Was the Reformation a Mistake? An Excerpt by Catholic Theologian Matthew Levering
I hold that the Reformers made mistakes, but that they chose to be reformers was not a mistake.
In 1517, the Church was in need of a spiritual and theological reform. In today’s excerpt from Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical, Matthew Levering provides the backdrop to the Reformation and reasons why the Reformers were not wrong to challenge the Church in Rome.
Before proceeding, let me make some additional observations about whether the Reformation was a “mistake,” as my book’s title asks in light of the five-hundredth anniversary. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’s preaching of the kingdom of heaven includes his sobering parable of the wheat and the weeds. In the parable, the servants ask the householder whether they should uproot the weeds, which have been sown by Jesus’s enemy. The householder replies, “No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn” (Matt 13:29–30). Thus, Jesus expected that there would be both wheat and weeds in his inaugurated kingdom (the church of the Holy Spirit), until the final consummation of that kingdom.
Let me be clear that I am not identifying the Reformation with the “weeds.” Quite the opposite, a great profusion of weeds seems to have plagued the Catholic Church in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Not that the tenth century was much better for the church, and indeed weeds have abounded at all times, including our own, and we must all pray for Christ’s mercy insofar as our hearts are divided and we are far from pure “wheat.” Nonetheless, the particularly disastrous popes of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries revealed an extraordinarily urgent need for reform of the church. On a local level, no doubt, many areas of Europe had solidly functioning churches, no small achievement given the grim prevalence of plagues and wars. Caricatures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as monolithic periods of desolate drought in the spiritual life of laypeople or clergy are demonstrably erroneous, even though there were clearly some devotional abuses. But despite the need to reject easy caricatures, there was in fact a massive institutional problem characterized by a lack of holiness and an abuse of power, especially papal abuse but certainly not limited to it.
During these two centuries, furthermore, the intellectual elite were moving away from the Catholic Church, as can be seen in the writings of a number of the great Renaissance humanists. They were discovering new historical and political methods, and they were paying greater attention to the pre-Christian past and to the history of the church. Although the development of doctrine had always been recognized, the real extent of post-biblical doctrinal development had not been previously appreciated. Furthermore, since the popes of this time were often engaged in fornication, greed, and warmongering, the question had to be raised as to whether Jesus Christ could have intended such an institution as the Catholic Church. To many who were trained in Renaissance historiography, the evidence in favor of anything like the current form of the Catholic Church came to appear rather shaky. Instead, it seemed plausible that the bishops of Rome had gradually seized power and led the Catholic Church into its present ruin of Mary-and saint-focused piety, of selling indulgences on a grand scale, of lavish ecclesiastical lifestyles, of poorly educated clergy and scripturally ignorant laity, of neo-Pelagian theology, and so forth.
To call the Reformation a “mistake” in such a context would be absurd. I hold that the Reformers made mistakes, but that they chose to be reformers was not a mistake. There had to be a Reformation, and it is good that the Reformation shook up a status quo in Rome and elsewhere that was unacceptable and untenable. In this sense, the Protestant Reformation cannot be dismissed as a mere “mistake,” even if in my view it mistakenly deemed some Catholic doctrines to be unbiblical and church-dividing. In addition, for Catholics the Reformation also includes the Catholic response; rather than speaking of a “Counter-Reformation,” we should speak of the ongoing reformation of the church led by those who did not break with the papacy, often benefiting from correctives put forward by the Reformers. Although I differ from the Reformers with respect to the biblical grounding of the Catholic doctrines they disputed, they were right in seeking reform, in perceiving the large extent of post-biblical doctrinal development, and in insisting upon grace, faith, and Scripture at the very heart of Christianity.
In Was the Reformation a Mistake? Levering is not trying to prove Catholic doctrine to Protestants. What he is trying to do is offer grounds for challenging Protestants that the Catholic positions in his book (Mary, Eucharist, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Saints Priesthood, and Scripture) are not “unbiblical.”
In his response to Levering, Kevin J. Vanhoozer says “[he] uses the Protestants’ secret weapon—Scripture— against the Reformers…He is winsomely engaging evangelicals on their own turf, so to speak, with a view to persuade them not necessarily to cross the Tiber, but to suggest that doing so may be a legitimate evangelical option. My response concentrates on what I take to be the three distinguishing marks of Levering’s proposal: its charming catholic spirit, daring Protestant strategy, yet enduring Roman substance.”
Professors, this is an irenic conversation between a Catholic and a Protestant and clearly conveys a biblical rationale for Catholic doctrine. If you are interested in considering this for a text for a class, you can request a free exam copy here.