The Reformation 500 years later: something for both Catholics and Protestants

As the story goes, 500 years ago this Tuesday, Martin Luther, a disgruntled and short Catholic monk predisposed to the mysticism of his day, nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the wooden doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His manifesto, originally titled, Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, attacked not only the Holy Church’s sale of indulgences but all of its theological presuppositions. Luther’s ancient blog post set ablaze what was already burning underneath the Catholic Church: a reformation.

And this is just what it began as, a reforming of the One Holy Catholic Church, a protest against what was. Our namesake, “Protestant,” comes from that very word, “to protest.” Many forget the Reformation was a Catholic protest movement. These were not rogue theologians or cult leaders, they were monks, priests, and bishops in the Roman Catholic Church. It was an inside job.

The Church had already seen several splits — most notably the Great Schism between East and West — and it was in for another one. But this one didn’t start as a split. These faithful Catholics began their movement as a true “reformation” — a cleansing of the church. A new day. Another start for God’s people. We cannot forget there was a goal for this Reformation and it was not to divide God’s people, it was to renew them. For as much as you may like it or not, we’re still one church (wink-y face emoji).

After the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, Luther set off to be reprimanded by his order, the Augustinians. He feared he would be killed upon his arrival. He was, instead, met with some agreement by the friars. They saw it, initially, “as one more instance of the ancient rivalry between Dominicans and Augustinians” (Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, volume 2, pg. 29). Luther went back to Wittenberg with some pats on the back from his order, thinking, most likely, this would all be fine. After all, Luther wasn’t the only monk who thought the church should change.

But prophets often end up eaten by their own prophecies, and this would be Luther’s fate. After defying both the pope and the emperor, his death was sealed. It took a long time for him to die, as he picked up a knack for running away, but his movement got bigger than him. The rest, of course, lay in the hands of Calvin, Tyndale, and countless others who took the work of a Catholic and made it Protestant.

As a Protestant who grew up immersed in the Catholic Church, I cannot help but reflect on all of this and get a little depressed. Was the aim of the Reformation to start a new church? It certainly was not at first, but it eventually got there, albeit nearly 100 years later. But, considering my past, I view Protestant history with both pros and cons.

I do not see the Reformation as many of my Protestant brothers and sisters do: a massive liberation for God’s true chosen people. No, I see chaos all the way through. I see the reformations before the Reformation, the sins in the Catholic Church before the indulgences and the authoritarian popes. The various ways in which faithful Catholic priests changed the church without ever splitting it, hundreds of years before Luther was born. One must simply read 13th century Catholic history to see how poisoned the well was by the time Luther got on the scene. The church always needs reformers and usually has them around.

What are the takeaways from the chaos that swirled about during the 16th and 17th century? Certainly there must be something we can learn, and there is. I think there is much to be thankful for as a Catholic and as a Protestant, whatever you may be.

On the positive side, without the Reformation, it is quite possible we would still be reading the Bible in an ancient, distant language like Latin or Greek. William Tyndale might be the single person to thank, but the general rule of the new age of the Protesters was pretty simple: get the Bible into the hands of the common person. And many helped achieve this goal. The commitments of these rebel scholars and translators is why the Bible eventually made it into the lower languages, like the barbaric and harsh English language, not to mention German. Reformers like Tyndale were quite literally burned at the stake for their work translating Scripture. Because of their sacrifices and work, we are reading the Bible in multiple English translations and countless other fringe languages. It is in this same spirit that faithful scholars are translating Scripture in tribal languages all over the world. Sure, it may have happened no matter what, but the history has been written and the work it done. And it costed them everything.

Secondly, the Reformation corrected massive theological errors that had run amuck in the Church. Not only Luther, but most notably and impressively John Calvin, changed the way we modern people read the Bible. These were not only religious leaders or pious old men, they were scholars and some of the leading intellectuals of their time. Their commentaries on the Bible — particularly the New Testament — set up centuries of terrific scholarship in Europe that freed the hermeneutic from the hands of the elite priests…which leads me to my next point.

The Reformation also leveled the playing field for Biblical interpretation, freeing the hermeneutic from the hands of religious professionals and into the hands of what Luther called, “the priesthood of all believers.” The Reformation placed Scripture as the primary former of the Church, not tradition or leadership. Before the work of the Reformers, the Church controlled how the Bible was interpreted. But once commoners could read the Word of God in their own language for themselves, they started to see their leaders’ errors. Most Christians could not even read the Bible for thousands of years until the 16th and 17th century, and no Christian ever owned a Bible of their own before 1530 unless they were extremely wealthy. The Reformers freed the book back to its original form: a collection of stories, correspondence, and wisdom in the peoples’ tongue, not the elite’s. Now you didn’t need to know Latin or a priest in order to hear from God. This, along with important and concurrent technological advances, paved the way for a new era of Biblical literacy…and literacy in general.

But the Reformation is also over-blown by Protestants in our own historical account. We forget that while Luther and Calvin were arguing with their superiors, faithful Catholic priests and missionaries were reaching the world with the gospel. There is no doubt that Protestants were relatively late to the game of international missions compared to the Catholics. These reformers had to figure out just what they believed before they told the whole world about it. But while we were writing books, the Catholics were planting churches all across the known world.

In his book, A History of Christian Missions, the historian Stephen Neill writes,

“Naturally, the Reformers were not unaware of the non-Christian world around them…It is clear that the idea of the steady progress of the preaching of the Gospel through the world is not foreign in [Luther’s] thought. Yet, when everything favorable has been said that can be said, and when all possible evidences from the writings of the Reformers have been collected, it all amounts to exceedingly little” (Neill, pg. 189).

Just 17 years after Luther nailed his theses to the doors in Wittenberg, St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits in France with six friends. We forget to tell these stories side by side, but Luther and Ignatius were contemporaries. The Jesuits, founded by Ignatius, would be responsible for the most explosive movement in missions for the next century, until the founding of the New World. All while the arguments and lectures abounded for the Reformed theologians, Catholic priests were dying in Japan, China, India, and beyond, to seed the ground for another important movement in Church history: the thriving of the international Christian community.

The Protestants, for their sound theology and important scholarship, did not get close to the work of the Jesuits and other Catholic orders for hundreds of years. It was Xavier, a co-founder of the Jesuits and colleague of Ignatius, who would do some of the most important missiological thinking in the history of the church — all during the time of Luther. He arrived in Japan to see noble aspects of their culture and moved the Church away from its traditional teaching of tabula rasa, which taught that everything within non-Christian life is of no use for missionaries. Instead, Xavier saw that “while the Gospel must transform and refine and recreate [the culture], it need not necessarily reject as worthless everything that has come before it” (Neill, pg. 133). Xavier and the Jesuits did some reforming of their own.

This transformation of thinking in missions is of great importance to us today, and it is essential for us to remember it came mostly from our Catholic brothers. Next time you see that worship leader with skinny jeans, or that pastor who uses a flatscreen TV, you can thank the Jesuits. Japan, for instance, was entirely in the hands of Jesuit missionaries until 1593. They constantly thought about how they could use the existing culture to communicate the message of Jesus Christ. After nearly a half century of work, no one else was coming. Many priests died before any work of any consequence came to Japan. They were the faithful ones thinking creatively about how they could reach a culture so different from their own.

Tremendous unity can happen and will happen so long as both Catholics and Protestants understand that the work done on both sides in the 16th century was, from eternity’s perspective, one in the same. It was all a reformation.

Both Xavier and Luther were involved in the transformation of the world through the gospel of Jesus Christ. They would have punched each other if they ever met, but maybe that was God’s grace that they never did. Both men, on either ends of the earth, were up to great and eternal things in the power of the Holy Spirit, even if they never saw eye to eye. They should both be called reformers, even if they couldn’t see one another as brothers. I wonder if there’s something in there for us to learn…

As the Reformers would say, Soli Deo Gloria.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books