In case you missed the memo, this October 31 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on the Wittenberg doors, beginning the Protestant Reformation. A movement of such immense and lasting effect will obviously induce strong feelings.
Some of those feelings spring from genuine Reformation issues. Others are rooted in a fantasy of what the Reformation was about, dictated more by what people want it to mean rather than what it actually meant. Here are five of the big misinterpretations of the Reformation to avoid this year.
1. The Reformation Celebrates Anti-Catholicism
“Catholicism” is not a dirty word. It’s also not a denominational label. It’s what the Christian church is confessed to be in the Nicene Creed. If a church is not catholic, it is not Christian by any historic standard. To be catholic is to claim a universality in space and time, in space with the church across the globe and in time with the church of all ages. Sects are not catholic. Personality cults are not catholic.
This is why the reformers had to claim continuity with the historic church. From the historic catholic church, they received and confessed the biblical doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the atonement, and the sacraments, to say nothing of the Bible itself. Their writings repeatedly referenced not only ancient and medieval fathers, but even canon law.
Martin Luther himself was a doctor of theology in the Catholic Church, a supervisor of Augustinian monks, and sought to be a faithful servant of the Catholic Church. There’s an argument to be made that had he arisen earlier or later, his movement would be something akin to Augustinianism or Thomism, a school of thought within the greater Western Catholic tradition. Luther would have been appalled that a church was named after him. That’s what schismatic sects did.
On the Roman Catholic side of the equation, consider how on several issues the pope’s church embraced Luther’s reforms. Communion is routinely offered in both kinds. The mass is done in the language of the people. The Bible is encouraged to be read. Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” is even in the Roman Catholic hymnbook!
Luther did not separate himself from the catholic church. He was excommunicated by the pope, and for challenging a fundraising racket that went all the way up to the papacy. Luther was shocked by the pope’s involvement and had naively believed Peter’s successor would be just as alarmed by the sale of indulgences as he was.
Luther realized the practice of selling indulgences could only be propped up by a corrupted substructure of other doctrines. Luther was a Tea Partier doing a massive diagnostic on the engine of medieval Christianity, hoping to undo a divergent, anti-evangelical (technically, semi-Pelagian, anti-Augustinian, or Neoplatonic) movement of late medieval Christianity, not unlike the way Tea Partiers hope to purge American governance of the anti-Constitution progressive movement. The point is, Luther’s goal was not a radical departure from tradition, but a conservative restoration of catholic Christianity.
2. The Reformation Was the Coming of Age of Oppressed, Anti-Rome, Pre-Evangelicals
To celebrate the Reformation as a rah-rah anti-catholic moment in history, one must hitch his wagon to a different movement in Christian history, and that’s the Gnostic or millenarian movements. These always existed in the margins of Christian history, often oppressed, but always united in their anti-clericalism, anti-sacramentalism, and prophetic enthusiasm.
Such were the Gnostics in the ancient church and the millenarians in the Middle Ages. These were the “spiritual but not religious,” “I believe in Christ not his church,” and “God is bigger than a church” advocates of the day. Offended by the notion that mere flesh and blood could contain God (i.e., Jesus), they placed greater emphasis on the unbound God who had no need for clergy, sacraments, and formal doctrines.
Unbinding God from clearly demarcated forms—the sacraments, the Word, ordained clergy, the flesh and blood of Jesus—blurs the line where God ends and I begin. This opens the door to cults of personality, extreme puritanism, and charismaticism. If I believe myself to be an instrument of God through the cooperation of my inner faculties with God’s unbound Spirit, what else could happen?
It also leads to political radicalism, as charismatic leaders and their cult followings decree themselves God’s hand in history bringing about the “new age” or Kingdom of God. This was the position of Joachim of Fiore, the fountainhead of multiple medieval millenarian movements all united in their anti-clericalism, anti-sacramentalism, anti-intellectualism, charismaticism, belief in prophecy, puritanism, communalism, radicalism, and expectation of the imminent coming of God’s kingdom on earth: a new age for the new man.
In any event, the Reformation-era manifestation of millenarianism is what has come to be known as the Radical Reformation, whose spiritual heirs were the Pietists, Puritans, revivalists, and the general drift of American evangelicalism today. To confuse Luther’s Reformation as an ally to these millenarian movements, or a culmination of them, does an injustice to the historical record. Luther soundly rejected the Radical Reformation and its anti-ecclesiastical, anti-catholic, anti-sacramental, Gnostic-millenarian roots.
3. The Reformation Is about Liberated Consciousness
W. F. Hegel is responsible for the progressive and Marxist interpretation of the Reformation, that it was all about liberated consciousness. This interpretation is rarer today. Given the current postmodern tendency to consider all things western as evil (excepting, somehow, the distinctly western heritage of postmodern thought), liberal commentators are more likely to focus on Luther’s supposed anti-Semitism. But when they do celebrate him, they do it on Hegelian terms.
Hegel is the father of the idea of progressivism, that History is a movement of divine forces working through raised consciousnesses. From Hegel comes progressives’ habit of speaking of “the right side of History” and against “turning back the clock,” as if history has a given end divined only by those with enlightened thinking.
Understanding Hegel reveals why progressivism is truly a Gnostic religious movement. Hegel grew up in Wurttemberg, a hotbed of Pietism and millenarianism, which he absorbed. A student of the Enlightenment, Hegel’s project was to cloak his millenarian vibes in the empirical terms of the Scottish Enlightenment. His result was a demythologized millenarianism that gives scientific accreditation to establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.
On theological terms, Hegel is the emblem of why evangelical movement has historically devolved into unitarian moralism and political movement, where the government becomes a replacement church.
First, the focus of theology transfers from the external—from the clearly demarcated forms of God’s presence (sacraments, dogma, the church, and ultimately Jesus Christ)—to man’s internal faculties cooperating with God, what Hegel following the German mystics identified with the gemut (German for “heart, mind, feeling, temper”).
Then begins that fuzzy line between God and me referenced above. I begin to feel I’m God’s hand in history acting out his will to bring about his kingdom. Hegel’s entire project was to rarefy this moment and demythologize it from its Christian conceptual framework.
For Hegel, Luther’s movement was a critical point in western history when Christ’s teaching began to be rarefied, or liberated from, its anchoring in the church’s dogmatic teaching authority. Think of it as God leaking out from the Sacrament and being reconstituted in the DNA of raised consciousnesses acting out in political movement. Political philosopher Erik Voegelin rightly called Hegel a work of magic, or alchemy.
In any event, Hegel’s premise was just wrong for reasons identified in point two. If, as Perry Miller brilliantly observed, millenarian movements like Puritanism and Pietism liberated people from the treadmill of indulgences but put them on the “iron couch of introspection”—thus paving the way for a Hegelian modernity obsessed with the Self and its enlightened role in inaugurating the new age—Luther rejected this sort of navel-gazing and put the focus on the extra nos (outside of us) gifts of the gospel.
The Reformation is not a triumph of the self. If anything it’s a restoration of Augustinian pessimism about the self, rooted in the doctrine of original sin, against a rising humanism in the western church. Given the failed project of progressivism and the constant reminder of humanity’s potential for evil, perhaps Augustine’s and Luther’s ideas should have currency.
4. The Reformation Is All about the Triumph of Self against The Man
Piggybacking on the last point, Luther’s famous stance at the Diet of Worms, at which he boldly proclaimed “Here I stand,” is often seen as a triumph of the self against the powers that be, a sign that the stranglehold of institutions on the minds of men was beginning to end.
This suits American culture’s post-1960s default existentialism. Accordingly, Luther, like Jesus, was all about cultural iconoclasm, about freeing self-expression from the cultural strictures of the man. Heck, Jesus was the first hippy, wasn’t he?
As I write in my book, “Abstracted and then dislocated from any doctrinal, ecclesiastical, or sacramental grounding – these things being way too establishmentarian – Jesus must become a mental projection, an internally-created invisible Guide, a phantasm…. . Jesus becomes nothing more than an abstracted projection of my Self re-cloaked in a Jesus deconstructed from the Gospels, and given back to me in a way that says, Hey, you’re OK just the way you are, because I am just like you.”
This is the modern Jesus. It’s a stamp of approval on one’s idealized self. If one is gay, then Jesus is not a homophobe. If she’s a feminist, Jesus was all about empowering women. If he’s liberal, Jesus was all about and only about love and tolerance. If he’s a Marxist, Jesus was all about lifting up the poor and universal health care. Luther’s life story is mustered to this cause.
Luther, in other words, was not about directing hearts and minds to the Word of God and Jesus Christ, but about “staying true to himself.” Jesus’ ministry was all about this as well. You couldn’t find a more revisionist history than this.
5. The Reformation Was Against ‘Legalism’ and ‘Pharisaism’
A favorite interpretation of the Reformation is that it was against “legalism” and “Pharisaism.” This derives from Reformation teaching that we are not saved by obedience to God’s law, but through the righteousness of Jesus Christ. “The Law,” though it had a quite specific meaning to Luther—God’s standard of righteous perfection which Christ fulfills and we cannot fulfill—is understood to mean any sort of standards at all.
This is the form of biblical interpretation that says, “Whatever’s not in the Bible is permissible.” It’s the “what can we get away with” way of reading the Bible. After all, it was those Pharisees who imposed rules and regulations on everyone, and Jesus was against them.
This abuse of the Reformation comes up frequently in discussions of worship practices. Whenever an objection is made to idiosyncratic worship forms that reject all tradition, however biblical and evangelical those traditions may be, the objectors are accused of legalism and Pharisaism. “Where does the Bible support being against clowns in worship?! That’s what the Pharisees did!”
Actually, the Pharisees were the “You gotta change with the times” religious party in Jesus’ day, and Jesus was the stick-in-the-mud conservative wanting to go back to Moses’ teachings on the Law. Jesus didn’t reject, but fulfilled, the Law.
The idea that the gospel means being liberated from all standards is antinomianism on steroids, a lazy approach to biblical interpretation leaving out any sense of Christian discernment. Like the last point, it masquerades self-expression and self-obsession as Christian piety: “Don’t tell me I can’t lead the congregation with my guitar solo. I’m on fire for the Lord!”
Closely related to this concern over “legalism” is the odd claim that any sort of appeal to doctrine or attention on the sacraments is “legalism,” as if legalism is a synonym for preciseness, exactitude, definition, or even just a focus on externals. So, for instance, when someone says you need to be baptized, go to communion, or follow scriptural teaching on communion practice, the retort is, “We’re not saved by the law!”
This muddles mandates with legalism. If someone has a gift for you and says, “Go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and get the gift I have for you,” that’s not a legalistic command, but a mandate defining the terms for receiving the gift. Jesus himself has defining terms outlining his presence, that being his body and blood. It is not legalism to tell the leper, “Jesus is over there, defined by the flesh and blood person there; go to him and pray, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”
When the reformers did the same with the doctrines and sacraments of the church, precisely defining the terms for their reception, it was not legalism. It was faithfulness to a Lord whose great gift to us was precisely that, making himself a definable and demarcated, flesh and blood person, so as to be with us, who likewise are definable and demarcated, flesh and blood persons.
The Reformation was about a lot of things. Pick your poison this October 31. Discuss how Luther’s more literal interpretation of scripture clashed with the more allegorical (read: Neoplatonic) approach of the Middle Ages. Discuss the differences in understandings on grace between Luther and the scholastics. Discuss what, if anything, the human will is capable of before God. Discuss the nature of the church and its ministry. Discuss how new information technologies contributed to the Reformation, and what that can tell us about today. Discuss the legacy of the Reformation and what it means for faith in Christ.
But it doesn’t help to ignore Reformation history and revise its meaning. Lazy glosses of history might pass for things like the 129th anniversary of some event, but not the 500th.