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The Reformation At 500

Perspectives on a milestone in the dissolution of the West's unity

A half century millenium ago today, Martin Luther irrevocably changed the Western world. From a column by Archbishop Charles Chaput comes this passage from Catholic historian Brad Gregory’s recent book on Luther:

Luther would deride the idea of freedom as we know it today and disclaim any credit for it. In fact, he would be disgusted by it, because it has nothing to do with what he regarded as the only real freedom: the bound freedom of a Christian.

Neither Luther nor any of the other Protestant reformers sought or envisioned anything like modern individual freedom. Nor did the Protestant Reformation as such lead to it. What led to it were the more-than-religious conflicts between magisterial Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation era, which created a situation that led indirectly, unintentionally and eventually to the making of a 21st-century world that nearly all committed Christians of the Reformation era would have deplored.

Calvinist scholar Carl Trueman, author of a book on Luther’s life and thought, has been quite critical of Gregory’s writings in the past. I looked to see if he had written anything recently about the Reformation’s legacy, and I found this column in First Things. Excerpt:

But it was not Reformation theology alone that reshaped the world in the sixteenth century. Many other factors—factors formally independent of Reformation theology—made the Reformation a reality. They also helped bring about the modern world, warts and all, and would have done so without Luther’s distinctive presence on the historical stage. Take literacy. As people learn to read and write, they become more politically aware. As literacy rates rise, a clash with established structures of authority—structures predicated on the illiteracy of the masses—is never far away. You can have your thirteenth-century papacy, but only on the condition that less that 5 percent of the population can read. That does not appeal to me in the slightest. I would rather run the risk of pervasive interpretive pluralism with its attendant chaos, and yet be able to read and write.

In fact, I would argue that the single greatest enabler of the modern world’s attitude to religion is not some sixteenth-century Reformer. A more recent man must take responsibility. Henry Ford, not Henry VIII, is the guilty man. The Reformation may have familiarized the world with the concept of religious choice, but that choice became a reality for most people only with the advent of cheap and easy means of private transportation. It was the arrival of the internal combustion engine, and then the mass-produced automobile, that really changed everything. It altered our relationship to time, to geographical space, and to our communities and all that is contained therein. It was the motor car that truly freed people from the constraints of having to worship within walking distance of their home. The motor car made churches into choices, competing for customers in the marketplace of Sunday recreations. It turned us all, Protestant and Catholic alike, into consumerist Congregationalists.

On this 500th anniversary, Protestant triumphalists have no ground for comfort. The church is fragmented to such an extent that only the most radical Congregationalist can possibly see it as a good thing—and then only by perversely presenting the problem as the solution. But catastrophism is no more acceptable. It is a form of nostalgia, a kind of pre-Raphaelite aesthetic that sees the Middle Ages as a kind of Eden. Given the choice, I would rather live today, with analgesics, antibiotics, and easy access to education, than in the thirteenth—or indeed any earlier—century. But if we are truly to understand the problems the church faces in today’s world, and respond appropriately to them, we need to move beyond the blame game, and beyond seeing the matter in purely theological or ideological terms. It was the motor car, not Luther nor Calvin, that made the church just one more consumer choice. And therein lies the problem.

That’s an interesting point, and it brings to mind a problem I struggled with in writing Chapter Two of The Benedict Option, which offers a breezy genealogy of ideas explaining how we got from the High Middle Ages to post-Christian modernity. That’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to explain, period; to try to do it in 7,500 words means you’re going to have to leave a lot out.

What I tried to do was to give the Reformation its due in being a landmark event — perhaps the landmark — in creating the fragmented world of the West, while at the same time explaining that a) the Reformation wasn’t merely a reaction to Catholic Church corruption, but also depended on several ideas that had already become mainstream in Catholic theological thought by the time Luther arrived; and b) the Reformation as a socially fragmenting event cannot be understood apart from progress in science, technology, and economics.

Similarly today, in our world, the existence of the Internet and the way it conditions those who use it to experience the world in certain ways (and not to experience it in others) has a lot to do with the further dissolution of institutional religion. You can’t blame the Internet, necessarily, but you cannot understand what to do for the sake of preserving the faith in liquid modernity without grasping how that technology affects our ability to think and to imagine.

Here is a highly readable essay by eminent Southern Baptist theologian Timothy George, in which he challenges what he identifies as certain misconceptions about the Reformation, and defines several of its overarching themes. I was particularly struck by this passage:

The Reformation as spiritual struggle. At the heart of Reformation spirituality is the experience of Christian life as conflict, contention, trial, testing, assault. This is very different from popular models of spirituality today, which present religion as an “opiate” to soothe the pain of life, an aid to self-enhancement and personal fulfillment. The concept of the spiritual life as struggle was certainly present in medieval Christianity, especially in the monastic-mystical tradition by which Luther was so decisively shaped. Luther had inherited the monastic devotional triad of lectiooratio, and contemplatio, but he intensified and altered it in a distinctive way. He did so by changing the last step from contemplatio to tentatio, which he rendered in German as Anfechtung. This word is often weakly translated as “temptation” in English, but that rendering misses the intensity inherent in the German original. The word Anfechtungderives from the world of fencing: a Fechter is a fencer or gladiator. A Fechtboden is a fencing room. Thus Anfechtungen connotes spiritual attacks, bouts of dread, despair, anxiety, conflicts that overwhelm. Such a churning rages both within the soul of every believer and in the great apocalyptic struggle between God and Satan.

The reality of an active devouring Devil (see 1 Peter 5:8) belonged to the mental world Luther inherited. Some of his Catholic adversaries later concocted a story that he was Satan’s own progeny, the product of an illicit sexual union between the Devil and his mother, who was portrayed as a promiscuous bath maid. His father, Hans Luther, once suggested that his son’s call to the monastic life in the thunderstorm might actually have been an intervention of the Fiend rather than a summons from God. At every turn, Luther was confronted with the insinuations of Satan, with whom he often carried on a lively dialogue. On one occasion, when the Devil had accused Luther of being such a great sinner, he replied: “I knew that long ago. Tell me something new. Christ has taken my sins upon himself and forgiven them long ago. Now go grind your teeth.”

Luther’s struggles, both with himself and with the Evil One, were not a mere phase through which he passed en route to his Reformation breakthrough. No, just as repentance was a lifelong process of turning to God again and again, so too conflict and temptation continued until the end of life. Such struggles were essential to becoming a theologian. “For as soon as God’s Word takes root and grows in you, the Devil will plague you and make a real doctor of you, and by his attacks will teach you to seek and love God’s Word.” As early as his first exegetical lectures on the Psalms (1513), Luther confessed that “I did not learn my theology all at once, but I had to search deeper for it, where my Anfechtungen took me. . . . Not understanding, reading, or speculation, but living, nay, rather dying and being damned makes a theologian.”

In his famous 1525 debate with Erasmus on the freedom of the will, Luther depicts the human person as a horse that is ridden either by God or by the Devil. Thus the ultimate question of life is not “Who are you?” but rather “Whose are you?” To whom do you belong? Who is your Lord? Luther, along with Zwingli and Calvin, was accused of teaching fatalism because of their emphasis on the will’s bondage to sin and Satan. But human responsibility is a part of the equation, and the focus is on the triumph of Christ over Satan through his death and resurrection.

So, Martin Luther’s spirituality was the opposite of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Maybe I’m beginning to understand what Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler meant when he told me in our podcast interview that Evangelicals do not have what it takes to do the Benedict Option today, but if they go back to the magisterial Reformation, they’ll find the resources there. If any of you knowledgeable Evangelical readers care to expand on Dr. Mohler’s remark, I’d love to hear it.

I’d love to hear it because though I believe it is necessary for all Western Christians today to understand the past, and how we reached this point of radical brokenness in the Church today, I believe that because I want us to recover. I do not believe formal ecclesial unity is possible in this life, though God certainly can do anything. It’s not worth trying for that. What is worth doing is learning more about each other, and coming together in solidarity when we can do so without yielding on confessional distinctives. If magisterial Protestantism gives Protestants more solid ground to stand on within the Great Tradition, in opposition to post-Christian modernity, then I’m all for it.  I can depend on a convinced magisterial Protestant as an ally in the faith more than I can depend on a Moralistic Therapeutic Deist in the Protestant tradition — even if that MTD Protestant considers himself to be a conservative.

By the way, did you know that the early Reformers had contact with the Greek Orthodox Church? Initially Luther’s followers reached out to the Greeks because the Orthodox rejected some of the aspects of Roman Catholicism that they also rejected. But the dialogue went nowhere because the two parties realized that there were other key issues on which the Orthodox agreed with the Latin church. Here is a much more detailed account of the theological and historical aspects of the Lutheran-Orthodox exchange, though told from an Orthodox point of view.

I am interested in your thoughts on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation — but only if you are respectful to others, and charitable in your expression. Insulting remarks I will not post. Here I stand; I can do no other.



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