Sola What?: A Few Hundred Years of History

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This post was edited July 14, 2014. Edits appear in red italics.

Gentle Reader,

What divides Catholic and Protestant? (Note: the Orthodox are also separate from Catholics and Protestants. I, however, freely admit my overall ignorance of Orthodox belief and practice. Our focus will be on the issues of the Reformation). In our ecumenical age, this may seem an unimportant question. Surely it is only a few minor points of doctrine that keep the camps separate. Surely it is possible to bring healing to the people of God.

I do believe that a greater degree of harmony is a realistic goal for the Church. (1) Many issues don’t need to be issues at all. However, when assessing the differences between the predominate streams of Christianity, it is important to understand that there are real and true divergences in theology. Anyone who is serious about faith needs to take the time to sort this out. It is important to know what one believes and why. It is also important to know what one does not believe and why.

Before we go any further, I want to be clear that we will not be engaging in Catholic-bashing. If you want to do that, go elsewhere. The Sola What? series is predominately about examining the Five Solas of the Protestant movement as a whole, along with a look at a few denominationally-specific stances. What do Protestants claim to believe? Do these claimed beliefs make sense in light of Scripture, reason, experience and tradition? This is where we are going.

How to lay the groundwork for this discussion? First, some definitions:

Reformation: the action or process of reforming (making changes in) an institution or practice.

Counter-Reformation: attempts by the Catholic church and secular Catholic authorities to stem the flow of Protestantism and reform some of the worst excesses of medieval Catholicism. (2)

Sola: by oneself, alone.

And yet, definitions do not go far enough:

Reformation and Counter-Reformation are not terms which we can easily dispense with and yet they are deceptive. . .’Reform’ was a familiar word long before 1500, even a cliche. . .It is meaningless, or at least unhistorical, to discuss where this or that tendency or event was properly part of the Reformation… (3)

The Reformation was not termed as such until the late 17th century, long after most of the momentous events had taken place. This is not as simple as “the Catholic Church was bad and Martin Luther showed people the truth.” Rather, the movement was

a complex extended historical process, going well beyond the endeavours of man or one tendency, and involving social, political and wider religious issues. (4)

Consider that the Reformation occurred just as nationalism was on the rise. No longer did people see themselves as part of a larger body, that of European Christendom. Instead, being “German” or “English” or “French” became important. With the exploding publishing industry, thanks to Gutenberg and his movable type, literacy was on the rise. Europe’s population, decimated approximately 150 years earlier by plague, had begun to stabilize. We cannot isolate Luther, the 95 Theses, indulgences or any other part of the movement from these factors.

Would the Reformation as we know it have occurred without these historical conditions? Maybe, maybe not. I simply find it important to look at what was happening around the Reformers. Furthermore, it is important to realize that, because the word “reform” had become cliche, that the Reformers proper were part of a lengthier tradition. When we assume that Luther, Zwingli, Arminius and the rest of the bunch were first in a thousand years to discover grace, faith and the authority of Scripture, we forget about those who had gone before. We also expose a fatal assumption, namely that nobody was saved between the Edict of Milan in 313, when the Roman emperor Constantine began the shift that would lead toward Christianity become the official religion of the Empire in 380 under Theodosius I, and 1517, when Luther wrote and nailed the famous Theses. This train of thought is one that we need to do our best to avoid.

That being said, there were real problems in the medieval Catholic Church. A quick look at the lives of a few Popes, the state of rural parishes and the differences between official and folk religion makes this more than apparent. The famous polarizing issue of the Reformation, indulgences, serves as an example:

“As a penny in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs,” or so the Dominican friar Tetzel and other purveyors of papal pardons are supposed to have taught their hearers and customers. (5)

Pope Leo X (of the infamous Medici family) was in the midst of reconstructing St. Peter’s Basilica and needed money. He chose to grant indulgences, the full or partial remission of temporal [relating to the world] punishment of sins, (6) to those who chose to donate to the project. Basically, anyone could pay to get loved ones out of Purgatory and into Heaven. Thus indulgences open up a whole host of questions: Is Purgatory real? It is not mentioned in Scripture, but is alluded to in 2 Maccabees 12:46, a deuterocanonical book not contained in the Hebrew Bible, which forces us to consider how the Catholic Church arrived at their canon of Scripture. If it’s not in the Bible, can the Catholic Church teach that it’s real? This opens up huge questions about tradition versus Scripture. Who atones for sin? Is it Christ? Is it Christ but also the individual after going through Purgatory? Is it Christ, the individual going through Purgatory and then another person who pays for the sentence of Purgatory to be reduced? On and on it goes; this was the proverbial “can of worms.” 

Please note here that Luther was not alone in his disgust over this practice. Many voices who remained within the Catholic Church during the Reformation spoke in favor of addressing these problems. The Reformation is not a tidy, “us versus them” moment in history. But then, few are.

The troubles lay not only with the Catholic Church, however. That the English Reformation came about largely as a matter of the king’s needing a son is well-known. Anne Boleyn, so often revered as one of the key players in the English Reformation, was one of two parties responsible for breaking up a marriage, which is a sin. (The other being Henry VIII, the king of the famous “tender conscience”). That fact remains largely untouched when discussions of the Reformation arise. There are other incidents that rub the gleam off. Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian and physician, was burned at the stake by the Geneva Council for his non-Trinitarian and anti-infant baptism views. Certainly Servetus should be defined as a heretic for his Oneness teachings, but I wonder how many today, who pride themselves on being Protestant, realize that their views on baptism come not from the Reformers at all. At any rate, burning him at the stake seems excessive, does it not? Martin Luther grew decidedly anti-Semitic, lamenting the failure of European national powers to drive the Jews out of their borders. Riots and war broke out in the city of Munster as radical, millenialist Anabaptists (sometimes “re-baptizers,” or those who believed only adults could be rightly baptized) tried to establish a theocracy.

Again, the Reformation was not neat and tidy. What could have been a deeply cleansing moment for the Church became its bloodiest civil war, a war that rages to this day. And it is true: one of the legacies of the Reformation, one that the Reformers themselves would not have approved, is the continual shattering of churches. Denominations, non-denominations, groups without name and home churches, all of whom may well vary only slightly – and fight to the death on those variances. This is not what the Reformation was about. No Reformer worth his salt would ever advocate the splitting of congregations over things like Bible translation or carpet color.

We have, of course, barely skimmed the surface of a deep and complex period of history that is still being played out. More than a few thick books have been written on the Reformation, Luther, Calvin, TULIP, the Arminian Remonstrance, the Anabaptists and a host of other peoples and topics. It is beyond the scope of this post to hold up every personality or thought for careful scrutiny. The bottom line is that the Reformers were not all saints and the Counter-Reformers were not all sinners. There were problems and there were not problems that got turned into problems.

In my desire to engage in the history cautiously, and to avoid projecting modern ways of thinking onto Renaissance men and women, I do not want to minimize the issues at play. They are very real and there were (and are) souls at stake. Over centuries and very gradually, the Catholic Church sullied the waters of pure doctrine with additions that directly contradict the teaching found in the Bible. Rome does teach another gospel, a gospel that never came from the mouth of Christ or the Apostles. In that, I stand firmly on the side of Protestantism.

As I work on the remainder of this series, I want to treat you, dear reader, with respect. If you are Catholic, you need not be afraid to come here. I will not be calling you names. I simply want everyone and anyone who comes across my writing to be presented with the true message of the Gospel: Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). The only way to know and understand that Gospel is to approach Scripture to with an open heart and an open mind, with a willingness to allow the Word of God to strip away any false beliefs.

With that, I wish you,

My journey to faith. (15)

For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.

References:

1 “Church” will be used throughout this series to describe the universal body of believers. When necessary, I will use “Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “Anglican,” etc. to describe distinct groups.

http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/history/the-english-civil-war-glossary.

3 Patrick Collinson. “The Late Medieval Church and Its Reformation.” The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, ed. by John McManners. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 235-36.

4 Ibid., 236.

5 Ibid., 244.

6 P. Toon. “Indulgences.” Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. by Wwalter A. Elwell. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 605.