Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 17—1530 onward—Protestantism—A Reformation?
“To innovate is not to reform.”—Edmund Burke, 18th-century member of Britain’s Parliament
PROTESTANT historians view the Protestant Reformation as having restored genuine Christianity. Catholic scholars, on the other hand, say it resulted in theological error. However, what does the rearview mirror of religious history reveal? Was the Protestant Reformation really a reformation, or was it simply an innovation, replacing one flawed form of worship with another?
God’s Word Given Special Status
Protestant reformers emphasized the importance of the Scriptures. They rejected traditions, although Martin Marty, senior editor of The Christian Century magazine, says that during the past century, “more and more Protestants have been willing to see a relationship between the Bible and tradition.” This was not true of their “ancestors in faith,” however. For them “the Bible held a special status, and tradition or papal authority could never match it.”
This attitude accelerated interest in the translation, distribution, and study of the Bible. During the mid-15th century—over half a century before Reformation wheels were set rolling—Luther’s fellow German Johannes Gutenberg provided forthcoming Protestantism with a useful tool. Having developed a method of printing from movable type, Gutenberg produced the first printed Bible. Luther saw in this invention great possibilities, and he called printing “God’s latest and best work to spread the true religion throughout the world.”
More people could now possess their own Bible, a development the Catholic Church did not endorse. In 1559 Pope Paul IV ruled that no Bible could be printed in the vernacular without church approval, and this the church refused to grant. In fact, in 1564 Pope Pius IV stated: “Experience has shown that if reading of the Bible in the vulgar tongue is permitted indiscriminately, . . . more harm than good arises therefrom.”
The Reformation produced a new kind of “Christianity.” It replaced the authority of the papacy with individual free choice. Catholic Mass was replaced by the Protestant liturgy, and awesome Catholic cathedrals by normally less pretentious Protestant churches.
History teaches us that movements originally religious in nature often take on social and political overtones. This proved to be true of the Protestant Reformation. Columbia University professor of history Eugene F. Rice, Jr., elaborates: “In the Middle Ages the Western church had been a European corporation. During the first half of the sixteenth century it broke apart into a large number of local territorial churches . . . [over which] secular rulers exercised a predominant control.” This resulted in “the culmination of the long medieval struggle between secular and clerical authority. . . . The balance of power swung decisively and finally from church to state and from priest to layman.”
For the individual this meant greater liberty, both religious and civil. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism had no central agency to monitor doctrine or practice, thus allowing for a wide spectrum of religious opinion. This, in turn, gradually promoted a religious tolerance and liberal attitude that at the time of the Reformation was still inconceivable.
Greater freedom unleashed previously unused energies. It was the stimulus, some claim, that was needed to trigger the social, political, and technological developments responsible for thrusting us into our modern age. The Protestant work ethic was “translated into both government and daily life,” writes the late author Theodore White. He defined this as “the credo that man is responsible directly before God for his conscience and his acts, without the intervention or intercession of priests. . . . If a man worked hard, plowed deep, neither slacked nor slothed, and took care of his wife and children, then either fortune or God would reward his efforts.”
Should these apparently positive aspects of Protestantism blind us to its shortcomings? The Protestant Reformation was also “the occasion for enormous evils,” says the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, adding: “The age of the Jesuits and the Inquisition was brought to an end . . . only to be followed by something lower still. If there was much honest ignorance in the Middle Ages, there is much organized falsehood now.”
“Organized Falsehood”—In What Respect?
It was “organized falsehood” because Protestantism promised doctrinal reform but failed to deliver. Often, it was church policy, not the untruthfulness of doctrine, that raised the ire of reformers. For the most part, Protestantism retained Catholicism’s pagan-tainted religious ideas and practices. How? An outstanding example is the Trinity doctrine, which is the main basis for membership in the Protestant World Council of Churches. Adherence to this doctrine is very strong, although The Encyclopedia of Religion admits that ‘exegetes and theologians today agree that nowhere in the Bible is the doctrine explicitly taught.’
Did Protestantism reform a corrupt form of church government? No. Instead, it “carried over authority patterns from medieval Catholicism,” says Martin Marty, and “simply broke from Roman Catholic establishment to form Protestant versions.”
Protestantism also promised to restore “the oneness in the faith.” However, this Biblical promise went unfulfilled with the development of many divisive Protestant sects.—Ephesians 4:13.
Today, in 1989, Protestantism has crumbled into so many sects and denominations that it would be impossible to determine the total number. Before a person could finish counting, new groups would have been formed or others would have disappeared.
Nevertheless, the World Christian Encyclopedia does the “impossible” by dividing Christendom (as of 1980) into “20,780 distinct Christian denominations,” the vast majority of which are Protestant.a They include 7,889 classic Protestant groups, 10,065 mostly Protestant nonwhite indigenous religions, 225 Anglican denominations, and 1,345 marginal Protestant groups.
In explanation of how this confusing diversity, called both “a sign of health and of sickness,” came about, the book Protestant Christianity mentions that it “may be due to human creativity and human finitude; even more it may be due to prideful men who think too highly of their own outlook upon life.”
How true! Without giving sufficient consideration to divine truth, prideful men offer new alternatives for finding salvation, liberation, or fulfillment. Religious pluralism finds no support in the Bible.
In promoting religious pluralism, Protestantism seems to imply that God has no set guidelines according to which he is to be worshiped. Is such organized confusion consistent with a God of truth, who the Bible says “is a God, not of disorder, but of peace”? Is the often heard Protestant go-to-the-church-of-your-choice mentality any different from the independent thinking that led Adam and Eve into erroneous belief and subsequent trouble?—1 Corinthians 14:33; see Genesis 2:9; 3:17-19.
Ignoring the Bible’s Special Status
Despite the special status assigned the Bible by early reformers, Protestant theologians later fathered higher criticism and “thus treated the biblical text,” says Marty, “as they would any other ancient literary text.” They granted “no special status to the inspiration of biblical authors.”
By calling into question the divine inspiration of the Bible, therefore, Protestant theologians undermined faith in what the Reformers considered to be the very foundation of Protestantism. This opened the way for skepticism, freethinking, and rationalism. Not without reason, many scholars view the Reformation as a major cause of modern secularism.
Caught Up in Politics
The above-mentioned fruitage is clear evidence that despite the possibly good intentions of individual reformers and their followers, Protestantism did not restore true Christianity. Instead of promoting peace through Christian neutrality, it became embroiled in nationalism.
This was apparent as soon as the division of Christendom into Catholic and Protestant nations became reality. Catholic and Protestant forces trailed blood across the face of continental Europe in a dozen or more wars. The New Encyclopædia Britannica calls them “Wars of Religion kindled by the German and Swiss Reformation of the 1520s.” The most noted of these was the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), which involved both political and religious differences between German Protestants and Catholics.
Blood flowed in England too. Between 1642 and 1649, King Charles I waged war against Parliament. Since most of the King’s opponents belonged to the Puritan wing of the Church of England, the war is sometimes referred to as the Puritan Revolution. It ended with the King’s execution and the establishment of a short-lived Puritan commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Although this English Civil War was not foremost a religious struggle, historians agree that religion was a determining factor in selecting sides.
During this war, the religious group known as Friends, or Quakers, came into being. The group met with strong opposition from its Protestant “brothers.” Several hundred members died in prison, and thousands suffered indignities. But the movement spread, even to the British colonies in America, where in 1681 Charles II issued a charter to William Penn to found a Quaker colony, which later became the state of Pennsylvania.
The Quakers were not unique in seeking converts abroad, for other religions had done so before. Now, however, after the Protestant “Innovation,” Catholics, together with a large number of Protestant groups, began increasing their efforts to bring Christ’s message of truth and peace to “unbelievers.” But how ironic! As “believers,” Catholics and Protestants were unable to agree on a common definition of divine truth. And they surely failed to demonstrate brotherly peace and unity. In view of this situation, what could be expected “When ‘Christians’ and ‘Heathens’ Met”? Read installment 18 in our next issue.
a This reference work, published in 1982, had projected that by 1985 there would be 22,190, saying: “The present net increase is 270 new denominations each year (5 new ones a week).”
[Box on page 26]
Early Children of the Reformation
ANGLICAN COMMUNION: 25 autonomous churches and 6 other bodies sharing doctrine, polity, and liturgy with the Church of England and recognizing the titular leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Encyclopedia of Religion says Anglicanism “has kept faith in the apostolic succession of bishops and has retained many pre-Reformation practices.” Central to its worship is The Book of Common Prayer, “the only vernacular liturgy of the Reformation period still in use.” Anglicans in the United States, who broke with the Church of England and formed the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1789, once again broke with tradition in February 1989 by installing the first female bishop in Anglican history.
BAPTIST CHURCHES: 369 denominations (1970) originating with the 16th-century Anabaptists, who stressed adult baptism by immersion. The Encyclopedia of Religion says Baptists have “found it difficult to maintain organizational or theological unity,” adding that “the Baptist family in the United States is large, . . . but, as in many another large family, some members do not speak to other members.”
LUTHERAN CHURCHES: 240 denominations (1970), boasting the largest total membership of any Protestant group. They are “still somewhat divided along ethnic lines (German, Swede, etc),” says The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1988, adding, however, that the “main divisions are between fundamentalists and liberals.” The division of Lutherans into nationalistic camps became quite apparent during World War II, when, as E. W. Gritsch of Lutheran Theological Seminary, U.S.A., says, “a small minority of Lutheran pastors and congregations [in Germany] resisted Hitler, but the great majority of Lutherans either remained silent or actively cooperated with the Nazi regime.”
METHODIST CHURCHES: 188 denominations (1970) arising from a movement within the Church of England that was founded in 1738 by John Wesley. After his death it broke off as a separate group; Wesley defined a Methodist as “one that lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”
REFORMED AND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCHES: Reformed churches (354 denominations as of 1970) in doctrine are Calvinistic, rather than Lutheran, and view themselves as the “Catholic Church, reformed.” “Presbyterian” designates a church government by elders (presbyters); all Presbyterian churches are Reformed churches, but not all Reformed churches have a presbyterian form of government.
[Picture on page 23]
A beautifully designed page of the Gutenberg Bible in Latin
By permission of The British Library
[Pictures on page 24]
Gutenberg and his movable-type press
[Picture on page 25]
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church (1738)