Two More “Reformation Day” Ironies

In addition to being Halloween, October 31st is “Reformation Day,” celebrating Martin Luther’s defiant act of nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on this day in 1517 (more on this soon). For the last two years, I’ve used the day to point out the unintentional ironies of Reformation Day – some funny, some sad. In 2011, I noted that Reformation Day:

(1) is celebrated by making graven images of Reformers who hated images;
(2) is intended to Christianize a “pagan” holiday, yet is celebrated by many of the same Evangelicals who refuse to celebrate Christmas for fear that it’s a Christianized pagan holiday;
(3) avoids celebrating “evil” [Halloween] by celebrating evil [schism].

In 2012, I added two more to the list, describing how Reformation Day:

(4) celebrates a document damning Protestants for rejecting papal authority over Apostolic Pardons.
(5) celebrates a movement that, despite its name and initial, failed as a reform movement of the Catholic Church. [After all, if Protestants thought that it had succeeded, they would be Catholics].

Two more ironies to add this year:

(6) Reformation Day is a Protestant Man-Made Accretion Protesting Man-Made Accretions

One of the major reasons that Reformation Day is popular among Protestants is that it celebrates what they believe is the triumph of Truth over false man-made traditions. So, for example, the Protestant blog The Road to 31 explains: “We celebrate Reformation Day because it represents the reclaiming of the one true gospel that had been lost in the Catholic church and replaced with the traditions and teachings of men.

The problem is, a good chunk of the Reformation Day story seems to be made up. As The Road to 31 notes, Reformation Day is built around a central event: “On October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These on the Power of Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church.

This probably never happened.
October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg with hammer strokes which echoed throughout all of Europe. This act has been portrayed numerous times thoughout the centuries, and until the 21st century it was accepted as fact. It has become a symbol of the Reformation as nothing else has. 
It was like a slap in the face when the [C]atholic Luther researcher, Erwin Iserloh, asserted in 1961 that the nailing of the theses to the door of the Castle Church belonged to the realm of legends. 
The facts are convincing, the first written account of the event comes from Philipp Melanchthon who could not have been an eye-witness to the event since he was not called to Wittenberg University as a professor until 1518. 
Also, this account appeared for the first time after Luther’s death and he never commented on ‘nailing anything up’ in 1517.  […]
It is also worth noting, that there was no open discussion of the theses in Wittenberg and that no original printing of the theses could be found.
So Reformation Day takes a legendary bit of Lutheran hagiography, along with other false and ahistorical traditions (like Luther’s famous “Here I stand” line from his defense at the Diet of Worms, which was also made up), to commemorate the alleged triumph of truth over man-made tradition.
(7) Reformation Day celebrates the supremacy of the Bible by commemorating an event the Bible condemns.
The other, closely-related reason for Reformation Day’s popularity is that the Catholic Church allegedly didn’t care about the Bible, and refused to let the people know what the Bible said, much less read it for themselves. These claims persists despite the fact that the Church was the one solely responsible for preserving the Bible for centuries, and despite the numerous Biblical commentaries, etc., being produced at this time, or the various German-language Bibles existing decades before Luther was born, like the Mentel Bible. But ignore all that history. The important part is that Luther came along and showed the Bible was really important!
There are several things ironic about this narrative. The popular version of Luther is that he elevated Scripture over the Church. The real Luther elevated his theological opinions over both Scripture and the Church: he was so convinced that sola fide is right that even when he found parts of the Bible that directly contradicted the doctrine, he just cut them out of the Bible
And his Bible, which supposedly put the word of God in the hands of the German people for the first time, actually sowed the seeds of doubts about Scripture, as Luther added his own prefaces, denying the canonicity of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, as well as Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. 
But there’s arguably a bigger issue. However compelling you may find the Biblical arguments for the various Protestant doctrines in dispute, Biblical teaching on schism is clearly opposed to the practice. The Bible calls for Christians to be “one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This is also what Jesus Christ prayed for, for His future followers, in John 17:20-23. St. Paul goes so far as to describe schism, including both dissensions and factions, as the sort of sin that will keep you out of Heaven (Gal. 5:20). And this becomes a real problem for those defending Reformation Day: they’re celebrating a set of events that culminate in schism. 
Of course, Biblically-literate Protestants aren’t blind to this fact. The Road to 31 defends the celebration of schism this way:
You might ask why is a schism in the Church something to be celebrated? Should we not welcome unity rather than division? 
Unity within the Church is a very good thing and is even commanded (Philippians 2:2), but so is separating out the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13). The Church will always need sifting while we are on this earth. Our pews and even pulpits are full of sinners, some saved by grace and some not. Corruption cannot and will not be tolerated within the Body of Christ.
Look at the wheat and tares parable cited to support schism. It teaches literally the opposite of what Reformation Day teaches (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.  

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ 

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. 

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ 

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” [….]

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” 
He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. 
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

So the Body of Christ, until the end of time, will contain both Saints and sinners. And of course, this has always been true, as anyone familiar with the Apostle Judas should be aware. Christ explicitly forbids us from trying to create a manmade church of just the wheat (and prophesies that it’ll never succeed). Yet this is the passage that The Road to 31 uses to defend Reformation Day, since apparently we have arrogated to ourselves the duty of “separating out the wheat from the tares,” a duty Christ entrusts to the angels at the Last Judgment.

11 Comments

  1. Joe,
    I just wanted to thank you again for all the work you do. I pray it bears much fruit in bring unity between Christians through the Truth. God bless brother! How far along are you in seminary? I just started year one.

    1. Thanks, Michael! I share your prayer for Christian unity grounded in truth. I’m in my second year of pre-theology at Kenrick-Glennon, and love it. How are you liking your first year, and which seminary are you at?

      I.X.,

      Joe

  2. Dear Mr. Heschmeyer. The note about Melanchton was telling in that it is his Theology and Doctrines, not Luther’s, not the Bible, that the Lutherans follow.

    Frankly, Mr. Luther was insane and not even Christian. I posted three reprints from the now defunct “30 Days” having first waited months for a response of mine for permission to post them so I assume my posts are jake; in any event, what the pieces reveal about Mr. Luther is far more frightening than All Hallow’s Eve:

    P.S. I really love this Blog and all of your work. How did someone as orthodox as you ever make it into today’s seminary? 🙂

    http://southernvermontcrank.blogspot.com/2013/10/luther-in-light-1.html

  3. I am not Spartacus,

    I know that there’s a popular conception of the American seminary system as screening out orthodox seminarians (and at one time, that was probably true), but that hasn’t been my experience here at Kenrick-Glennon at all. I’m surrounded by men who eagerly accept all that the Magisterium teaches. Literally, I don’t know of even one seminarian here who rejects Magisterial teaching. And that’s encouraged by the administration and faculty, as are Holy Hours, rosaries, and a lot of other devotions that are vital to a man’s spiritual formation.

    I.X.,

    Joe

  4. I grew up Protestant. The standard story I got about the Reformation was that Martin Luther brought everybody back to the true teaching which had been obscured by the Catholic Church.

    Now, after studying Church history, I’ve been viewing the Reformation in a different way for about a year now. It’s utterly bizarre to think that I’ve been dead wrong about something this big my whole life. It’s very disorienting. At the same time, I don’t feel any animosity toward Luther. I hope that he’s been forgiven and that he’s in heaven.

    If anything, I think the Great Schism is 100x worse than the Reformation. I do feel frustration at that one, because now I’m stuck trying to discern between two equally ancient communions that both claim to be the Church, outside of which there isn’t any salvation. That isn’t fair. People much smarter than I am that have studied the question have come to opposite conclusions.

    It’ll be interesting to see how God works it all out. It doesn’t really seem fair that pious Protestants much more spiritual than I am should be left outside of the Church. If the Orthodox Church is the true church, it doesn’t really seem fair that Catholics should be left outside of the church. And if the Catholic Church is the true church, it doesn’t seem fair that the Orthodox are outside of it. I’m very curious to see how it will all be resolved.

  5. Joe,

    I think your schism argument is incomplete without addressing heresy. Paul says that those who preach another gospel are anathema, heretics who persist after a second admonition are anathema, and advises believers not to eat with those who persist in error (sexual behavior in context). So the Reformers quite reasonably could’ve believed they were between Scylla and Charybdis: sinful schism on one hand, sinful tolerance of heresy/false gospel on the other.

    1. CJ,

      Good point. I’ve actually raised that exact point before. It involves believing that the Holy Spirit lead the Church into a morally-impossible situation, where they had to embrace the sin of heresy or the sin of schism.

      There are two ways of avoiding that catch-22: (i) the pre-Reformation Church wasn’t a true Church; or (ii) the Church wasn’t heretical, and the Protestant schism was wrong. If (i), that raises the equally-impossible problem of the Holy Spirit leaving the Church an orphan, or the Church simply disappearing. That leaves (ii).

      I.X.,

      Joe

    2. Thanks for the link to your previous article, Joe. The dilemma you presented is no doubt the reason for Protestant ‘invisible church” ecclesiology.

  6. Re: Your Seminary

    That’s excellent to hear!

    Just me thinking out loud here about Protestantism: From c.33 AD to c. 533 AD, the Catholic Church went from a group of a dozen or so terrified men who just saw their leader executed by the Romans to the dominate faith in Europe. In contrast, 500 years since Luther, Europe is now on the brink of falling to Islam…

    I can’t blame it all on Protestantism, but I think it has had a role to play.

    I also thought back to 1453, when Constantinople fell, and at that point the Church lost the Eastern portion of Europe. But 100 years later, in 1553, we gained pretty much all of South America and even the Philippines.

    If Western Europe does fall to Islam — There is no reason it can’t, Jesus made no such promise to protect it or even Western Civilization for that matter, just to protect His Church. This is also a great opportunity as the Church has never had this many Muslims right next door to preach the Gospel to. — I won’t be that worried.

    With the advancements in space travel that are brewing today (http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/ and http://www.spacex.com/ to name just two exciting things on the horizon), we might lose Europe, but hopefully we’ll gain the Solar System. — My silly dream is to one day marry a nice Catholic woman, and then convince her to be a part of a Catholic Colony on Mars, where we’ll have lots of well-adjusted Catholic children.

    1. My view – How about we stop accepting the fall of Europe and fight back? It was this outlook that lost the Church the region of North Africa and the entire Middle East – once upon a time the main centres of the Church. In fact, only Rome seems to have never been under Islamic rule because all the other churches – Constantinople to Alexandria to Antioch have all succumbed. I have noticed that unlike the Eastern churches, the Catholic Church has never backed away from a fight. It took back Sicily from the Muslims after fighting for 300 years, it took back Malta from them after fighting them for 500 years and it took back Spain from them after fighting for close to 800 years. This is why I have greater respect for the Church. Granted nowadays, the Catholic Church would rather make compromises but I believe it is not in our make-up to back away.

      Wasn’t it a Pope who said that Catholics are born for war? Spiritual war and Physical War.

      The only other church that has had the gall to fight back against Islam has been the Russian Orthodox Church.

      So, no, I’m not giving them Europe just because we have South America – which by the way, we are loosing really really fast.

      No, stand your ground and begin the long fight to reclaim – and not just from the Muslims but also from the Protestants and the secularists in the West

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