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.