January 17, 2021

Reformation 500: Is It Time for the Reformation to End? (Scott Lencke)

Note from CM: Sorry for the delay today. As the old song says, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” Actually, my slowness to post has little to do with today but with an extraordinarily busy weekend with friends, at church, and with family. Not to mention very little sleep because of the fantastic October baseball being played in the World Series!

At any rate, Scott Lencke came to my rescue this morning, sending me this thought-provoking piece on the Reformation. Scott blogs at The Prodigal Thought, and when we are lucky enough to have him, he contributes here at IM.

. . .

Is It Time for the Reformation to End?
By Scott Lencke

In just a couple of days from now, on October 31st, the world will remember one of the most life-altering days in the history of the world. Yes, many will celebrate Halloween (and I’m good with that). But many will also remember this day of October 31st as it particularly relates to the year 1517. It was on this day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther’s actions began the movement that would later be identified as the Protestant Reformation. It is truly amazing to think it has been a full five hundred years since the Reformation was set in motion.

In particular, Luther’s 95 Theses were questions and propositions he desired to debate with the Roman Catholic Church, the religious power of the Western European world. It was Luther’s fresh reading of Romans 1:16-17 – particularly the verse, “The just [or righteous] shall live by faith.” – which led him to dispute many of the practices of the Roman Catholic magisterium, the church’s leadership that consisted of the Pope and his bishops.

There is little doubt that the Protestant Reformation was deeply needed. The oppressive power of the Roman Catholic Church – which was just as much a social, political and cultural as it was religious – stripped the general populace of any sense of God’s grace, forgiveness, love, generosity and kindness. Abuses were plentiful within the Church’s institutional system of merit and questionable practices in light of Scripture.

It was out of the Protestant Reformation that the reformers begin advocating the five solas:

  1. Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone)
  2. Sola fide (by Faith alone)
  3. Sola gratia (by Grace alone)
  4. Solus Christus (by Christ alone)
  5. Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone)

One great point worth noting – one that is very rarely talked about – is how the Protestant Reformation has led to a slow and measured reformation within the Roman Catholic Church itself. I don’t so much speak of the counter-Reformation as identified with the Council of Trent (in the mid-1500s). Whew, that was a reactionary event that basically labeled all Protestants as heretics! Rather I speak of something unfolding over the past five hundred years since the Reformation, particularly summed up in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. I will also note that I believe more change is still needed within the Catholic Church.

In all of the good that truly came from the Reformation, there is a lot of bad to recognize as well. I originally thought of titling this article, “The Protestant Reformation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

So there is bad and there is also ugly.

What are some of the bad and ugly moments?

In all our efforts in championing the priesthood of all believers, summed up with the practicality of placing the Scriptures in the hands of all people for their own personal reading and interpretation, we have to consider how this has led to the thousands of denominations and church splinter groups worldwide. Matter of fact, in the 20th century, one might say continued and rapid splintering was foundational within the Protestant evangelical movement. Each new group had finally figured out what was the truest and most biblical version of Christianity as God had originally designed. Each one believed they inched ever closer to what we find in the book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament.

I know, I used to believe this. It was/is a bit naive. Somehow we knew better than 1900 years of Christians before us.

I now believe the church of old has more to teach us than the church of now.

Of course, I don’t believe we need retract the priesthood of all believers – though I would redirect it from our individualistic lens of the west. When Peter speaks of us being a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Pet 2:9), he speaks of a collective people with that people focused on the mission of God – “that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

And I do believe, at its core, the church should have access to the study of Scripture. I would simply remind us that God has given some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as shepherds and teachers . . . (Eph 4:11).

Not only did the Protestant church become more and more fragmented, but it also learned the way of its predecessor. Whereas power once lay in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, it was now shifting into the hands of the Protestant Church. This newly formed segment of Christianity desired its own expression of religious, social, political and cultural rule.

The Hugenot Wars and Thirty Year’s War saw millions of people perish (both Rome and Protestants are to be implicated in the evils of these wars). Not only that, but much of Protestant Christianity got wrapped up in colonialism. As western empires looked to expand their power into “new” lands, institutionalized Protestantism of the west was able to develop its own horizons. With such, we have the tragic realities of how Africans, Native Americans and the like were treated, many times in the name of Christ. Even more, in recent decades, the Protestant-evangelical church has found itself lagging behind (or worse!) in the defending the rights for African-Americans and women.

Part of our ugly Protestant history also includes our treatment of Roman Catholics.  There have been plenty of Protestants and evangelicals who have marked out Rome as the Beast of Revelation and the Pope as the anti-christ. I remember when all Catholics used to be considered “unsaved.” Our disdain for this group is appalling. Thankfully much has changed these days (though there is still much work to be done).

In all, if we are honest, we have to admit the Reformation and it’s legacy is a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. To deny such is, I believe, to deny history.

I am grateful to God for his mercy in the midst of our own brokenness and my hope is that the way toward healing and reconciliation is continually paved.

As we joined together with our church this morning, remembering what was begun by the great Luther those five centuries ago, I was freshly reflecting on the Reformation. I had actually been reflecting on some things for many days, knowing the anniversary was upon us. And as we worshipping this morning, a very clear comparative picture came to me.

The Bible recounts a story of an ancient people who in the land of the Chaldeans (the plain of Shinar) long ago. It’s a well-known story found in Genesis 11. We call it the Tower of Babel. Interestingly enough, we read that the whole world had one language, a common speech (11:1). With this background, we find that the people come together and make an astonishing declaration: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (11:4).

We know how things play out.

God confuses their language and what they had hoped would not happen did happen. The people were scattered over the earth (11:8-9).

Confusion. Division. Scattering.

And, so, when we come to the pages of the New Testament, particularly the festival of Pentecost as detailed in the book of Acts, we read an interesting account. “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” had come together for this festival (2:5). It was an annual festival that would remember God’s giving of the law, the torah, at Mt. Sinai. Following the pouring out of the Spirit of God, we read “each one heard their own language being spoken” (2:6). You have people present from all over the then-known world and all of a sudden they hear folk speaking their own language seemingly at random.

Not your average festival, eh?

What many theologians see happening here is a reversal of the curse of Babel. Whereas the united people of Shinar became confused in language and, thusly, were scattered over the earth, we now find God’s people from every known nation of that time coming together and hearing “the wonders of God” in their own tongue. What a turn of events!

At Babel, unity was turned to disunity.

At Pentecost, disunity was turned to unity.

How does this relate to the Reformation?

What came to me this morning is this: The Reformation was truly needed five hundred years ago. It was needed religiously, socially, politically and culturally. It was a literal deliverance for the people of God from an oppressive system that had held a deep stronghold for approximately one thousand years.

To use the words of the Babel scene, a scattering was needed.

But, just as the famed Pentecost of Acts 2 reversed the disunity of Babel, forging a fresh togetherness in God’s people, so it is time for a reversal of the Reformation and it’s scattering, separatist trajectory.

For five hundred years we have watched the church splinter and splinter and splinter. Not only that, but we’ve found ways to form our own oppressive systems wherever we find our home.

It is now time for something better, for something new; it is now time for a reversal of the division that started on October 31, 1517.

As Stanley Hauerwas stated in a recent article in the Washington Post:

In short, the Reformation seemed to us to be “back there,” and I felt no need to defend Protestantism because it seldom occurred to me that being a Protestant was all that important or interesting. The antagonism of the past simply seemed no longer relevant. (bold mine)

Further along, he articulates:

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

Is it time for the Reformation to end?

In a sense, no. We remember it and remember the good that would unfold because of Martin Luther and his companions. And as many Protestants and evangelicals would remind us, we must always champion the call of Ecclesia semper reformanda est – “the church is always reforming.”

However, in a sense, it may be time for the Reformation to end. It may be time for something anew (or Great Emergence, as Phyllis Tickle calls it).


Because it’s time to put to bed the division; it’s time to end the casting out of Roman Catholics; it’s time to lay aside oppressive ways through the entanglement of our own religion, culture and politics.

In a sense, we need to move on from what our fathers and mothers handed us. There is a better way for today. That better way is a reversal of the curse of Babel, one that truly unifies, heals and reconciles. We need a new work of the Spirit to build the New Jerusalem that we read about in Scripture.


  1. Sounds good. Let’s put an end to the Reformation.

    Does that mean that now I, a Protestant (and one married to a previously divorced wife), will be admitted to Holy Communion in the Roman Catholic Church, without having to agree to be obedient to the authority of the Pope and the Magisterium, and without having to agree to obey the canon law of Roman Catholocism? If not, if the amiable end of the Reformation does not mean complete and free intercommunion without beforehand having to agree to Roman Catholic rules, then what does it mean?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      It’s been 500 years; we’re about due for another major shakeup.
      This time, it’ll be the Evangelicals in charge of the Old Order.
      (We’re already seeing Evangelical corruption on a level with Tetzel and the Borgia popes.)

  2. In short, the Reformation seemed to us to be “back there,” and I felt no need to defend Protestantism because it seldom occurred to me that being a Protestant was all that important or interesting. The antagonism of the past simply seemed no longer relevant.

    I love me some Stanley Hauerwas, but Protestantism still remains “important” and “interesting” to those of us who would be excluded from the Eucharist on the basis of our status with regard to Roman Catholic canon law, due to being divorced and remarried, or being married to a partner of the same sex. At the altar rail of many Protestant churches, on the other hand, we are freely received without such preconditions. Though we recognize that it was a messy separation, in some ways getting messier every year, we will stay with the Reformation, thank you, until the RC Church finds the grace within itself to receive us without preconditions that are untenable for us.

  3. Christiane says

    “I now believe the church of old has more to teach us than the church of now.”

    I see ‘the Church’ as a continuum through the millenia all connected together by Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit and being maybe what to some is known as ‘the Body of Christ’,

    and those first century Christian people . . . . they ARE a part of who we are today, as much as is the one sitting next to you in Church . . . . no time, nor death, nor distance, nor ‘forgetting’, nor abandoning, nor ‘dismissing’ can separate the persons who have bent the knee before the Christ of the Cosmos . . . .

    the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ doesn’t make sense in that light when you consider that the ONLY source of unity among Christian people IS Christ Himself, and He transcends all of our differences

    too simplistic? I’m not sure anymore. Not anymore.

  4. There was never “a” church except maybe in Acts. Even within the epistles there multiple churches loosely tied together.

    So shall it ever be.

    • Yes. The dominant church of the third and fourth centuries retrojected the idea of an institutional unity on the churches of earlier times that had not actually existed. This was one of its first acts as an imperial church.

  5. Just to caveat something, based upon a couple of comments.

    I wasn’t intending to tackle all the theological nuances of re-forging the Catholic and Protestant traditions back together (what about the EO arms as well?!). My intent was, as a Protestant, to healthily critique our 500 year history and ask for recourse on how we can end the divisive, separatist and oppressive tactics ourselves. At least on that front I desire the end of the Reformation.

    Now, having said that, I think the question of how we may practically forge the 3 major traditions together is a fascinating one. I am no idealist; I struggle to believe it will happen. It’s a mountain to climb! I do appreciate that Vatican II recognizes other Christian traditions to be within the fold of Christ. We just don’t have the unified leadership in Protestantism to issue a unifying statement. Most evangelicals would repudiate an acceptance of Roman Catholics within the fold of the “saved.”

    I desire us to all share the table once again, but that table shared may be at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

    • Perhaps we can stop celebrating the memory of the Reformation. In my view, it was a tragic necessity, and I feel very uncomfortable, as a non-Lutheran Christian who is a member of a Lutheran church, with the note of triumphalism and giddiness that creeps into the celebration of Reformation Day, a note especially pronounced on this 500 anniversary.

    • I mean, a separated married couple who were working toward reconciliation would be acting in a counterproductive way if the they made a big public celebration around the anniversary of their alienation.

      • Christiane says

        a good observation, but I would add, maybe if the ‘reformation’ was seen as a kind of ‘healing’ of wrongs and redirecting to the ‘good Way’,
        then the Christian world will have to pre-date the ‘reformation’ to others who came before Luther, for example Francis of Assisi, a great reformer

        there have been many ‘reformers’ in the Church and they all pointed people back to Christ . . . time to recognize all of them, I think 🙂

    • Christiane says

      “Most evangelicals would repudiate an acceptance of Roman Catholics within the fold of the “saved.””

      yes, many do. . . . but not all . . . . I would say the ‘fundamentalist’ evangelicals have no place for Catholics in their heaven . . . . but they still use the Bible, and some celebrate Easter and Christmas, and some, but not many, respect the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity (this is ‘slipping’ a bit among fundamentalists, in my opinion)

      as for ‘creeds’, those of the fundamentalist camp honor certain principles with devotion: patriarchy especially, and a lot of ‘end times’ theology which seems more based on fiction than on sacred Scripture . . . . and my goodness, the most attention they pay to anything seems to be given over to areas of islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny of an institutional kind, as well as devotion to the Trump . . . . that there is a core of them that is also devoted to the alt-right is a given and they are proud of this it seems, which is very sad indeed

      ‘course Catholicism is not ‘known’ to them other than through the worst kind of anti-Catholic rhetoric and it is noted that occasionally, when a fundamentalist Christian attends a Catholic service (wedding, funeral mass, etc.), they are always surprised how much of sacred Scripture is a part of the liturgy AND how the focus is Christo-centric to the max. How could they have known? How indeed.
      No problem for Catholics who are not ‘easily offended’ and take all this ‘negativity’ with a grain of salt and a lot of patience, because Catholics are ‘hopeful’ in the way of all Christian people who look for the good instead of the ‘negative’ in others. The Catholic, as well as the mainstream Christian branches of the family all know in the midst of all of the troubles of the sojourn, God will have the final word, which keeps us sane when all things are considered . . . . ‘trust’ may not be the same as a smug ‘I’m saved and you’re going to hell’, but trust in Christ is the faith of the old Church and the Church of today and trust is handed down as it always has been through the centuries . . . . the hope ‘anchored somewhere beyond this Earth’, no matter what.

  6. Richard Hershberger says

    On a different note, would it be terribly pedantic of me to note that the nailing of the 95 theses to the church door probably didn’t happen? If it did, no one thought to mention it until much much later.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      It is folk history – it happened in our imaginations – which is ultimately the most important kind of history.
      We create these events to demarcate this period from that period; because we need such boundaries.
      Something happened – and we can compressed it down to a single pointed event – so it is not untrue, more like “compressed”, for efficiency.

      • Richard Hershberger says

        I”m not sure how serious you are, but I have seen similar arguments used for pretty much every bit of historical BS, from young George Washington cutting down the cherry tree to young Abner Doubleday inventing baseball. These stories resonate. How they came to be and why the resonate are interesting questions. Treating them as if they were actual history? Not interesting.

  7. Iain Lovejoy says

    Well of course it’s time for the Reformation to end. It’s been time for the Reformation since the Pope excommunicated Luther. However good and necessary the ultimate resultant reforms, the “Reformation” was the point where the western Church found itself unable to reform without tearing itself apart. It might be something to commemorate, but it sure as heck isn’t a cause for celebration, as Robert F points out.
    The problem is that reunifying the Church isn’t going to happen unless everyone suddenly magically agrees on everything, or someone finds away we can all become a single Church again, even if we don’t. A good start might be for all Churches doing what some Protestant churches already do, and unilaterally opening themselves up into communion with all Christians of any denomination, and recognising all Christians as Christians, Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike.

    • I agree. Open communion between the denominations would be a good first step. The churches I’ve belonged to in the past decades, the Episcopal Church USA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, both invite all baptized Christians to their communion tables.

      But I’m afraid the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and some Protestant denominations will just not go along with this, as they are adamantly opposed to open communion. You can only partake of the Eucharist in their churches if you recognize the supremacy of their authority, and play by their rules. It is all well and good to talk about ending the Reformation; but it is equally important, and just as essential, to ask if the more ancient branches of the Church are willing to end their exclusionary ways when it comes to intercommunion: you can’t have one without the other.

  8. Perhaps what should end is the quest for unity. Why not simply accept our differences and even learn to enjoy them? Why insist on total agreement? Why not admit the obvious? Christianity is not one thing. It contains within it an entire range of expression. In every other case diversity is a good thing. Why not in religion as well?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says


      There is certainly enough in common to come together to do great things.

    • Stephen, I agree with this. My article was not necessarily thinking of a perfect unity, but a unity in diversity. I want to celebrate all the expressions in the Christian faith, eat at the table together, engage our world together. That would be wonderful!

  9. Steve Newell says

    For Luther, what we believe and why we believe is so important that he wrote so that the laity could understand and teach their children. Today, many Christians cannot tell you what they believe and why or what their church believes; but they can tell you able all the great programs their church has. Luther had an uneducated laity because the Church did not teach the laity; now we have have an uneducated laity (on doctrine) because the Church does teach them and the laity doesn’t care.

Speak Your Mind