Still Crazy After All These Years: A Reformation Scorecard at 500

Amid the commemorations and celebrations of Martin Luther nailing several Latin points for disputation upon his local bulletin board, there has been some discussion about whether the Reformation “failed” or “succeeded.”  The answer, of course, depends on what you think the Reformation’s goal was.  But to enable you to reach your own conclusions, I thought a scorecard might be helpful.First, the historical comparison.  The first list enumerates various ideas in the sixteenth century for the reform of the church, and subsequent columns indicate which groups accepted them.  A word about group labels: the term “Catholic” at that time was equally claimed by almost all groups, and “Protestant” only referred to six German princes and a dozen cities who issued a protestatio at an imperial confab in 1529.  So I have divided the many different groups of that into “pro-papal” and “anti-papal” camps, and sub-divided the latter into “pro-state” and “anti-state.”  The “pro-papal” camp is the ancestor of today’s Roman Catholics, the “anti-papal, pro-state” camp the progenitor of modern mainline Protestant churches, while the “anti-state” camp provides the inspiration for later Baptist, Brethren, and Restorationist groups and the ancestry for certain “Anabaptist” denominations (such as the Mennonites). It should be noted, of course, that a table like this is always an over-simplification, and there were varying views within each group. Further refinement in the comments is welcomed.

pro-papal anti-papal, pro-state anti-papal, anti-state
1. married clergy No! Yes Yes, but clergy?
2. vernacular worship No! Yes Yes
3. vernacular Bible No! (except English) Yes Yes
4. lay communion in both kinds No! (except saints) Yes Yes
5. meaning of communion transubstantiation Luther: consubstantiation; Zwingli: memorialism; Calvin & Anglicans: it’s a mystery memorialism
6. scripture alone No! Theory: Yes; Practice: No[1] Yes
7. means of grace sacraments, indulgences, saints’ intercession, etc. preaching (many add sacraments) community
8. salvation by faith alone No! Yes most: Yes
9. priesthood of all believers Not the point! [2] Yes, and clergy Yes, so no clergy!
10. limits of one true church are invisible No Yes No
11. reject veneration of saints No Yes Yes
12. reject monasticism No Yes Yes
13. reject Trinity No No Some
14. liturgical uniformity Yes By state No
15. state determines exclusive local religion Yes Yes No!
16. state executes heretics Yes Yes No!
17. rebellion acceptable against heretical rulers Jesuits: Yes; others: no Huguenots: Yes; others: no Münsterites: Yes; others: no
18. abolish indulgences No, but only salesmen Yes Yes
19. community of property No (except monasteries) No some: Yes, please!
20. women’s religious leadership No (except Virgin Mary and abbesses) No (except in the home) Some

[1] The pro-State reformers claimed that they only believed what was proved by the Bible, but they often appealed to other authorities when attempting to convince others of their particular interpretation of the Bible.

[2] The word used for Roman Catholic priests is a different word than the word used in the New Testament texts cited by Protestants for this doctrine (presbyteros vs. sacerdos in Latin, πρεσβύτερος vs. ἱερεύς in Greek), although the usage of the terms bled into one another.

So those were many of the ideas proposed and debated during the Reformation. Where do those ideas stand today? It is impossible to capture post-Reformation Christianity today in just a few categories, but with certainty of over-simplifying, the following table examines the same twenty issues in terms of progressive and traditionalist Roman Catholics, and conservative and liberal Protestants. For these purposes, the heirs of the anti-state group have been included among the Protestants. Evangelicals are split among those who are theologically conservative and those who are theologically liberal, so they are not a separate category here.

traditionalist Roman Catholic progressive Roman Catholic liberal Protestant conservative Protestant
1. married clergy No! (except Uniates) Please Yes Yes
2. vernacular worship Latin’s better Yes Yes Yes
3. vernacular Bible Latin’s better Yes Yes Yes
4. lay communion in both kinds (grumbles) Yes Yes Yes
5. meaning of communion transub-stantiation Social justice! Social justice! Varies: (Real Presence to memorialism)
6. scripture alone No! What for? I prefer other books Theory: Yes; Practice: No
7. means of grace sacraments, indulgences, saints’ intercession, &c sacraments & social justice preaching & social justice preaching (some add sacraments)
8. salvation by faith alone No! Salvation? Salvation? Yes
9. priesthood of all believers No! Yes, and clergy Yes (varies whether with clergy or not) Yes (varies whether with clergy or not)
10. limits of one true church are invisible No Yes True church? What’s that? Yes
11. reject veneration of saints No Keep saints who support the poor Don’t venerate, but lionize Yes
12. reject monasticism No! Keep those that support the poor Yes, but intentional community is good Yes
13. reject Trinity No Many Many No!
14. liturgical uniformity No! (We need Latin!) Sorta! No No
15. state determines exclusive local religion If only! No No No
16. state executes heretics If only! No! No! No
17. rebellion acceptable against heretical rulers No No No No
18. abolish indulgences No, but only salesmen We don’t do that any more! Yes Yes
19. community of property No (except monasteries) No (but good idea) No (but good idea) No!
20. women’s religious leadership No (except Virgin Mary and abbesses) Please! Yes! Some

So some major Protestant reforms (vernacular worship and Bible, lay communion in both kinds) have caught on even among Roman Catholics, while some “Anabaptist” ideas have likewise spread (against liturgical uniformity, against state control of religion, but not the community of property). Other issues remain defining differences between Catholics and Protestants (veneration of saints, monasticism as such), while more recent developments have drawn liberals on both sides together (social justice, anti-Trinitarianism, women’s ordination). As I said at the outset, there are wide ranges of views in each of these categories, so this is necessarily over-simplified, but it shows some historical trends. The Reformation did not completely fail, but it certainly did not completely succeed either.

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4 comments

  1. This was a lot of fun and a very informative breakdown. It’s really interesting to see how all of these groups have changed (on average, of course) over the past 500 years. It took me till near the end to realize that the use of exclamation marks was important. I appreciate that attention to detail.

  2. The liberal side of the Lutheran tradition in the US has taken up the saying, “Always reforming,” as a kind of self-congratulation (my bias leaked out there, didn’t it?). Reforming and repenting are not the same. Reforming can end in a new different entity as it attempts to rehabilitate. Repentance, on the other hand, is submission to another. So in my mind, the question about the success of the Reformation is not one that has any purchase. The Question is what does true worship by the true church in Spirit and truth even look like.

    1. I’m afraid the liberal Lutherans got that from the Reformed tradition, which has always congratulated itself on its status as “reformed” (as opposed, implicitly, to everyone else being un-reformed or inadequately reformed) and more recently as “always being reformed.” The slogan ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (“a reformed church is always to be reformed”) originally meant, theologically, that the work of reformation is never done, that we cannot rest on our accomplishments as “reformed” but need to keep pursuing further reform. The most detailed tracing of the phrase’s origin I have found is here, alongside conservative Presbyterian complaints about how liberal (or at any rate less Westminsterian) Presbyterians are invoking the phrase.

      I appreciate your distinction between reform and repentance. I would point to another contrast: in repentance I change my behavior, whereas in reform I change yours. Reform is more communal, but also potentially a tool of contestations of power, and does not necessarily entail admitting that I was wrong.

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