Did the Reformation Destroy the ‘Church?’

Catholics, academics, and some protestants view the Reformation launched by Martin Luther on October 31, 1517 as being a less than helpful historical development. Prior to the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Chapel, seemingly one unified Christian church existed. Our Christian friends in the East who assemble under the banner of the Greek Orthodox Church take issue with this Western view of church history. Almost five hundred years before the Reformation, they broke with the Bishop of Rome on July 16, 1054. But the great schism did not destroy the unity of the Western Churches. Luther and the second generation of Reformers deserve the credit or the blame for that development. Baptists have a president, Methodists have bishops, and Presbyterians have presbyters in part because Luther walked off the field and refused to play with the historic and unifying expression of Christendom, the Roman Catholic Church.


Did Luther and Sola Scriptures Destroy the Church?


But is this truly what happened? Did Luther’s quest for a purer church destroy “The Church,” dividing that which God has always intended to be unified?


Those who view the Reformation to be primarily schismatic in nature, point to the most famous line of the Reformation. At the Diet of Worms in 1521, the representative of Pope Leo X demanded that Luther recant of his errors and his teaching. His errors included such things as Thesis 36 which stated, “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters.” Luther asked for an adjournment of the meeting to form his response. When he returned to the hall the following day, he replied:


I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

Here I Stand

Protestants champion Luther’s statement because it encapsulates the idea of Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone. Instead of looking to Rome for truth, protestants can scan the Bible and discern God’s truth through plain reason. Luther had shifted the authority of the church from the Pope’s throne to the pew. Protestants rejoiced.

Christendom quaked. The democratization of the church’s authority threatened to destroy all authoritative claims. Any man or woman with access to the Bible could reason himself or herself to a variety of doctrines that may have no relation to the doctrines proposed by other Christians. Essentially Luther and the Reformers who followed the pugnacious monk had turned theology into a subjective experience that seemingly undermined the idea of truth, leaving no place for cultural much less spiritual unity. Interpretive anarchy reigned.


What Did Luther Really Do?

Though Luther and those in the Reformed camp turned the world upside down, they were not seeking to create a new church, modeling a theological paradigm of unending evolution and progress. The Reformers were inherently theological conservationists who wished to lead the Church back to the historic, apostolic faith. Luther had said his 95 Theses aligned, “with what is in the Holy Scriptures…and then what is in…the writings of the church fathers.”

Luther had not advocated for theological anarchy. He and those who followed him believed that the Holy Spirit that had inspired the New Testament text, converted the lost and sustained the church as the caretaker and protector of the evangelical witness. Christians were free to interpret the text according to their own conscience as long as that conscience aligned with the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic church that affirmed the apostolic witness. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer correctly noted that for the Reformers, “Tradition was not the Word of God; it is the testimony to that Word.” Luther took issue with the Pope not because the Vatican championed tradition. He took issue with Rome because it advocated for theological positions that ran counter to the Scriptures and the testimony of the historic apostolic faith. Vanhoozer helpfully describes what Luther did, writing,

Protestantism is not the virus that divides and attacks the body; it is the antibodies that set to work attacking the body’s infection (e.g. late medieval Roman Catholicism).

Luther had not protested the authoritative nature of apostolic tradition as taught in the Scriptures. He protested against the commands of the Pope because the Pontiff, “distorts the Holy Scriptures.” He was not an theological anarchist. He was theological purest, Sola Scriptura.

Why Is the Church Fractured?

The church lacks unity not because the reformers protested the authority of Rome but because men and women of every age refuse to acknowledge the Scriptures and the apostolic tradition of the Church as Rome has done. The ancient church father Irenaeus whom Luther knew well described schismatics as follows:

When we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they [the schismatics] object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.

The unity of the church fractures when men and women walk away from the apostolic witness of the Scriptures preferring new sources of authority ranging from prophetic dreams, to religious traditions, to personal feelings. Regardless of their claims, the new traditions always produce schism.

Luther did not infect the church with schism. He reintroduced the church to the cure for division, the gospel once delivered for all and attested to be all true believers. May we be wise stewards of the cure.