Which Reformation? What Reform?

George Weigel

Despite the formulation you’ll hear before and after the October 31 quincentenary of Luther’s 95 theses, there was no single “Reformation” to which the Catholic “Counter-Reformation” was the similarly univocal response. Rather, as Yale historian Carlos Eire shows in his eminently readable and magisterial work, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450 – 1650, there were multiple, contending reformations in play in the first centuries of modernity.

There was the reformation of European intellectual life led by humanists steeped in the Greek and Roman classics: men like the Dutchman Erasmus (whose scholarship deeply influenced those who would become known as “Protestants” but who never broke with Rome) and Thomas More (who urged Erasmus to deepen his knowledge of Greek, the Church fathers, and the New Testament in its original language). There were at least four major flavors of “Protestant” reformation – Lutheran, Zwinglian, Radical, and Calvinist – and plenty of subdivisions within those categories. There were impressive pre-Luther Catholic reformers like the archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. There were Catholic reformers who left a mixed legacy: the French educator Guillaume Budé, for example, influenced both the Protestant reformer John Calvin and the Catholic reformer Ignatius Loyola. There was the failed Catholic reform mandated by the Fifth Lateran Council but never implemented by Pope Leo X (the first and last pontiff to keep an albino elephant as a pet). And there were the Catholic reformers, of various theological and pastoral dispositions, who shaped the teaching of the Council of Trent and then vigorously implemented its reforms.

There were, in short, multiple Reformations. Their sometimes-violent interaction created much of what became the modern world, for good and for ill.
The bad bits are the concern of Notre Dame’s Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society: A book aptly described by one reviewer as “brilliant, extraordinarily learned, eccentric, opinionated, variously wrong-headed, and utterly wonderful. “ On Gregory’s argument, among the things “The Reformation” – in this case, the various Protestant Reformations – bequeathed the modern world were hyper-individualism, suspicion of all authority, moral subjectivism and relativism, skepticism about the truth of anything, the banishment of religious thought from western academic life, and the reduction of all true knowledge to what we can know from science. That’s a broad indictment, to be sure. But amidst Gregory’s dense prose and complex presentation, serious readers will get a glimpse of how bad ideas – such as the mistaken notion of God as a willful (if infinite) being-among-other-beings – can play themselves out in history with devastating results.

The 500th anniversary of one of the emblematic acts in this cultural tsunami of Reformations should lead to a deepening of ecumenical dialogue about what these many early modern reformers wrought – and not just for the world, but primarily for the Church. That deepened conversation would do well to focus on what makes for authentic “reform” in the Church. In the Fall issue of Plough, the quarterly of the Bruderhof Community, I propose that all authentic reform in the Church must begin from a recovery of some part of the Church’s essential “form” or constitution (in the British sense), which was given to the Church by Christ. True ecclesial reform is thus always re-form. It is not something we make up by our own cleverness. It does not mean surrender to the spirit of the age. It does not involve substituting our judgment for God’s revelation. True Christian reform always involves bringing into the present something the Church has laid aside or misplaced, and making that Christ-given something into an instrument of renewal
(The full article is available here: https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/re-forming-the-church).

And how, on this quincentenary of the 95 theses, should we measure the authenticity of renewal? The evangelical criterion seems decisive here.

If the reform and renewal in question really does restore to the Church something of its Christ-given “form,” then the results will be evident evangelically – in an increased harvest of souls who have come to know the Lord Jesus, who walk in his Way, and who share the gift they have been given with others, thereby healing a broken and often death-dealing culture.

By the same criterion, empty churches, flaccid evangelization, and surrender to the prevailing cultural mores signal false reform and failed renewal, which can be dressed up in either romantic-nostalgic or progressive livery.

COMING UP: 500 years later, who was Luther?

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

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.