Five hundred years ago this month, the Protestant Reformation rattled the foundations of Christendom, tragically splitting the Church and eventually leading to widespread secularization and other harmful effects that persist to this day, even as a new spirit of ecumenism has begun to heal some of the historic divisions.
On Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther published “95 Theses” on penance and the use of indulgences — nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, according to the apocryphal story.
“It was a fundamental disruption within Latin Christianity that, because it endured, proved to have a massive range of long-lasting and unintended consequences,” said Brad Gregory, a Notre Dame historian and author of a new book on Luther, Rebel in the Ranks.
Luther’s bold action — whether or not it actually involved a hammer and nail — was not itself inflammatory; he was inviting fellow theologians to what would have otherwise been a typical academic disputation. What caused a sensation was the way in which he directly connected his complaints against the Church, especially the issue of indulgences, to the power of the papacy itself — and subsequently articulated a new, individualistic understanding of the Christian faith untethered from the authority of the Catholic Church.
As Luther’s views met with theological resistance, his criticisms escalated into a full-blown attack on fundamental Church teachings. At a pivotal debate with theologian Johann Eck in Leipzig in 1519, Luther conceded that he believed that only Scripture was authoritative. In 1520, he published several seminal treatises, including “On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” in which he challenged the traditional understanding of the seven sacraments, and “On the Freedom of a Christian,” in which he outlined his own doctrine of justification.
Although the Reformers purportedly were seeking to uphold the authority of Scripture, their rejection of tradition and the Church’s teaching authority actually undermined the Bible, according to Francis Beckwith, a Baylor University philosopher who “reverted” back to Catholicism.
“One of the unfortunate legacies of the Reformation is a hyper ahistorical view of sola scriptura that dominates large swaths of popular Evangelicalism today (though certainly not all of it). By detaching the Bible from the historic Church from which it arose, the Bible, ironically, becomes less authoritative,” Beckwith said.
Added Beckwith, “It’s the perfect kind of faith for modern man: a religious menu with all the benefits of obedience without the cross.”
A Fragmented Revolution
In January 1521, after failing to recant when called upon to do so, Luther was excommunicated and later condemned at the Diet of Worms, an imperial congress convened by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
But Luther’s revolutionary ideas, fueled by political expediency, economic factors, anti-Italian sentiments and anti-clericalism, especially in the many small states that make up present-day Germany, continued to advance. And, according to Gregory, once Luther had formulated principles such as the individual interpretation of Scripture and rejection of papal authority, the movement grew beyond his control.
In 1524, apparently inspired by Reformation ideals, the Peasants’ War broke out in Germany. Luther opposed it, but other Protestant leaders like Huldrych Zwingli and Thomas Müntzer backed the revolt.
Other divisions were more theological. In Switzerland, John Calvin embraced Luther’s views on faith, grace and justification, but not on the Eucharist and baptism, leading to the formation of other denominations such as Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
In England, the Reformation took yet another different path, when the Church of England separated from Rome in 1534, after Pope Clement VII refused to grant King Henry VIII an annulment.
“There was no unified evangelical movement — ever,” Gregory said.
The Privatization of Religion
The widening religious division sparked a crisis, often erupting in violence, in Europe because religion was so deeply embedded in the political, economic and social structures at the time. Eventually, the only way to resolve the tension was to separate faith from those areas and make religion a private matter.
“The unintended long-term impact of the Reformation has been the secularization of Western society,” said Gregory. “The way that it was dealt with was to separate and define religion more or less the way that we do — interior beliefs, your preferred worship practices, and your own chosen forms of devotion society,” Gregory said.
Starting in the late 1600s, the Enlightenment sought to reckon with the broader repercussions of the Reformation in intellectual terms. Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke turned to reason alone to develop theories of political power, individual rights and morality that were independent of religious authority and doctrine.
The Protestant Reformation did not just reshape Europe. It also had a long-lasting effect on Catholicism, which responded through the Counter-Reformation.
“The things that Protestants attack, the Church emphasizes all the more — so more emphasis on the saints, more emphasis on devotion to Mary, more emphasis on pilgrimages and miracles,” Gregory said.
The Council of Trent, from 1545 to 1563, reaffirmed the seven sacraments and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It formally defined the authentic Catholic doctrine of justification, which relies not on faith alone, but also on charity and the sacraments. A new religious order, the Jesuits, enlisted in the Catholic Reformation effort. A number of widespread reforms improved the life of the Church, accompanied by a renewal of lay piety and devotion.
One particularly significant consequence of the Protestant Reformation is modern individualism.
“The effects of the Reformation continue in our culture,” said George Weigel, a noted Catholic writer and a senior distinguished fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Western hyperindividualism, for example, is one byproduct of the Reformation’s insistence on private interpretation of Scripture, according to some historians. So while liberal Protestantism is dying and some sectors of evangelical Protestantism are trying to wrestle with modern methods of biblical interpretation, the deep effects of the Reformation’s impact on Western culture continue to be felt — and they’re felt by Catholics as well as Protestants.”
Cardinal Anders Arborelius is a convert from Protestantism who, as the archbishop of Stockholm, is at the forefront of ecumenical dialogue between Catholics and Protestant Lutherans.
“Somehow, the Reformation put our human individuality more central than God himself,” Cardinal Arborelius told the Register. “Even if it was hardly the deep meaning of Luther, man has become more and more the center of everything. It has become more difficult to understand things as adoration, holiness and sacrifice. This anthropocentric vision has become more and more evident after the Reformation. The Trinitarian mystery has often been forgotten. Luther certainly did not plan this, but somehow the accent upon the salvation of the single person became more important than the Church as the Communion of Saints reflecting the Most Holy Trinity.”
However, the impact of the Protestant Reformation hasn’t been all negative, from a Catholic perspective.
“Because I am indebted to so many faithful Protestants who helped me to be a better follower of Christ, I have mixed feelings about the Reformation,” Beckwith said. “On the one hand, I believe that no one should celebrate schism. On the other hand, I am grateful for the contributions that Protestants have made to our understanding of Scripture, evangelization and the Christian life,” he said.
And as a whole, the Church in recent decades has taken steps to foster mutual understanding and respect between Catholics and evangelicals and other Protestants. The turning point, according to Mark Noll, a retired evangelical historian at the University of Notre Dame, was the Second Vatican Council, which made overtures by describing the Church as “the People of God” and emphasizing the importance of Scripture.
In the United States, the culture wars — first over abortion and then more recently over other matters like “gay marriage” — have brought Catholics and evangelicals closer together into what one scholar dubbed an “ecumenism of the trenches,” Noll said.
The ecumenism also has spread to theology. In 1994, Noll was a signatory to “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” an ecumenical statement that spelled out a number of areas of agreement in doctrine and practice. This was followed in 1999 by the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” with the Lutheran World Federation. The Church also conducts ongoing ecumenical dialogue with all of the major Protestant denominations.
“We’ve explored each other’s convictions about many of the theological and doctrinal questions that have divided Christians since the 16th century, and we believe we’ve made some progress in narrowing the gap between their understanding and ours,” said Weigel, who also signed the 1994 statement.
‘Obstacles to Reunion’
After centuries of strident anti-Catholicism, Noll said evangelicals have come to realize in recent decades that there is much they can learn from Catholics — ranging from their liturgical, Trinitarian and patristic theologies to the insights of individual theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and popes like St. John Paul II.
Nonetheless, significant doctrinal differences continue to divide Protestants and Catholics.
“I think there are a lot of obstacles to reunion,” Noll said.
While the gap has narrowed on some matters, Protestants remain at odds with the Church over the saints, the view of the Church and the papacy, devotion to Mary and the Eucharist, leaders on both sides say. Despite such enduring divisions, Noll says he expects that mutual understanding and learning between Catholics and evangelicals will increase.
And even as evangelicals and Catholics have moved closer on some cultural issues, other mainline Protestant denominations have moved further apart on matters such as birth control, divorce and remarriage, same-sex “marriage” and the ordination of women and practicing homosexual persons.
“Unfortunately, these more ethical issues are also very controversial, and many people in our secular society cannot understand or accept our Catholic and more traditional outlook,” Cardinal Arborelius said.
The Anniversary’s Meaning
For Catholics, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is a time to reflect on the lesson of history and continue ecumenical dialogue, according to Beckwith. “Catholics should commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation like the partners of a troubled marriage should commemorate their tragic separation: reflect on how it occurred and pray for unification. But in the meantime, we should, with our Protestant brothers and sisters, engage in dialogue and common projects that offer an authentic witness of Christ to the world,” Beckwith said.
For Cardinal Arborelius, unity is not only the end goal of ecumenism — the journey itself is an opportunity to find unity in Christ.
“[W]e have to be more eager to see what we have in common with the Lutherans and try to work together as much as we can, instead of concentrating upon our different points of view,” said Cardinal Arborelius. “Together we have to grow closer to the Lord in prayer and give witness of our faith in a secular society where most people do not know Jesus Christ. At the same time, we have to recognize that there are still issues where we do not have the same faith. It becomes even more painful to realize this when we grow closer to one another. But this is also a suffering we have to share together and united to the saving cross of Jesus.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.