When Will the Reformation End?

Over at Called to Communion, there’s a really worthwhile piece up about the claim of the Catholic Church to be the Church founded by Christ.  It starts out with a gem of a quote:

“So we stand here and with open mouth stare heavenward and invent still other keys. Yet Christ says very clearly in Matthew 16:19 that He will give the keys to Peter. He does not say He has two kinds of keys, but He gives to Peter the keys He Himself has, and no others. It is as if He were saying: why are you staring heavenward in search of the keys? Do you not understand I gave them to Peter? They are indeed the keys of Heaven, but they are not found in Heaven. I left them on earth. Don’t look for them in Heaven or anywhere else except in Peter’s mouth where I have placed them. Peter’s mouth is My mouth, and his tongue is My key case. His office is My office, his binding and loosing are My binding and loosing.”

What’s stunning about this quote isn’t just how aggressively Catholic it is, but who said it: Martin Luther.  This was a guy who clearly saw his mission as one of true reformation: that in protesting what he thought were abuses within the Church, that he could get the Church to change.  That’s Reformation in the historic sense of the term, not the sense it’s often used now (of re-creating the Church).  It’s a helpful insight into where Luther was coming from, and it shouldn’t be too hard for modern Catholics to grasp.  After all, Archbishop Lefebvre is a modern example: like Luther, he loved the Catholic Church; like Luther, he was rightly appalled at abuses within the Church.  Sadly, both Luther and Lefebvre were convinced that their own precise reforms (a combination of good and bad ideas, in both cases) had to be adopted wholesale by the Church, and at once: when that didn’t happen, both men proved obstinate and disobedient, and both died excommunicated from the Church they sought to “fix.”

Now it’s true that Luther, in his later years, became more caustic and bitter towards the Church, and that his followers turned his campaign to reform into a full-scale revolt, and outright rejection of the Church, but we must not forget that the point of the Reformation was to cause the Church – that is, the Catholic Church – to reform and change, not to cease to be.

A good contrast here is a comment made the other day by The 27th Comrade, who says:

One of the many reasons why I am not a Protestant is because I have nothing to protest against among the Catholics. As far as I am concerned, they are just as wrong as those American Evangelicals who are legalistic in their preaching. Unless I am going to protest against, say, Sikhism and its rejection of what I feel are fundamental theological truths, I will not protest against Catholicism either. It is true, however, that all humans—minus those who accede to Grace by Faith—are Pharisees; Catholic and animist alike.

Now, there are plenty of things wrong with this comment.  Theologically, it’s quite wrong (trying to turn the Pharisees into all of humanity is just wrong: they were individuals and a group, not an archetype of humanity), but eclessiologically, it makes sense.  If you truly reject that the Catholic Church is the Church, and if you have no hope for reunification between Protestants and Catholics, basking instead in the false freedom of schism, then it’s dishonest to call yourself “Reformed” or “Protestant,” since those terms suggest a relationship with the Church which you reject.

On the other hand, for those who do carry the banner of “Reformed” or “Protestant,” Professor Carl Trueman, an Evangelical professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, poses this challenge:

When I finished reading the book [i.e. Is the Reformation Over], I have to confess that I agreed with the authors, in that it does indeed seem that the Reformation is over for large tracts of evangelicalism; yet the authors themselves do not draw the obvious conclusion from their own arguments. Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that if Noll and Nystrom are correct, many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church. I cannot go down that path myself, primarily because of my view of justification by faith and because of my ecclesiology; but those who reject the former and lack the latter have no real basis upon which to perpetuate what is, in effect, an act of schism on their part. For such, the Reformation is over; for me, the fat lady has yet to sing; in fact, I am not sure at this time that she has even left her dressing room.

Lefebvre and Luther both understood, and seemingly held, this position – betting their souls on the fact that they knew what was right for the Church.  If memory serves*, Lefebvre explained that he was deeply in love with Catholic Tradition, but that given the climate of the Church at the time, these Traditions were best perserved outside of canonical union with Rome.  Luther likewise, was of the opinion, at least early on, that once the pope considered and understood his ideas, he’d realize at once they were right.**  Both of them saw their excommunications, apparently, as simply exiles in pursuit of the Gospel.  Whether this belief was the fruit of pride or an immature-but-sincere devotion to Christ is a matter only He can judge, but there’s something admittedly beautiful in the notion of going any length when called by Christ.  (The example of St. Joan of Arc, who also died excommunicated, comes to mind, although in her case, the trial was an obvious sham, and the pope would have none of it).

Anyways, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that those of you Protestants who are serious about Catholics being Christians — and being Christians with an older and established Church from which your own ecclessial traditions broke off in schism — have a real obligation to take the idea of reunion seriously.  When, and under what circumstances?  Must Roman Catholicism look exactly like your own denomination before the two can reunite?  And those of you Protestants who aren’t serious about Catholics being Christians, or who aren’t concerned with healing the schism, should reconsider.

*I can’t find the quote, so it may have been someone other than Abp. Lefebvre who said this.
** Luther seemingly thought that anyone who heard his ideas would know they were right: his virulently anti-Semitic tracts in later life were apparently rooted in his anger that the Jews of Germany didn’t convert to Lutheranism en masse once his version of the Gospel was proclaimed to them.


  1. Pharisees are those who make justification before God a matter of works, not of faith. That is the state of all, excepting the believers in Jesus Christ to the justification of them. In that sense, Catholics and animists are Pharisees. If it is meant more-narrowly, to be a particular Second-Temple period Jewish sect; then they are not Pharisees. But you know which one I meant.

    I hope Protestants can recognise that the Truth (by definition) cannot be reformed. All you have to do is find it. You can reform a political party, or a moral system, or a club, or the like. But the Truth cannot be reformed. It can only be moved-to; believed-into. This says something noteworthy about the Roman Catholic Church.

    (Mr. Heschmeyer; I am going back to the other thread, so that we can leave this comment thread about as clean as I found it.)

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