Last year, I compiled a list of three Reformation Day ironies. In a nutshell, they were that Reformation:
(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].
This year, I want to add two more Reformation Day ironies: that it celebrates a document (Luther’s 95 Theses) that damns Protestants; and that, despite its name, it celebrates the failure of the Reformation.
On this day in 1517, according to legend, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging the religious practices of the Catholic Church. While the “Wittenberg door” story is probably legendary, the 95 theses were very real.
|Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Martin Luther
as an Augustinian Monk (1523)
These were a series of 95 theological claims made by Luther, who was then an Augustinian monk. The irony here is that the 95 Theses are far more Catholic than they are Protestant. The most famous portion of the 95 Theses, and the area that Luther devotes most of his attention, is against the sale of indulgences, and the idea that indulgences can replace contrition for sin or bring about salvation: both Catholics and Protestants agree that he was right here. Luther also argued that indulgences were valid against canonical penalties, but not the penalty of Purgatory: both Catholics and Protestants agree that he was wrong here, although for very different reasons.
But when it comes to the areas in which Catholics and Protestants disagree, Luther was still rather Catholic. For example, he expressly affirmed the treasury of “the merits of Christ and the Saints” (# 58), and said that “it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient” (# 61). He affirmed that Mary is “the Mother of God” (# 75), and referred to priests as God’s vicars (# 7). One of Luther’s major frustrations was that indulgences were being too liberally given, and he argued that “true contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated” (# 40).
None of this sounds remotely Protestant, as the term is understood today, but the kicker is canon #71, in which Luther declares: “He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!” Or, in the original Latin: Contra veniarum apostolicarum veritatem qui loquitur, sit ille anathema et maladictus.
As Dr. Andrew Waskey, a Protestant professor at Dalton State, explains that an Apostolic Pardon is “an indulgence, given by a priest, for the remission (releasing from guilt) of sins.” That’s not actually right, but it’s close. An Apostolic Pardon is an indulgence, but (as Luther rightly pointed out) an indulgence doesn’t remove sin: it removes the temporal punishments due to sin. And Apostolic Pardons are those indulgences given to the dying.
So the bizarre irony is that Luther writes a document damning those who deny the truth of indulgences, and a bunch of Protestants who deny the truth of indulgences celebrate that document’s anniversary every year.
In response to the last irony, Protestant readers might be tempted to respond: “But that’s not the point. Luther’s 95 Theses may have been largely wrong, but they opened the floodgates of the Reformation.” And that brings us to the last irony. Reformation Day, despite its name, doesn’t celebrate reforms within the Catholic Church, but a split away from the Catholic Church.
|Giotto, Dream of Pope Innocent III (1299)|
There are essentially two ways of understanding the term “Reformation.” The first is as a “reform” movement, seeking to correct abuses within the Church in the way that “reform schools” seek to correct bad behavior. There has been plenty of “reformation” in Church history in this sense.
St. Francis of Assisi, for example, began a reform movement within the Church after a dream in which Christ appeared to him and said, “repair my Church, which is falling into ruin.” When he approached Pope Innocent III about his ideas, the pope initially refused to meet with him, until he had a dream of his own, in which he saw the Lateran Basilica in Rome leaning, being prevented from falling by St. Francis.
Luther intended this first sense of “reformation.” His 95 Theses were intended to spark theological reflection and internal Church reform. Had he been more patient, he may well have lived to see these reforms succeed. In fact, this reflection and reform did occur within the Church, culminating in the Council of Trent’s decree concerning indulgences which both restricted the use of indulgences, and forbade their sale. But that was 1563, by which point Luther had already: rejected pope’s authority; split from the Church; been excommunicated: and died (still outside the Church, sadly). In his stead, he left behind a growing number of followers who were in no hurry to return to the Catholic Church.
As a reform movement, then, Luther largely succeeded within Catholicism, but failed within Protestantism. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:
|G. K. Chesterton|
It is perfectly true that we can find real wrongs, provoking rebellion, in the Roman Church just before the Reformation. What we cannot find is one of those real wrongs that the Reformation reformed. For instance, it was an abominable abuse that the corruption of the monasteries sometimes permitted a rich noble to play the patron and even play at being the Abbot, or draw on the revenues supposed to belong to a brotherhood of poverty and charity. But all that the Reformation did was to allow the same rich noble to take over ALL the revenue, to seize the whole house and turn it into a palace or a pig-sty, and utterly stamp out the last legend of the poor brotherhood. The worst things in worldly Catholicism were made worse by Protestantism.
But the best things remained somehow through the era of corruption; nay, they survived even the era of reform. They survive to-day in all Catholic countries, not only in the colour and poetry and popularity of religion, but in the deepest lessons of practical psychology. And so completely are they justified, after the judgment of four centuries, that every one of them is now being copied, even by those who condemned it; only it is often caricatured. Psycho-analysis is the Confessional without the safeguards of the Confessional; Communism is the Franciscan movement without the moderating balance of the Church; and American sects, having howled for three centuries at the Popish theatricality and mere appeal to the senses, now “brighten” their services by super-theatrical films and rays of rose-red light falling on the head of the minister. If we had a ray of light to throw about, we should not throw it on the minister.
So within Catholicism, there is a sense that Luther could be described as a reformer (in a narrow sense), but not so in Protestantism. Within Protestantism, Luther reforms nothing (and his proposed reforms are quickly ignored, as Chesterton noted).
Instead, we must speak of “reformation” in a very different sense: in the sense of a re-Formation of the Church. Rather than changing the existing Church, simply discarding Her like so much snake skin and starting over. Put this way, the problem of Protestantism is immediately obvious. This Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who promised Her that the Gates of Hell would not overcome (Mt. 16:17-19) and that His Holy Spirit would be with Her forever (John 14:16). To arrogate to oneself the power to re-found the Church is blasphemous, for two reasons. First, it puts a created man (Luther, Calvin, etc.) in the place of Jesus Christ. Second, it declares Christ’s promises false.
|Ary Scheffer, Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem (1851)|
So the final irony is that Reformation Day is celebrated by the very people for whom Luther was not a religious reformer, but a religious founder. Luther is treated as having built an alternative to Catholicism, and modern Protestantism has almost completely lost sight of the idea that it was created to be a reform movement within the Catholic Church. For this sort of Protestantism, Luther is not a reformer, but a founder. Instead of a St. Francis, he’s commemorated by Protestants precisely as a sort of Jefferson Davis or a George Washington: that is, as a rebel and a revolutionary, rather than a reformer.
Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, put all of this better than I could in a moving 1995 Reformation Day homily. While his whole homily is worth a read, I specifically wanted to highlight this portion:
I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.
Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday. [….]
Of course, the Papacy has often been unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don’t even know we’re being judged for our disunity.