Debunking Reformation myths

Jared Staudt

In my last review, I looked at a number of new books on Martin Luther and genuine reformers in the Catholic tradition. In light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31st, I’d like to continue with related books, but this time focused on clearing up misunderstandings about the Reformation.

Eamon Duffy, Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England (Yale, 2017).

In my last review, I mentioned that Eric Metaxas’ book, Martin Luther, conveyed some age-old myths about Catholicism and offered the works of Eamon Duffy as a strong counter. Duffy himself has a new scholarly book for the anniversary, drawing our attention to the drama of the Reformation in England. Although in great need of reform, Duffy counters that “we are far more aware now of the richness, resilience and social embedding of the late medieval religion so often caricatured or ignored in the older narratives.” Duffy focuses elsewhere on this earlier period, but in this work details how Catholics dealt with the Reformation.

This first section focuses on how St. Thomas More placed himself at the center of Henry VIII’s controversial attempt to deal with Protestant heresy before the king’s break with Rome. The next section, points to lesser known figures such as Cardinals Reginald Pole and William Allen. Allen devoted “his life to radicalising what he saw as a broad but dangerously unfocused Catholic survivalism into something more militant and ideologically committed,” organizing the efforts of priest to serve in Protestant England at the risk of their life. The final section, details the internal struggles and developments of Protestantism, especially with the rise of Puritanism. Overall, Duffy conveys the drama of the unfolding of the Reformation both within the Catholic Church and without, as Protestantism grew ever more dominant in England.

Benjamin Wiker, The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know (Regnery, 2017).

Wiker provides a popular and accessible overview of twelve themes that unpack the historical dynamics that led to and enabled the Reformation. He makes no attempt to whitewash the real problems that existed in the Church, but explains that factors like the Papal States, the growing influence of atheism, the threat of Islam, the rise of nation states, and the printing press all played into the Reformation’s success. In the aftermath of the Reformation, he explains how those pushing secularism used historical scholarship to relativize the Bible and the Thirty Years War to discredit Christianity as violent, though it was largely a political dispute.

Wiker asks both sides to reassess the messiness of their past: “Just as Catholics need to take a deep, hard, honest look at the actual corruption of the papacy rather than pretend that all popes have been saints, so also Protestants need to take a deep, hard, honest look at Martin Luther rather than pretend that he was a saint” (125). Two of his key conclusion consists in the never-ending need for reform in the Church and the opportunity for Catholics and Protestants to move beyond the hostility of the Reformation era.

Rodney Stark, Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2017).

Stark, a sociologist at Baylor, most directly attempts to debunk Reformation myths. First, he begins by noting that the periods both before and after the Reformation were marked by poor church attendance, despite Protestants attempts to force attendance by law. Rather, uniting church and crown led to more apathy and even antipathy among Catholics and Protestants. Though not a Catholic himself, Stark has routinely defended Catholicism from many historical fabrications (see his Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History), which in this work include the claims that Catholics impeded the rise of science and modern economics. He also notes that, despite claims to the contrary, Protestants did not respect freedom of conscience and engaged in religious persecution, and Luther himself was known for virulent anti-Semitism.

His most provocative claim may be that the Reformation was “especially good for the Catholic Church,” because the Church “actually thrives on Protestant competition and is far more successful and effective when forced to confront it.” In general, Stark thinks that pluralism, and the competition it brings, creates an environment in which religious practice thrives, versus state churches which are “lazy and ineffective.” Even within the United States, Stark found that states with lower Catholic populations tend to have higher Mass attendance and more active parishes. Likewise, he claims that the presence of Protestant missionaries in Latin America has led to a more energetic Church and even a “sunning awakening.” Ironically, he says “that the Catholic finally thrives in Latin America could be considered as partly a gift from Martin Luther.” Even if we’re not prepared to thank Luther, Stark helps us to think through God’s providence in guiding the Church even through painful divisions.

Matthew Levering, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical (Zondervan, 2017).

The greatest surprise in all of these myth debunking narratives may come from Matthew Levering’s book, written in response to a question posed to him by a Protestant press: was the Reformation a mistake? He does not consider the Reformation be to be a mistake, both because reform was needed and Reformation traditions have born some good fruit, but he does hold that the Reformers were mistaken on central points of the faith. The surprise comes from the freshness of Levering’s approach, avoiding polemics by offering a biblically rooted approach to dialogue on key theological issues. The book debunks the myth that Catholic teaching does not have a biblical foundation.

The book itself consists in a dialogue, as each chapter begins with a critique of the Catholic position using Luther’s own words. Levering then follows not with a direct response to Luther’s concerns, but a rich and broad account of the biblical underpinnings of Catholic doctrine. Addressing doctrines such as Mary and the saints, the sacraments, purgatory, the papacy, and justification, he demonstrates that “the Catholic Church’s biblical reasoning has been formed over the centuries in the process of handing down the gospel, proclaiming it liturgically, preaching it, living it, and resolving doctrinal controversies” (187). Both Catholics and Protestants will be enriched by Levering’s “biblically warranted reasoning about biblical realities.”

Though there have been many misunderstandings on both sides the last five hundred years, the anniversary of the Reformation provides an opportunity to learn more about the history and theology of both traditions, as we work toward healing the wounds that divide Christians. Debunking commonly held myths provides a good start to this process.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

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Hero, villain, heretic, saint, reformer, corrupter, man of integrity, bombastic glutton. Which image of Luther should we believe? Because Luther primarily sought not to reform abuses in the Church but to reform the Church’s beliefs, Catholics cannot recognize him as a true reformer or a holy man. Nonetheless, it is widely agreed that Luther played a major role in shaping the modern world. With the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant movement he initiated approaching on October 31st, we have been given a number of new books to assess his legacy.

Paul Hacker, Luther’s Faith: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion, preface by Pope Benedict XVI (Emmaus, 2017).

Hacker’s book provides an in-depth, theological analysis of the issue that stands at the heart of the Reformation: Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone. Pope Benedict’s preface tells us that the Reformation dispute fundamentally concerned Luther’s “turning away from the center of the Gospel” (xxii). Emmaus released a new edition of Hacker’s book for the anniversary this year. It was published originally in 1970 (in English translation), the fruit of Hacker’s own intense study of Luther’s teaching on faith that led him into the Catholic Church from German Lutheranism.

Catholics agree with Protestants that salvation comes only through faith. The key issue of dispute, which Hacker reveals, is Luther’s subjective emphasis of absolute, personal certainty, which cannot be undermined even by serious sin. Hacker describes Luther’s faith as reflexive, that is turned back on oneself, by emphasizing subjective experience and personal surety more than anything else. He describes how Luther differs from the Catholic position: “Faith is the way to, or the perquisite of, salvation, but Luther makes it coincide with salvation itself. This becomes possible because he has first identified salvation with the consciousness of being saved or the certitude of salvation, and then he equates this consciousness with faith” (71). Hacker shows us how this view of faith negated the Church’s authority, the sacraments, and even the need to love God.

Brad Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World (HarperOne, 2017).

For those looking for a more general and accessible book, Brad Gregory gives us a broader narrative of how Luther’s troubled conscience exploded into the crisis that tore Christendom in two. The first section looks at Luther’s own story, tracing step by step his conflict with Church authority. The second section explains how Luther’s teaching spawned a multitude of new sects and divisions, all interpreting the Bible in their own fashion. Greggory explains: “What the early Reformation shows so clearly is that scripture and the Spirt can be interpreted and applied in radically divergent ways. Once the papacy and the Catholic Church are thrown off, there are no shared authorities to adjudicate disagreements” (137). The final section looks at how the Reformation set the tone for the development of a secular culture. Though not intending these consequences, Gregory argues that the Protestant Reformers “led indirectly to a profound diminishing of Christianity’s public influence in Western societies. The religious disagreements and conflicts that followed the Reformation set the stage for religion’s eventual separation from the rest of life” (2).

Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking, 2017).

Metaxas, who wrote a monumental biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, provides us with a different perspective on Luther. His book seems poised to capture the largest audience for the anniversary this year. While I can’t agree with his view of Luther as a hero of faith, I can appreciate his presentation of a more sympathetic and thorough look at a man who has inspired many Protestant Christians. It is helpful to recognize why Luther is such an important figure for so many people. This book definitely provides many more details on the life of Luther (with over 450 pages). However, I would exercise caution, because it unfortunately also contains many gross misrepresentations of the state of the Church at the time of the Reformation.

For instance, even though Metaxas shows us many ways that Luther encountered the Bible in his early life, he still claims that the Bible and Church had no connection in the early 1500s and that “the study of the Bible per se was simply unheard of” (52). Luther himself was a theology professor and throughout the Middle Ages the Bible was the primary text for teaching theology. Brad Gregory makes clear in his book on Luther that there were even “twenty-two editions of the complete vernacular Bible . . . published in German . . . by 1518” (29). Metaxas presents a false picture of Catholics as ignorant, afraid to pray to Christ, and thinking they must earn their salvation through works. Good historical research could easily dispel these myths, such as the books of Eamon Duffy, but we see Protestants continue to project Luther’s own scruples (hating God and spending six hours in Confession, 47) onto the Church of his time.

Jerome K. Williams, True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation (Augustine Institute, 2017).

What could have Luther been if he had chosen faithful reform? The answer is a saint. There is no doubt that the Church was in need of serious reform in the 1500s. We have a number of great saints who show us that fidelity to God does not contradict fidelity to His Church. They stood against corruption and initiated deep and abiding reform. The Augustine Institute has release both a book and video series on true reformers, who boldly spoke out against abuses and led to a deeper realization of the truth found in the Bible, read in harmony with the Church. These figures—Teresa of Avila, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and Charles Borromeo, for instance—continue to inspire us to take up the task of genuine reform today.