In this month when the Protestant Reformation is commemorated it is worth standing a few things on their head.
Yes, the Protestant Reformation was a tragedy. Yes, Martin Luther and John Calvin and the others were often deeply unpleasant characters. Yes, the Protestant Revolution was motivated by politics and money and hijacked by princes. Yes, Protestantism ruptured Christendom forever. Yes, the Protestant Revolution ushered in war, revolution and bloodshed on both sides. Yes, the Protestant Revolution was ugly, violent and Catholics should be scratching their heads wondering why on earth we should celebrate such a thing–as if the Romanovs would celebrate the Bolsheviks?
But hold on. Let’s stand it on its head for a moment. Granting all of the above, we should also remember the problems in the late medieval church. Eamon Duffy has shown that the church at the end of the 15th century was robust and working towards its own grass roots reformation, but at the top things were not so good. Pluralism and simony were rife. Worldliness and greed and lust were all too common. Superstition, ignorance and salvation by works were the default settings for many ordinary Christians.
The Reformers, for all their faults and heresies, stressed three things that needed to be stressed. These three things needed to be stressed then and they need to be stressed now and in every age.
They are the three main “solas”- Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone and Faith Alone. To stand things on their head I contend that these three–Scripture, Grace and Faith are vital and need to be preached. The problem is the other word – “Alone”.
A man is most often right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies and what the word “alone” does is bases an affirmation in an equal denial. While the Reformers rightly stressed the need to affirm Scripture, Grace and Faith, they fatally attached the word “alone” thereby enshrining an exclusion and an imbalance in their system of thought.
What, shall we have Scripture without the interpretative authority of the church’s magisterium and the living tradition of her bishops? What, shall we have grace without man’s co-operation with that grace? Shall we have faith without works? The problem was therefore not the stress on Scripture, Grace and Faith, but on the exclusion of tradition, co-operation and good works.
Remembering the Reformation is important today because modernist-liberal Christianity needs to hear the same message. In all the commemorations of the Reformation what I have not heard anybody point out is the fact that today it is not just the Catholic Church that needs to hear the trumpet call of Scripture, Grace and Faith–but so do the mainline Protestant churches themselves.
Liberal Christianity is in exactly the same place as the late medieval church-mutatis mutandi. The late medieval church was wealthy, power hungry, lukewarm, immoral, corrupt and complacent. Ditto liberal Christianity today.
The late medieval church followed a religion of good works. Ditto liberal Christianity today–its total message being one of peace, justice, equality and environmental concern. Lets be blunt. Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism is a religion of salvation by good works. Even worse its not even “salvation” because it is usually combined with universalism which denies the need of salvation. They need a Reformer to call them back to salvation by faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning work.
The late medieval church was too often caught up in its own concerns and getting on with what they considered good according to their own energy and ideas. Being involved politically and building a kingdom here on earth and relying on their own strength rather than God’s supernatural grace. Ditto the liberal Christianity today. Always concerned with political machinations, building little kingdoms and trying to make the world a better place by their own power, energy, ideas and ideologies. They need a Reformer to call them back to a reliance on God’s good grace.
Finally, who reads the Bible anymore? Liberal Christianity–both Catholic and Protestant–has eviscerated the Scriptures. Modern destructive forms of Biblical criticism have killed the Bible and left the corpse for the birds to pick over. The power and the priorities of the faith are there in the Scriptures. Modern Catholics and Protestants would not be so confused and argumentative about priorities and positions in the church if they sat down and read a chapter of the New Testament every day as if they believed it. Instead when they do read the Bible they too often do so selectively–leaving out what they don’t like in an effort to “re-interpret” it. The Scriptures are living and active and sharper than a two edged sword. We need a Reformer to call us back to a love of the Scriptures.
Does is seem strange that a Catholic priest should praise the Reformation? I’m seeing what was good about it and proclaiming that we need those good things more than ever before.
Furthermore, I’m calling on all the liberal Catholics and Protestants who are holding hands and smiling at one another and commemorating the Reformation this month to look again and agree that what was vital and primary in the Reformers’ campaign is still vital and primary today.
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