Was the Reformation a Failure?

The nail in the door of Wittenberg was a nail in the coffin of Christendom.

So goes the popular account of the 16th century Reformation. The fact that fragmentation in church and society followed in the wake of the Reformation is indisputable, of course. Parsing the ways in which the reformers were complicit in the division of Christendom and assessing the legacy and effects of the Reformation is a more complex and controversial task. Roman Catholics judge the Reformation a brash rebellion and grave scandal. Many Protestants today also feel ambivalent toward the Reformation. However well-intentioned, judged in light of a church still fractured after half a millennium, it seems like an ultimately tragic event.

The ecclesial environment which provoked the prophetic jeremiad of the magisterial reformers was not tidy and uniform. The problems are well-known: financial corruption, clerical profligacy, heterodox theology, and other ills. These were amply documented by the reformers, acknowledged by many in the church of Rome, and addressed (to some extent) in the counter-Reformation. Yet crucial doctrinal differences remained and reform came at great and painful cost: the church was divided as never before. Surely this reality should entail a posture of lament, not celebration.

But what if the division in Christendom was not the work of man, but of God? What if the Reformation was not a revolution, but a revelation?

Above all, the Reformation was a sweeping proclamation of the word of God, carried far and wide by the printing press and zealous preachers. When God’s word comes to men, it comes as a light and sword, exposing and dividing. Whenever the word is proclaimed (whether in pretense or in truth), a response is called forth. Those who have ears to hear receive the word with joy — the word falls onto fertile soil. Others hear but do not understand — the word falls on stony ground. In each case, God’s word is effective for His purposes. The division wrought by the word is not a tragedy which should scandalize us, but part of an inscrutable and wondrous divine plan.

Human words also effect division (of a fleshly kind), and this should chasten both our evaluation of the Reformation and our efforts at ecumenism. If the Reformation was merely the exaltation of the words of men, it should be considered a failure, and all such future attempts will also fail. But if it was an unprecedented unleashing of the word of God, it was a success, because God’s word never fails, and never returns to Him empty.


Reformation Day Round Up

Here are several excellent articles published on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation:

Why the Reformation Should Make You More Catholic (Fred Sanders)

What the Reformers Thought They Were Doing (Timothy George)

How to Celebrate the Reformation (Jake Meador)

On Still Being a Protestant ‘From a Protestant Point of View’: Contra Hauerwas (Derek Rishmawy)

Which Henry Caused the Reformation? (Carl Trueman)

Five Misconceptions of Reformation Day (Tim LeCroy)

How Lutherans View the Reformation Differently (Gene Veith)

Gregory of Nyssa on Answering Heresies

“It may indeed be undignified to give any answer at all to the statements that are foolish; we seem to be pointed that way by Solomon’s wise advice, ‘not to answer a fool according to his folly.’ But there is a danger lest through our silence error may prevail over the truth, and so the rotting sore of this heresy may invade it, and make havoc of the sound word of the faith. It has appeared to me, therefore, to be imperative to answer, not indeed according to the folly of these men who offer objections of such a description to our Religion, but for the correction of their depraved ideas. For that advice quoted above from the Proverbs gives, I think, the watchword not for silence, but for the correction of those who are displaying some act of folly; our answers, that is, are not to run on the level of their foolish conceptions, but rather to overturn those unthinking and deluded views as to doctrine.”

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit

Augustine, Beauty, and the Body

In the concluding sections of The City of God, Augustine marvels at the wonders found in creation and culture—the blessings God has bestowed in the midst of transient and fallen life. Praising God’s providence in fashioning the human body, Augustine makes several interesting comments (XXII.24):

Even apart from its adaptation to the work required of it, there is such a symmetry in its various parts, and so beautiful a proportion maintained, that one is at a loss to decide whether, in creating the body, greater regard was paid to utility or to beauty. Assuredly no part of the body has been created for the sake of utility which does not also contribute something to its beauty. (853)

There are some things, too, which have such a place in the body, that they obviously serve no useful purpose, but are solely for beauty… I think it can readily be concluded that in the creation of the human body comeliness was more regarded than necessity. In truth, necessity is a transitory thing; and the time is coming when we shall enjoy one another’s beauty without any lust—a condition which will specially redound to the praise of the Creator, who, as it is said in the psalm, has “put on praise and comeliness.” (854)

All the members and organs of the incorruptible body, which now we see to be suited to various necessary uses, shall contribute to the praises of God; for in that life necessity shall have no place, but full, certain, secure, everlasting felicity. (864)

Notable here is how Augustine understands the beauty and utility of the body. This is related to his distinction between enjoyment and use of things (cf. XI.25). The body has been made not merely as a tool, but as a work of art. Beauty has priority over utility, for utility has to do with temporal life. Yet beauty is something which is made for and will endure into eternal life. Indeed, resurrection life will entail praising God through the enjoyment of the beauty of transfigured creation, including the human body. We will enjoy God by praising Him in the body and in enjoying the body we will praise God.

Augustine on Action and Contemplation

“As to these three modes of life, the contemplative, the active, and the composite, although, so long as a man’s faith is preserved, he may choose any of them without detriment to his eternal interests, yet he must never overlook the claims of truth and duty. No man has a right to lead such a life of contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the contemplation of God. The charm of leisure must not be indolent vacancy of mind, but the investigation or discovery of truth, that thus every man may make solid attainments without grudging that others do the same. And, in active life, it is not the honours or power of this life we should covet, since all things under the sun are vanity, but we should aim at using our position and influence, if these have been honourably attained, for the welfare of those who are under us, in the way we have already explained.”

—St. Augustine, The City of God, XIX.19

Shedd on Biblical and Systematic Theology

In the first volume of his Dogmatic Theology, Shedd comments on the complementarity of biblical and systematic theology. He places “biblical” in quotes not because he believes the biblical-theological method to be unbiblical, but because it is not more biblical than its counterpart, systematic theology. The difference between the two lies in form and presentation, not in source or substance.

“Systematic theology should balance and correct ‘biblical’ theology, rather than vice versa, for the following reasons: 1. Because ‘biblical theology’ is a deduction from only a part of Scripture. Its method is fractional. It examines portions of the Bible. It presents the theology of the Old Testament, apart from the New: e.g., Oehler’s Biblical Theology of the Old Testament; of the New Testament apart from the Old: e.g., Schmid’s Biblical Theology of the New Testament; of the Gospels apart from the Epistles; of the Synoptists apart from John’s gospel; the Petrine theology in distinction from that of the Pauline; the Pauline in distinction from that of James, etc. Now this method, while excellent as a careful analysis of materials, is not so favorable to a comprehensive and scientific view as the other. Science is a survey of the whole, not of a part. True theological science is to be found in the long series of dogmatic systems extending from Augustine’s City of God to the present day. To confine the theologian to the fragmentary and incomplete view given in ‘biblical’ theology, would be the destruction of theology as a science.

2. A second reason why ‘biblical’ theology requires the balance and symmetry of systematic theology, is the fact that it is more easy to introduce subjective individual opinions into a part of the Bible, than into the whole of it. It is easier (we do not say easy) for Baur to prove that Christianity was originally Ebionitism, if he takes into view only the Gospels, and excludes the Epistles, than it is if he takes the entire New Testament into the account. It is easier to warp the four Gospels up to a preconceived idea of Christ and Christianity, than it is to warp the whole Bible. This is the danger to which all interpretation of Scripture is exposed, which does not use the light thrown by the interconnection and harmony of all the books of the Old and New Testaments; and perhaps this is the reason why the pantheistic and rationalistic critic is more inclined to compose a ‘biblical’ than a systematic theology. The attempt to understand revelation piecemeal, is liable to fail. In every organic product—and the Bible is organized throughout—the whole explains the parts, because the parts exist for the whole, and have no meaning or use separate from it. The interpretation of Scripture should be ‘according to the proportion of faith’ (kata ten analogian tes pisteos). Rom. 12:6.”

—William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Volume 1, pgs. 13-14