Is the Reformation Finished?
“We cannot judge whether it is finished, of course, unless we understand how it began.”
In today’s excerpt taken from The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants after 500 Years, authors Gregg Allison and Chris Castaldo highlight the importance of understanding the starting point of the Reformation in order to discern whether it is finished.
Looking back five hundred years confronts us with an era of momentous change in which many Christians desired renewed faith. Men and women returned to Scripture and the writings of the early church, igniting what some have described as “another Pentecost” or “light after darkness.” Five centuries later, we call it the Reformation. Not everyone, however, regarded the movement as divine illumination. Some viewed the quest for renewal as a menacing threat, opening the way to doctrinal error, political turmoil, and social disorder. At the center of this disagreement was the question: To whom did God give authority to define Christian faith? Did it belong to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church? Or was Scripture its own interpreter?
The Reformation emerged in the tailwind of several broad developments in European society, including urbanization, increased affluence, and a rise in literacy. Meanwhile, a growing sense of anticlericalism became a focus of discontent with the Church. More significantly, however, the Reformation was brought to life by theology. In addition to the fundamental debate over religious authority, questions about salvation and calling in the world were being answered in fresh ways. Many became convinced that ordinary Christians (individuals without priestly ordination or academic degrees) could read and understand the Bible without the teaching office of the Roman Church. In reading the text, Christians recognized divine acceptance, or justification, as coming to sinners by faith alone. And they perceived that the Christian priesthood extended to every believer, endowing such temporal vocations as farming and smithery with new dignity and purpose.
Martin Luther is commonly identified as the pioneer of the Reformation. We recognize, of course, that there were forerunners—men such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus—but from Luther the opening salvo would come. The nailing of his Ninety-Five Theses (1517) and his famous “stand” at the Diet of Worms (1521) symbolize the daring spirit of the movement. What began as opposition to the sale of indulgences (a remission of temporal punishment by paying money to the church) became an exposé of church corruption, even to the point of challenging the pope’s authority. It was around the same time that Huldrych Zwingli started preaching reform in Zurich, followed by Martin Bucer’s work in Strasbourg. In a few short years, the disciples of this first generation of Reformers would emerge from the shadows, leaders such as Philip Melanchthon, Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Thomas Cranmer. To these men would fall the task of defining the movement in precise terms. A copious amount of biblical commentaries, theological treatises, confessions of faith, catechisms, sermons, and much more bear eloquent testimony to their productivity.
Evangelicals (subsequently called “Protestants”), however, did not have a monopoly on church reform. For example, it was at Easter of 1511 when Gasparo Contarini (later made Cardinal) experienced an evangelical renewal similar to Luther. Contarini came to recognize that sinners are justified by the righteousness of Christ, appropriated by faith, apart from meritorious works.
In duetime, a movement grew to include other Roman Catholic notables: Juan de Valdés, Cardinal Giacomo Sadoleto, Cardinal Giovanni Morone, Cardinal Reginald Pole, and Cardinal Tommaso Badia. However, the evangelical impulse of Catholic renewal was short lived. In 1545, the Council of Trent convened to oppose the growing movement and cut a new path. As one Catholic historian has described it:
[The Council of Trent’s] spirituality was then sacramental, centered on the Eucharist. It was exacting, making stiff demands on its practitioners: self-discipline, self-control, and regularity in prayer. It was practical in the way it closely associated good works with self-improvement. And finally, in accordance with the dominant cultural trend of the times, it was humanistic—at least in its assumption that each person had it in his power, to some degree, to determine his own fate.
DEFINING THE REFORMATION
So what was the sixteenth-century Reformation? The answer may be more elusive than we realize. Should we supply the article, “the Reformation,” or is it better to speak of multiple reformations? What were its primary causes and central aims? When did it begin, and when did it end, if indeed it has?
To understand the sixteenth-century Reformation, we must begin by defining the term. The medievals used the word reformation to describe the enterprise of repairing an inadequate state of affairs by returning to an earlier expression of faith. This idea, for example, is what Pope Innocent III had in mind when he convened the Fourth Lateran Council (1213; begun in 1215) “for the reformation of the universal church.” This movement, and others like it, sought to manifest deeper dimensions of God’s truth through ethical and spiritual renewal.
In the opening years of the sixteenth century, the faithful expressed criticism of ecclesiastical institutions and offered proposals for renewal. The Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), supposedly a “reform” council, was therefore teeming with reformation potential. During the Council, Cardinal Giles of Viterbo (Italy; 1469–1532) spoke for many who desired a greater measure of personal faith when he declared: “Men must be changed by religion, not religion by men.” Such religious hunger sent thoughtful Christians to reexamine the roots of their faith. This examination produced a wide range of proposals aimed at bringing reformation, the form of which differed depending upon region and time period.
In subsequent years, the tepid state of the church persisted. This was due to several factors…