The Reformation did not turn out to be what I had thought it was.
I grew up in a solid Evangelical family and church tradition and worked with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). I thought I had a decent grip on the Reformation as a result: the medieval Catholic Church had corrupted the faith, and in the sixteenth century a movement that had been bubbling away in thinkers like John Wyclif and Jan Hus burst forth in a separation of Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church, returning to the Bible and faith against church tradition.
The concentration of my studies and teaching was on the medieval period, moving back to the early church. For a long time I did not have to dig deeply into Reformation thought since what teaching I did on that period was brief and at a surface level. However, my medieval studies did make me aware that my traditional rhetoric must be flawed since there were such great riches of biblical study, theology and spirituality in that period.
Approaching the 500-year anniversary of Luther's publication of the 95 Theses, I had to engage more directly and deeply with the thought of the major early Reformers than I had before. Two separate projects coincided at this time. The first was an invite from Spring Harvest to do a series of seminars on the Reformation, which ultimately led to the publication of the book, Rediscovering the Reformation. What approach should I take?
The second project, which opened up the Reformation to me, was the second volume of my series on Sin, Grace and Free Will, a reader through the history of Christian thought. For the latter chapters of this book, I needed to read through the major theological works of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin and then the Proceedings of the Council of Trent, confronting Reformation thought directly rather than through secondary sources and surveys.
Approaching these writings from work on the early and medieval church released me to some degree from my assumptions and preconceptions of what the Reformation was about that later history has constructed in reflecting on what resulted from the initial issues and discussions. Mining the original works to see what they actually said about the themes of sin, grace and free will – areas that have implications for most of Christian theology – opened my eyes to a world that I had not seen before.
Put simply, the early reformers did not sound Protestant as I had known the movement. They were certainly protesting about the church and study of theology of their time, but the methods that they used and the changes they were seeking were not what I had expected.
In one respect, this was not surprising: neither the early church (including Augustine) nor the medieval church had thought and taught as I expected before reading the original writers. Their ideas both individually and corporately did not neaten into categories that could be easily presented; and in fact the tools of language and philosophy that they used in communicating required extensive study before I could learn well from them.
With the reformers, the shock was greater because this was an important root of my identity that was being challenged. Here was I challenged to rediscover the Reformation. While there were some comfortably familiar aspects that came through strongly, a concentration on faith, appeals to scripture and a close focus on salvation, overlaying this was a sense of how Catholic most of the writing felt.
What do I mean by this? It falls generally into three areas: method, content and target. The method was perhaps the biggest factor given how firmly the concept of sola scriptura had been part of my thinking about the Reformation. Reading about various 500th anniversary celebrations showed how problematic our thinking has become in this regard, with a basic expression being that the Protestant churches today have come from the reformers and the reformers received their ideas from the Bible alone.
Reading the works of the early reformers, one was certainly struck by their demands that scripture is the authority in all matters of faith. However, the idea that they just went back to the Bible is blown away by their devotion to understanding the historic faith of the church to which Scripture points. Not that traditional positions have any authority in themselves – Calvin is clear that even the ancient creeds only have use because they express the truths of Scripture well – but we should not approach the Bible without a deep knowledge of the church's teachings.
Augustine of Hippo certainly gets a lot of attention, and even this is not uncritical with Calvin critiquing the saint for his teaching on purgatory. However, the writings of the reformers are replete with quotations from a wide range of early and medieval sources. It is immediately appreciable how well they know the history of Christian thought and are able to identify the common themes that run throughout the church's traditional teachings and aspects that they view as contentious because of developments beyond Scripture.
The reformers all believe that the church does have areas in need of reform and that such reform should be done under the authority of the Bible. However, they are set against any who would seek to remove the Bible from the faith that had been professed through the centuries. They were clearly seeking reforms rather than a reboot of Christianity, and any approach that challenged the church as an interpretive body was criticised in similar terms to those used of the church in Rome.
There seem to be two challenges to current churches that trace their origins back to the Reformation. The first is the need to understand and appreciate the historic teachings of the church. The more I read the major reformers, the more I saw the need for anyone seeking to study their work to study the church through the preceding centuries. Without this their whole approach makes little sense, yet many books on the Reformation on trace the roots of ideas back to late medieval times, while many theological courses only begin their historical courses with the Reformation. In treating a few key subjects, Rediscovering the Reformation traces ideas from Scripture through the early and medieval churches in order to understand the various reforms proposed by different groups in the sixteenth century.
Linked to the first, the second challenge is to a spirituality that encourages people simply to pick up their Bibles and read expecting to understand the heart of the gospel with no prior learning of the Christian faith. The reformers did encourage all people to read the Bible for themselves, but took care to equip people for this with extensive preparation both in the faith and in the books of the Bibles. Both Luther and Calvin wrote commentaries on biblical books, while in Luther's small and large catechisms and through the learning required in Calvin's Geneva one sees a dedication to train people's minds to engage in their faith. The reformers were greatly concerned about false teaching, not only in the church of Rome but also in other protesting groups, particularly those who were more liberal in their approach to the Bible and good teaching. Many modern Protestant churches would have received vitriolic criticism from the reformers had they existed in the sixteenth century.
After the method of the reformers, the next area that took me back was the content in some areas of Christian belief and practice. So while the banner headline of "Faith Alone" was clearly taught by the Protestants, it became clear that this was against the role of the church in justification and salvation rather than as an end in itself. Some confusion resulted at the time, and seems to have continued to today. In the sixteenth century, it is clear that the Catholic Church hearing this refrain thought that it was used to allow a freedom of lifestyle that included any sins one may wish.
This was experienced in some of the civil disobedience by protesting groups, and led the Catholic Church to indicate in the Council of Trent that Protestants thought there was no need to obey the Ten Commandments – something the major reformers could never have countenanced. Rather, when reading their wider works, the reformers teach that, having been justified by faith, there is necessary evidence of this in a transformed life that is holy and is wholly given in service of God.
Today in Protestant churches there is something of a mantra coming from a distorted view of faith alone that God loves us just as we are (which is true) and that doesn't seem to require a transformation in a dedication to holiness and service (which is a problem, to put it mildly). This is not a new observation in Protestantism, but merely a weak rendering of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's convicting observation on the prevalence of "cheap grace".
Another surprise was the view of Mary in the writings of Luther and Calvin in particular, with much of their language honouring her and condemning those who deny aspects of the church's historical teaching closer to Catholic views today. In terms of the practices of the church, there is a strong sacramental element to many of the reformers – far less with Zwingli, for which other reformers criticised his theology and method. While there is little agreement on the sacraments between the various protesting groups, Luther and Calvin as two of the most significant leaders of movements both had rich teaching in this area.
Much of the unexpected content reinforces an impression that these men are seeking to be reformers of the church, not opponents of the church. There is recognition of a saving faith present in Catholicism, although this was less true of the structures and leadership of the Roman Church. It is also clear that what reforms were needed were unclear and depended on the context of those proposing changes. Rediscovering the Reformation takes very themes – the church, scripture, grace – and having traced the development of thought through the early and medieval phases, looks at the different reforms proposed by individuals and groups in the early sixteenth century.
After method and content, the final area that surprised me in looking at the reformers' work was the target. I had generally set up a split in my mind between the Protestants on the one side and the Catholics on the other. As indicated above, Protestantism was not a united movement and many of harsh condemnations were uttered by Protestants on other reforming groups.
However, even without this there was not a single target in the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages, though this certainly was one focus. A separate line of attack concerned the universities, and particularly those associated with the teachings of Desiderius Erasmus (including Erasmus himself). Through the Renaissance period, there had been a growing sense of confidence in humanity as it evidenced strengths in art, architecture, literature, philosophy and science. This came into Christian teaching in a discussion on the freedom of the human person to respond to salvation.
This horrified the Protestant reformers who all wrote passionate works against the humanists; Luther wrote a work called On the Bondage of the Will, while Calvin wrote one called On the Bondage and Liberation of the Will. This was a separate attack to that against the role of the church in salvation, which was directed against Rome, and was core to teaching on the priority of grace and the work of Christ and Spirit in salvation.
This is an area where the reformers would look at a lot of teaching in churches today with a withering gaze. There seems to be an assumption in much of Protestant teaching today that humans have free will and a line of testimony that talks about when I accepted Christ. Both would be dismissed by the major reformers as continuing heresies that deny the effects of sin on humanity and the sovereignty of God in salvation. I do not wish to state that the reformers were wholly right on these issues – or any of the other points addressed here – but it is worth noting the distance in many areas of thought between those transforming thinkers and the results of their work today.
The Reformation did not turn out to be what I had thought it was. It was a series of movements seeking to reform the church, most wanting to recover strengths that had been lost in teaching and practice. The Protestant churches need to relearn this for two reasons. Firstly, to look better at the Catholic Church today, which is not the church it was 500 years ago. The great theologian Stanley Hauerwas wrote for the Washington Post at the time of the anniversary in 2017 that, 'Most of the reforms Protestants wanted Catholics to make have been made'. It is important not to take the divide that happened in the sixteenth century and use it to define church relations today.
Secondly, the initial reforms did lead to diverging church traditions, teachings and practices, and these were as clear between an increasing number of Protestant churches (both individual churches and a widening number of denominations) as between these and the Catholic Church. With huge cultural and philosophical developments in the intervening period, it is startling to see how clearly some Reformation critiques target current Protestant belief and practice, and maybe rediscovering the Reformation might lead us to see reforms that are needed in the church today.
Dr Matthew Knell is a lecturer in historical theology and church history at the London School of Theology.