We've been working on two questions: What was the Reformation and why did it happen?
My apologies to those who read and follow closely and have been wondering where this is going. I've been waylaid recently by loads of other work, travels to speak -- basically everything but Somali pirates have stood in the way of writing these apologetics lessons.
Because of this, it seems a summary of where we've been is in order at this point. If you want more clarity, I encourage you to quickly review the previously five posts.
In What Was the Reformation? I argued that at its heart the Reformation was a dispute over the issue of authority and that the separation that occurred at that time between Catholic and Protestant was a separation between those who continued to embrace the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church and those who rejected that authority to stand, with Luther, on the authority of Scripture alone.
There's more to it, but that's the heart of the disagreement. And this remains the heart of the disagreement between Protestantism and Catholicism.
Total Fragmentation and Total Agreement
Now, because Protestantism held to the authority of Scripture alone (sola scriptura) which in practical terms meant each Christian's interpretation of the Bible, each Christian's determination of what the Bible was teaching, it immediately began (no surprise!) to splinter and fragment into opposing groups.
Early on Martin Luther wrote, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, in matters of faith each Christian is his own pope and counsel" Only two years later he was complaining, "There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads!"
Poor Luther even had to deal with those he had personally trained rejecting his teaching to run off (as he had) to preach their own doctrines, each insisting (as Luther had) that "My conscience is captive to the Word of God."
How many doctors have I made through preaching and writing! Now they say, “Be off with you! Go off with you! Go to the devil!” Thus it must be. When we preach they laugh…. When we get angry and threaten them, they mock us, snap their fingers at us and laugh in their sleeves
The spirit of Protestantism expresses itself like this:
God has given us his Word in the Bible. He's put his Spirit in our hearts. He’s given us pastors and teachers to assist us in understanding the Holy Scriptures. What more do we need?
Why Did the Reformation Happen?
Now, given the historical fact that at the time of the Reformation in the early 16th century, the Catholic Church had held a position of spiritual authority for a very long time -- more than a millennium in the worst case Protestant interpretation of church history -- how is it that so many came to reject the spiritual authority of the Church at that precise moment in history?
Well, as we've seen there were a number of historical, cultural, societal, spiritual forces that in the late 15th and early 16th centuries were driving the world in the direction of the explosion that was to occur.
For instance, there was (see Part I) the invention of the printing press, resulting in a dramatic increase in literacy throughout Catholic Europe. Colleges and universities and faculties of theology were springing up all over the place. New theological ideas were everywhere and easily spread through tracts and pamphlets and books available for the first time in history to the average person.
There was (see Part II) the rise of an educational philosophy, gaining a foothold in the universities of the time, that essentially rejected the kind of theology being done by the great doctors of the Medieval and late-Medieval Church (scholastic theology) and advocated a return to the study of the great literature of antiquity, including the Classics, the Old and New Testaments and the Fathers. (Of course, there was study of these throughout the Middle Ages; we're talking about emphasis.)
There was (see Part III) a growing spirit of individualism that expressed itself in an emphasis on religion as something personal as well as a resentment of centralized authority in the State as well as in the Church. Nations were on the rise. Anti-papal sentiment was flourishing.
Finally, at the same time (see Part IV) the Catholic hierarchy stood in desperate need of spiritual and moral reform. To quote Pope Hadrian VI, writing at the time of the Reformation,
We know that for years there have been many abominable offences in spiritual matters and violations of the Commandments committed at this Holy See, yes, that everything has in fact been perverted… The first thing that must be done is to reform the curia, the origin of all the evil.
Enter Martin Luther, Augustinian monk and Scripture scholar. Matchbook in hand.
Welcome to the Modern World
Now, for those of you wondering if I would ever get around to it, yes. Or rather, no. I am not arguing here that real, meaningful, substantive disagreement about Christian teaching wasn't a crucial factor in the Reformation. It was. And moving forward we're going to talk about this in some depth.
In fact, if you want to listen to a brief preview of some of the issues to be discussed, pick up my audio series Luther: The Rest of the Story. It's very much introductory, but it does introduce important themes.
So yes, doctrinal disputes were central to the Reformation.
But my aim has been to firmly set the discussion of those doctrinal disputes within their historical context, which is really the rise of the Modern World.
In fact, if you've been listening carefully to what's been said over the course of these lessons on the Reformation, the thought may have entered your mind:
Hmmm... these historical and cultural forces you say were driving the world in the direction of what was to occur? You've simply described our modern world, the world in which we still live!
That's right. In a sense one could say that the birth of the Modern World led to the Reformation, or that the two coincided with one another. Either way, we live in a world in which the trends of thought that led to the Reformation in the 16th century have become established assumptions.
Talk about an explosion of theological ideas and points of view.
I remember wandering into the local Christian bookstore as a young believer, eager to learn "the teachings of Christianity," only to face the harsh realization that the teachings of Christianity really must be described in the plural -- the "teachings." I quickly discovered that there were a lot of different views as to what the true teachings of Christianity are.
Talk about individualism. I'm not sure there's ever been a time in the history of Western Civilization when individualism was more in vogue than it is now. In the modern mind (especially in many young modern minds) you follow your own path and you're a hero. You follow a path set out for you by someone else -- your parents, your Church? You're a mindless robot.
Distrust of authority? Emphasis on religion as something personal, even private?
Forget the authority of a Church or Tradition! Read Allan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind. We live at a time when the authority of reason itself is distrusted in favor of "what I feel," when you can stand up and say "two plus two equals four" or "triangles must have three sides" and someone is bound to respond, "Well, I'm not sure about that. That may be your opinion..."
I went on to study the Bible and theology in college and graduate school. During those years I collected thousands of volumes written by Lutheran theologians, Presbyterian, Baptist, independent Christian authors and teachers -- who disagreed with each other on a whole host of issues.
But of course, being a child of the modern world, this all seemed perfectly natural to me.
In fact, I viewed it as a definite sign of humility that no one held his opinion to be "authoritative" or binding on anyone else. The only historic Christian Church that made that absurd claim was the Catholic Church, and because of this, Catholicism appeared to me as some sort of strange and arrogant throwback to another world. You know, the "Dark Ages"? Before "the Enlightenment"? When no one thought for himself or herself, but followed blindly?
And of course, this coincided very naturally to the belief that if you want to learn the true doctrines of Christianity, you don't listen to some authoritative Church or Council or Tradition. You go to the sources. Ad fontes. Back "to the fountain." You study your Bible and listen to various perspectives. You examine the issues, sift through the arguments, and decide for yourself.
This went without saying. This was taken for granted by every Christian I knew. We were willing to submit to the Bible, because we believed it to be the inspired Word of God.
But submit to some Church? Receive our teaching from bishops meeting in authoritative Councils in Nicea or Ephesus or Rome, arguing through the issues and issuing decrees? And with the sins of the Church's past and present in mind? What? Are you insane?
This is essentially how Protestants see things. This is how I saw things.
But then, on a Sunday evening in the Spring of 1993...
To be continued.