by Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, the Hebrew language and exegesis skills of Sebastian Munster, the institutional and liturgical reforms of Johannes Bugenhagen; all of these and more played huge parts in reforming not only religion, but the entire culture of 16th century Europe.
What’s the point? The Reformation was never the work of one man or woman, and neither can church work be today. In a day of celebrity preachers, we once again need networks not of a few, but of hundreds of pastors and church leaders if we wish to see true change across social, ethnic, geographical, and cultural divides.
2. Was there a Reformation?
While there was in one sense a large movement of church reform that was sparked by Luther, this reform was certainly not monolithic and by no means was there a simple, shared, Protestant vs. Catholic consensus. Rather, almost from the get go there was a wide array of theological beliefs, strategies for implementing reforms, and the like following Luther’s 95 theses. Not only are there the common groupings that are usually spoken of, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, Roman Catholic, etc. but there are also many more subgroups within each of these wider categories. It’s for this reason that most modern scholarship speaks of “Reformations” in the plural rather than of a singular “Reformation.” What’s most, this division was not only the “fault” of the reformers, but was also certainly the case theologically, if not institutionally, in the Catholic church at the beginning of the 16th century.
What’s the point? The point is that just as there is no single “Christianity” today in terms of an absolutely shared set of doctrinal beliefs or practices, so there was also not one in the 16th century. Then, as now, competing interpretations of the Bible and competing visions for who the church was and how it should function were widespread.
3. The Reformation was in once sense necessary; in another sense a tragedy
When Luther posted the 95 Theses, he was not out to create a new church. He did not want to be a part of any church except the one under the authority of the bishop of Rome. While Luther did later come to repudiate papal authority in the strongest terms, and while he did believe his reform was necessary, Luther himself never stepped outside the established church. Rather, in 1521 he was excommunicated from it.
If it were not for Luther’s excommunication by the pope, Luther would have in all likelihood have continued in his attempt to reform the church from within. Indeed, even in later life he often saw papal authority as a secondary issue that he would have been willing to live with if the pope would have done his duty properly as a shepherd of the church and if he were to cease from obscuring the gospel.
What’s the point? The point is that Luther had a more serious sense of the catholicity (read ‘universality’) of the church than most of us do today. While Protestants often see no problem with a lack of church unity, Luther believed in Jesus’ prayer, that we all may be one, even as Christ and the Father are one (John 17:21-23). Luther was not willing that this unity should come at the cost of core doctrinal disagreement, as some who use him name are today, but he nevertheless ardently hoped and longed for a united church.
4. Martin Luther was thoroughly medieval
One of the things that makes the Reformation era interesting to study is that is does in a real sense stand as a bridge between two worlds, the medieval and the modern world. While many Reformers were humanists, lovers of classical Greece and Roman and avid students of classical literature and languages, Luther was much more medieval in both his education and in his worldview.
I recently heard one historian quip that if you ever want to understand Luther you need to be able to think yourself into a worldview where devils and fairies are real things. That is, they are real, physical beings that are out there in the woods and that might lurk in the shadows of your cellar. Now for those of us who want to draw a straight line from the 16th century to our own, this kind of thing presents a real challenge and a real problem. Nevertheless, it is true. Martin Luther had a thoroughly medieval worldview, filled with real supernatural and corporeal forces, and filled with apocalyptic expectation.
What’s the point? The point is that the past is a strange place, they do things differently there. If we want to learn from the past we must first acknowledge its utter strangeness.
5. These men and women of yesterday still have much to teach us today
The previous four points have hopefully worked to establish a historical distance between us today and the reformers of the 16th century. I have worked to do this not because I believe the reformers no longer have anything to teach us, but precisely because I believe they do. However, if we would learn from them we must first be willing to recognize their utter difference from us.
Oftentimes in popular evangelical history-telling we paint sanitized pictures of the reformers, where they appear as so thoroughly like us, such thoroughly modern and evangelical Christians that they are used more as props for our own pre-established beliefs or as pillars to support our own historical edifices. Aside from the historical inaccuracies and the naivete of this approach, the practical downside is that it prevents us from actually listening to what they have to say. As long as we continue to imagine that we are just like these reformers then we will never have ears to hear them.
I am often struck when reading Luther by the fact that if he were to come back today I think he would prove to be just as much of a nuisance to the evangelical Christian church of the 21st century as he was to the Roman Catholic church of the 16th. Yet evangelicals so want to hold these Reformers as their direct historical precursors that we are unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which they are quite unlike us.
The Protestant Reformation(s) of the 16th century still holds many lessons for the church today. This was a time of unparalleled quality of biblical exegesis, a time of intense searching of foundational issues of religion, meaning, and purpose, and it was a time of deep piety and deep religious convictions. In all of this we have much to learn. But in order to learn, we must first recognize our ignorance and allow ourselves to be taught.