October 21, 2020

Letting Some of the Air Out of The Reformation Day Balloon

the-life-and-times-of-martin-lut149.jpgUPDATE: Josh S has a good post on different views of Reformation history.

UPDATE: Someone please turn down that “whining” sound. Is it me? Or the guy fisking me? I’m really on your side, O panic stricken fans of the Reformation.

UPDATE: ***sigh*** Pastor Gary reviews the post. So….is any sincerely motivated division of Christianity worth celebrating? We can party all year long! Let me be clear: Division may be necessary, but reform without division would be better. We can clelebrate what was good in the Reformation and we can deplore what was bad in Catholicism at the time. Then we can deplore the bad things that resulted in Protestantism/evangelicalism and recognize the good things that were and are present in Catholicism. It’s not a team sport. It’s the body of Christ. Read John 17 for Christ’s sake (literally.)

It’s fairly obvious that, at least among some Christians, “Reformation Day” is a new holiday to be celebrated with all the enthusiasm we once reserved for actual holidays. (Lutherans: Party on. You’ve earned it.) I’m waiting for the photos of the “Dress Like a Reformer” party at a reformed church near you.

I’ll admit to having donned the Luther costume and done the Reformation Day lecture for the students at our school on a number of occasions, and I don’t regret having done so. Most of what I said was true. Well….some of it.

In the past year, I’ve read a lot about the reformation and even more about Luther. I’m currently finishing off McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea– a popular history of Protestantism that’s right up to speed- and I’m almost done with Richard Marius’s Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, one of the most profitable biographies of Luther I’ve ever read and I read at least one every couple of years.

My reading on Luther and the Reformation has changed my mind about a lot of things. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but here’s the short list.

-I no longer believe the Reformation, as it’s commonly described by Protestants, is the distinct event we’ve made it out to be.
-I no longer believe Luther ever intended to slay the Catholic Church and establish the wonder of contemporary Protestantism.
-I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.
-I’m especially convinced that a lot of the typical “Luther story” is probably historically inaccurate. Not necessarily untrue, but plenty of mythology in the mix.
-I am very sure that the humanist and Catholic contribution to the reform of Christianity has been considerably obscured in the creation of a Protestant mythology.
-I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
-I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
-I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
-I now believe that tradition is a very good word.
-I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent. To act as if it was mostly a spiritual revival movement is naive.
-I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.
-I no longer believe the theology of the Reformers was the pinnacle of evangelicalism or is the standard by which Biblical truth itself is judged.
-I can see huge omissions from the work of the reformers, such as a theology of cross-cultural missions and much more.
-I believe it is embarrassing to turn the Reformers into icons. Calvin on a t-shirt should win an award for irony.
-I am a Protestant and I always will be, but I no longer take the kind of juvenile pride in Protestantism I did in the past. Much is good, and much has not been good. We have no right to stand superior to any other Christians.
-I want to understand how Catholic and EO Christians understand Protestantism, and I want to do so with a sense of humility.
-I don’t believe in ecumenism at any cost, but I can no longer imagine being a Christian without a commitment to ecumenism on some level.
-There are many sins associated with Protestantism that I need to admit and repent of.

Part of my Reformation Day will be spent contemplating what it means to say “One Lord; One Faith; One Baptism; One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.” Having a party celebrating the division of Christianity doesn’t really strike me as a something I want to do


  1. Marcia: Ha!

  2. Pathetic! You make the Reformation sound like a sad collision of accidents! The Papists LITERALLY chained the Bible to the Lectern for a thousand years, and Luther wrote it in the language of the common man. God had the printing press invented at the same time, and POW!!!!
    God’s Word was freely distributed and studied and read. Luther and Calvin taught and wrote, Geneva was unlike anything ever tried. Cromwell, and the Puritans, then the Pilgrims and Puritans to America!!

    Good Grief Brother!!!

  3. “I want to understand how Catholic and EO Christians understand Protestantism, and I want to do so with a sense of humility.”

    If you’re referring to contemporary times …. Most of today’s Catholics who underwent a decent amount of Catechism growing up should (I think) know that all baptized Christians are brethren in Christ.

    To quote Lumen Gentium (one of the principle Vatican II documents, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1964):

    The [Catholic] Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve unity of communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor Sacred Scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and a pattern of life, and who show a sincere zeal. They lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and Saviour. They are consecrated by baptism, in which they are united with Christ. They also recognize and accept other sacraments within their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them rejoice in the episcopate, celebrate the Holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion toward the Virgin Mother of God. They also share with us in prayer and other spiritual benefits. Likewise we can say that in some real way they are joined with us in the Holy Spirit, for to them too He gives His gifts and graces whereby He is operative among them with His sanctifying power. Some indeed He has strengthened to the extent of the shedding of their blood. In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, in the manner determined by Christ, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this end. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may come about. She exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the earth.

    (I removed the footnotes, by the way.)

    God bless you and peace to you and to all your readers, Michael.

    Coincidentally, I write this on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the day on the Catholic liturgical calendar when Catholics are called to remember all of the saints, both those known to history as well as those who are unknown.

  4. Of course Bibles were changed to the lectern for a thousand years — before the invention of the printing press, books were incredibly expensive and, therefore, incredibly valuable. And churches were open during the week at that time. Should a church allow the only Bible in the parish to be easily stolen?

  5. Nicholas Anton says

    Too often we forget that the church as it existed in Luther’s day was essentially pagan. Sure, they recited or sang the Catholic mass in Latin. Sure, they learned the catechism in Latin. But, did they understand it, much less believe and live it? No! Most people of that day were just as pagan as they were Christian. In a sense, the Reformation was simply another step in the Christianizing of the European continent. True, the printing press may have been a significant contributor to the process, but without a teaching of Biblical Truth in the vernacular, simply learning to recite something one does not understand accomplishes nothing.
    In my area pagan content was still rampant in the early part of the twentieth century, not only in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but in the Lutheran churches as well, especially those from the Slavic areas.
    In the thirties, the Greek Catholics and Orthodox would cut a hole in the ice of the river and blast away with their guns to get rid of evil spirits and the devil before they would dip from the water to get holy water. My mother testified to that phenomenon. Many of the Ukrainian dances are essentially pre Christian fertility rites. I recall a Lutheran lady speaking of her belief in evil spirit world inhabiting forests and trees etc. In other words, the gods of the pre Christian era were still as vivid in the minds of people as The God of the Bible.
    Note Salem a few centuries ago in the US!
    It was not the church that gave them salvation, but Jesus Christ, and most of the time, not through the institutional church.

  6. “We can celebrate what was good in the Reformation and we can deplore what was bad in Catholicism at the time. Then we can deplore the bad things that resulted in Protestantism/evangelicalism and recognize the good things that were and are present in Catholicism. Does it ever occur to some people that it’s not a team sport? It’s the body of Christ.”

    I don’t know why any Christian couldn’t sign on to the quote from Michael’s update above. Sadly I think the spirit of the times turns idealogical disagreements into “blood sport” (to use the phrase from a popular book about idealogical warfare in politics). All disagreements with my position/party are perceived as a threat that must be defeated quickly and soundly to my satisfaction and that of my followers and compatriots.

    Ironically, that is the very sort of approach that got people killed during the Reformation and Counter Reformation.

    Honestly I think some people just love the combat more than they love the Church.

    Read John 17 for Christ’s sake indeed.

  7. I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.

    If you’re going to keep any form of church tradition, you might as well be Catholic. There’s no point in not being a rip-roaring drunken Catholic who makes confession once a year if you aren’t going to go by Scripture alone in the absolutist sense. Solo Scriptura is the way to go. This middle ground between Catholicism and Christianity that is called Protestantism is just Catholicism by faith alone–its not Christianity. “Take out the hair shirts and rosaries…but keep the baby baptisms and inherited guilt” is essentially what Martin Luther and Calvin did and then “add in the Predestination and a convoluted system of election.” The Reformed tradition is as unreformed as Rome because exactly like Rome it adds to and subtracts from Scripture based on philosophy and indeed leftover Romish traditions.

  8. I think anyone that reads the letters of Paul has to grieve the Reformation. We can argue whether it was necessary, but we should not argue if it was tragic or not.

    I travel down the street and I see signs proudly placed in front of churches for all the world to see. They proclaim, “I am of Wesely,” “I am of Calvin,” “I am of Luther,” “I am of Peter.”

    The first letter to the Corinthians in the very first chapter notes this as a grievous error. Paul would weep if he read those church signs.

    Why don’t we?

  9. Nicholas Anton says

    I am somewhat puzzled by what is being presented. First of all, “WHAT IS THE CHURCH”? Is it the bureaucratic institution, or is it the composite of all believers? If it was the former, Yes, it was divided by the Reformation if one believes both the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bureaucratic machines to be the church. On the other hand, if one rejects one or the other as being the “true” church, then the church was not divided. Third, if one believes that the “church” is composed of all true believers, there has been no division.

  10. Caine: We don’t grieve because “we are of Christ.”

    Brilliant point.

  11. Nicholas Anton says

    It is just as wrong to accept the church along denominational lines as it is to reject it along denominational lines.

  12. I don’t know what it means to be “fisked,” but it just seems to me that Pastor Gary has thoughtfully interacted with your post on his own blog. What’s wrong with that?

  13. I wonder which of the 8,000 plus denominations Luther would feel the most at comfortable in.

  14. Scott: I certainly don’t mean to imply that he hasn’t thoughtfully and respectfully interacted with my post. I disagree with a good bit of his take, but I don’t routinely undertake detailed debate with those who disagree with me. I assume we both have our views and that we differ.

    Perhaps I use the word “fisk” wrongly. I thought “fisk” meant “point by point reply.” I didn’t know there was a connotation of hostility or disrespect. My fault for wrongly using the word.

  15. If you look at some of the blog term dictionaries they will cite fisking as a point by point refutation of another’s blog. But i have only ever seen it used (except here) in a somewhat pejorative sense and in the sense of the fisker thoroughly besting the fiskee which is what happened to the original guy named Fisk. So to be fisked implies somebody really trying to take you down item by item. That has been my experience in the political blogosphere.

  16. Nicholas Anton says

    James states;
    Jas 2:19 Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.
    Having a statement of faith that is mostly correct, covered with fuzzy layers of traditional mould, does not make a so called church a church, nor an unbeliever a believer.
    Jesus said;
    Joh 8:39-44;
    They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, If ye were Abraham’s children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.

    That was the condition of the Catholic institution before and during the reformation. The skeleton of their faith was essentially correct as was that of the Jews, however, as a total they were far from that truth.
    rey states;
    “There’s no point in not being a rip-roaring drunken Catholic who makes confession once a year if you aren’t going to go by Scripture alone in the absolutist sense.”
    That has been my experience with the average Catholic and Orthodox (and I know hundreds of them, including many relatives). From what I have seen and experienced, I have no reason to believe that the majority of them, including the institutions and its leaders are of the Faith.
    And yet, some will be saved by grace through faith just as you and I.

  17. Nicholas Anton says


    Thanks for introducing me to Sola versus Solo Scriptura. I would hope that I truly believe in Sola Scriptura. I believe Scripture to be/have been correctly interpreted when my understanding of it corresponds to the original author’s intended meaning. That process can at times be exceedingly difficult, in that it entails the understanding of God, humankind, language and history plus much more.
    In this context, I stumbled on the scholarship of Sir Edwyn Hoskyns (1931) on the terms “ekklesia”, and “Aletheia” (http://www.bible-researcher.com/semasiology.html). Though his work may be somewhat outdated, it nevertheless has been very insightful to me.

  18. Patrick Kyle says

    What is celebrated on Reformation Day is a return to the clarity and simplicity of the Gospel at a time (like now) when it was often greatly obscured. Luther labored mightily to reform from within the church, even pleading in letters(very respectfully written) with the Pope. In the end Luther and the churches who followed the doctrine he taught were excommunicated. Rome then in effect burned the bridge behind us in the Council of Trent, virtually making the breach irreparable by their decrees. (If Rome would allow us to teach the Gospel, and hold that the Papal office is of human origins, created for the administration of God’s people, not a divinely mandated office, many of us would go back to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not holding my breath though. We’ve been waiting 450 years.)
    I often wonder about true reform in the light of Jesus’ discourse on the wineskins and the new wine. Many wish to reform through schism, the “come out from among them and be ye separate” model. In my mind this route is questionable at best. However, is it possible to truly reform a church that has lost its way, without getting yourself excommunicated or “dis-fellowshipped?” One modern example that comes close is the Worldwide Church of God after G.T. Armstrong died. Those he left in charge discovered through their research that they held to false doctrine and were outside Christian orthodoxy. They then led their church back into Christianity by teaching and preaching and a good helping of repentance. ( A split did develop with those who wanted to hold with the old teachings of their founder, so it did result in a split, but not between two groups of Christians.) However, I’m told that this instance may be unique in all of Christian History, and it does not involve the reforming of a Christian church, but a cult.

  19. Uncle Mikey says

    What is the importance of this topic? Is it to ruffle the proud feathers of the Prostants? To showcase the Cathloics are not so bad after all? I to have pondered this fact of such a division that has separated so many for so long. I have been a person that has traveled through many places of the Evangelical tree of divison. What I have found is that we all want to serve God’s Kingdom. Though there are many that are in it for themseleves, but by in large, we all want to the see the things of God come to pass. I am not a huge fan of the Cathloic faith due to its works to earn grace, but I know many that are saved and sanctified through the Cathloic Church. Are we not all dancing around the simple notion that God calls whom He calls? If so in the end, when we are passing through the ‘pearly gates’ we will be standing next to the Saints of God, not Prostant, not Cathloic, not Methodists, not Pentecostals, or others. We ouhgt to begin to see others as God sees them, that is His children. If any think that one sect has is together in their theology, well we ought to get down our knees and repent. Reformers were yesterday, today and will be until Christ comes back.

  20. I have never really celebrated “Reformation Day” as I’m not of the full Reformed position. However, I think it is a day to at least look upon what Luther tried to do.

    Now I’m not a Luther expert, but wouldn’t it be prudent to say that Luther’s position on the Catholic Church evolved over time? Therefore, what you say about Luther and that position depends on what period of his life you are talking about.

    That being said, I think there is value in seeing that Luther sought to Reform the Church. Luther’s view of the Church changed over time, but the idea of Reform is something we should appreciate. The Reformation was not the Resurrection or Christ’s birth. It is not a moment that was perfect, but there are ideals there that are important to Christians and Protestants. The church should always be Reforming. Praying, Seeking God, Seeking Scripture, examining our hearts, examining our positions, and seeking His Will and doing His will continually. It seems you are Reforming personally and I think Protestant and Evangelicals are Reforming as well over time.

    I appreciate what your saying IMonk, but on the whole I think you miss some of the importance of the Reformation both for the Church (the missions movement) and history.


  21. Ted: One of the greatest failings of the Reformation is that it was not a Missions movement. (I’ll be blogging on this very soon.) The Reformers supported a reformation carried out by government not missionaries, they denied that the Great Commission was for all Christians and they saw no reason to organize and support missions as evangelicals understood it post-William Carey. And despite noble efforts to prove otherwise, the modern missions movement was not the outgrowth of the Reformation, but ran counter to much of it. Without the Pietists, Zinzendorf, Wesleys, etc. where would the missions movement be? Right where Luther and Calvin would have left it: the domain of the state.

  22. Michael Spencer,

    Actually, you are correct. Although the Evangelical missions movement was something that was later, I find it hard to believe it can exist without the Reformation.

    If one argues that the Catholic Church and Orthodox tradition’s missions movement (the early Christian church in India, China, and South America) would have filled that gap, I don’t think it is a good argument.

    The Catholic church had the same inclination as the early Reformers to grow the Church based on the state government. This is part of the reason why I think the Catholic church has declined in Europe. It was too closely tied to the state and it is also why the Protestant Church (like in Denmark) is declining is because of it’s too close a tie to the State. Nevertheless, as we see today the missions movement in the Catholic church is weak, but it is still very strong in Evangelicalism precisely because it isn’t weighed down by a large hierarchical system, but still seeks to be faithful to the core essentials of all Christians by an expanded form of the “Rule of Faith.”

    It is this flexibility and adaptability (provided because of the Reformation and hard to establish in older hierarchical Church systems) that has allowed such a great and sustained Missions Movement for such a a long time.


  23. We had a wonderful time celebrating the Reformation by preaching the 5 Solas using preachers from several different churches (different denominations in fact).

  24. Thanks for the links Jason. Appreciate the audio.

    Would love to do a blog interview with you sometime on church planting.

  25. Ted said:
    “Nevertheless, as we see today the missions movement in the Catholic church is weak, but it is still very strong in Evangelicalism precisely because it isn’t weighed down by a large hierarchical system”

    I’m sorry Ted, but from what evidence do you draw that evangelism and global mission of the Catholic Church is “weak”? I could be very sarcastic, but I’ll refrain and just site a stat:

    “…Africa has witnessed the most explosive growth. In the 20th century, Africa went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a staggering growth rate of 6,708 percent. Half of all adult baptisms in the world, the surest sign of missionary expansion, are in Africa.”

    -National Catholic Reporter, March 10, 2006.