As you might guess I am not a big fan of Martin Luther or Henry VIII or Thomas Cranmer. I prefer the Counter Reformation to the Reformation and firmly believe that the word “Reformation” is a misnomer.
It wasn’t a Reformation at all, it was a Revolution, and like all revolutions it was violent, destructive and bloody.
But we won’t take that train this time. Instead, continuing my New Year’s Resolution to stand on my head a bit more, I’d like to not only praise the Protestant Reformation, but assert very strongly that we need another one.
The big difference is that this Reformation doesn’t need to happen only in the Catholic Church. It needs to happen in all the mainline Protestant churches too.
What were the major complaints?
First was the question of indulgences or the forgiveness of sin. Luther’s main complaint was about the abuse of the church’s authority to forgive sins. He was not only opposed to the sale of indulgences, he was also opposed to what might be called cheap grace–in other words, forgiveness without true repentance and amendment of life. While it is true that God’s forgiveness is unconditional, it is also true that it is ineffective and dormant without our co operation.
Is this a problem in the church today (and remember I’m talking about Protestantism as well as Catholicism). You bet it is. Stop, Look and Listen. How often to you hear talk about mercy and forgiveness but you do not hear about sin and the need for true repentance? How often is the gospel reduced to a squishy self help message? You know, “The kingdom of God is within you. All you need to do is claim it and begin to live the abundant life?”
Second was the critique of a super wealthy church that continued to seek more and more wealth. Check out the prosperity gospel mega churches. Check out the bank account of the German bishops who wallow in cash because of the German “church tax”. Check out the Church of England–still rolling in wealth from the lands and property purloined from the Catholic Church 500 years ago.
The critique of a wealthy church was not a critique of wealth in and of itself. Instead the critique was that the wealth was linked with the sale of indulgences. In other words, the grace may have been cheap in spiritual terms, but that’s because it was being bought and sold in worldly wealth. The final analysis of this sick symbiosis is that the power and the authority of the church to forgive sins was up for sale.
Is this not the same situation in the church today? Who calls the shots in the church–any church big or small? Show me the money! It’s the folks with deep pockets. Church leaders find it very difficult to ignore the people with loot. I do. You do. We all do. Sure, ministry needs money, but when the coffers are full isn’t it pretty easy to believe everything is also okay spiritually? The prosperity gospellers teach that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing. In other words, if you’re rich you must be good and if you’re poor something is wrong with you.
Catholics don’t subscribe to the notion quite so explicitly, but anybody who has gone into the engine room knows that the Catholic Church too, has a special seat at the high table for the high rollers.
We should remember Jesus cleansing the temple, because the money changing and sale of animals for sacrifice was the same thing in his day: favoring the rich and making money off religion.
Third was the Reformers complaint about salvation by works. The modern form of this is the reduction of the gospel to social justice. Yes of course I believe the corporal works of mercy are important, but they are the result of a true faith, not the replacement of it. When the supernatural is removed from religion all that is left is the natural, and when grace is forgotten good works is all that is left.
The modernist church–both Catholic and Protestant–has forgotten grace and the supernatural infilling of the Holy Spirit and substituted a religion of good works. The Reformers were right to quote Ephesians 2.-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
Fourth is the church’s neglect of the Bible. There is, in both the Catholic and the mainline Protestant churches a huge neglect of the Bible today. The Word of God has been undermined and sidelined as never before. Few now believe in the inspiration of the Bible and the attacks by modernist Biblical critics has reduced the Bible in many people’s minds to a mish mash of fables, fairy tales, cute parables and a few bromides to put on a poster with puppies or daffodils.
Where the Bible has not been neglected it has been re-interpreted beyond all recognition. Take, for example, the re-interpretation of Jesus words on exclusivity and the gospel’s teaching on hell. Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” He says, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction, and the way is is narrow that leads to eternal life and few there be who find it.” These clear words are hard to hear, and somehow or other they have been re-interpreted to mean everyone will eventually be saved.
This is just one example. Within modernism all the major teachings in both the Bible and the creeds have been re-interpreted to mean almost exactly the opposite of what they clearly teach.
Fifth is the Reformation’s attack on superstition. Parts of the medieval church were swamped with popular superstition about relics, pilgrimages, legends of the saints, the dubious miraculous claims and bogus emotional preachers and wacky religious movements.
Ditto the church today. Alongside the boring institutional modernism that follows a false religion of good works and platitudes is the swamp of popular superstition where prosperity preachers sway huge crowds with superstitious tales of untold riches. Wacky New Age philosophies infect the church while people who have rejected historic Christianity then go on to swallow almost any kind of conspiracy theory, Dispensationalism, the rapture, stories of the paranormal, ideas of aliens….you name it. This is all a form of superstition and along with it goes an anti-intellectualism which only feeds the superstitious.
Sixth was the Reformers’ attack on sexual immorality in the church. Need I say more? Not only the horrible cases of clergy abuse of minors (and this is not just a Catholic priest problem) But also, in the name of mercy the sacrament of marriage is weakened. In the name of “building bridges” disordered behaviors are condoned. Some mainline Protestant churches have now formally established services for the blessing of same sex marriages. The Reformers attacked the sexual decadence, but at least in their day everyone knew what was happening was wrong. In our day we actually bless it.
Seventh was the Reformers’ critique of big government domineering the church. The wealthy abbots, bishops, cardinals and clergy dominated the church’s power structures and imposed increasingly heavy tithes and taxes on the people. The life of the church at the parish level was strangled and with it the charitable work and spiritual work of the church was strangled.
In other words, big government and big, expensive bureaucracy loomed over the real work of God’s little people. Along with this went methods that were hand in hand with the secular power structures. The governors of the church operated along secular power methods and used secular wisdom and machinations to get things done. This was another form of salvation by works–in which everything was done according to man’s wisdom and not God’s.
It is not different today. Big dioceses. Big denominations. Big Vatican. Big religious orders. Big publishing companies. Big multi national charities. Big mega churches, and where there is big power there is always the danger of big corruption.
OK. Now you might well ask, “What are you going to do about it?”
Return to the simple gospel. Read the lives of the saints–especially the Counter Reformation saints. This book by Joseph Pearce is a great read: Heroes of the Catholic Reformation then roll up your sleeves and do what you can with what you have where you are.
Don’t despair. Don’t worry. Pray more and for goodness sake, do it joyfully!