The Protestant Reformation
This has been the hardest post in the whole series for me to write. I’ve changed it and edited it so many times because I have mixed feelings regarding the Reformation. From a historical/theological perspective, it was an act of rebellion. The church fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch who was a church leader during the time of the apostles, considered rebellion against a bishop to be rebellion against God.
From the earliest days of the church, submission to church authority was important. But when you consider the state of the Roman Catholic West five hundred years after the Great Schism, it seems rebellion was at the very least a necessary evil. By Martin Luther’s time, the selling of indulgences to forgive sins and teachings on purgatory were popular in the West. Crusades were waged against the Muslims (and the Orthodox Church was even victim of one crusade in which a rogue Roman Catholic army sacked Constantinople). This is the age in which the church rightfully earned a very dark reputation in the Western hemisphere.
In 1517, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther had enough and began the Reformation by questioning the sale of indulgences. In a few years, we’ll be upon the 500 year anniversary of that event. I believe it is good for us to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of the Reformation as it has shaped our culture and religion far deeper than we realize.
The Reformation began as a revolt against the moral decay and corruption within the Roman Church. Aside from challenging indulgence sales, crusades, and purgatory, Luther also opposed the Roman Church by allowing the Bible to be translated into local languages. Luther’s persistence that everyone own a Bible that is easy to understand paved the way for what we see today: a few Bibles in everyone’s home.
Roman Catholic authority had been corrupt for hundreds of years at this point. The church went from being led in a quasi-democratic manner to becoming a dictatorship in which the Roman Pope decreed himself to be the sole authority of every Christian on earth. While Luther’s challenge of this corruption was good, the Reformers later decision to reject ALL ecclesiastical authority was not good.
I grew up playing in punk rock bands and going to Protestant churches. I never would have imagined myself writing this back then, but I do believe the attempts to purge the church of all tradition and authority was going too far. Because of the cries of sola scriptura (only scripture), it was believed by many that every person may interpret the Bible for themselves and decide what it means to them. Several hundred years later, every person is still their own pope and we have tens of thousands of denominations. Unfortunately, a diversity of opposing opinions does not bring us any closer to the truth.
My second complaint: scripture was changed. Shortly after the reformation began, some Protestants cut several books out of the Bible that the whole Church (including Jesus’ apostles) considered scripture*. Those who did not remove them, included them in the back of the Old Testament in an appendix called The Apocrypha, which is Greek for “hidden.” For more details on this, see my footnote below.
Now, every man is their own pope, and a precedent was set that any scripture that does not fit well with your theology can be removed. Books that were removed include Tobit, Maccabees, Judith, Wisdom of Sirach, and some others. The implications of this are obvious: Christianity can become whatever anyone wants by carefully crafting their own biblical canon. Sadly, I have seen Christians do this with several New Testament books in which the authorship is disputed by some modern scholars.
* Since writing this article a couple of years ago, I have learned a bit more and recently received some constructive criticism from a commenter (see below). I want to mention that even from the earlier times of the Church there was often some degree of distinction between the books included in the Hebrew canon and those in the Greek Christian scriptures (the Septuagint). Here is a summary from a popular Orthodox catechism called These Truths We Hold:
The Deutero-canonical books appeared as part of Holy Scripture with the translation of the Hebrew Scripture into Greek by Alexandrian Jews who had been gathered together for that purpose in Egypt just prior to the New Testament times. Over the centuries, however, these books have been disputed by many; many hold them to have little or no value as Scripture.
However, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholics accept them as part of the Biblical Canon, whereas, since the Reformation, most Protestants have rejected them as being spurious. Although the Orthodox Church accepts these books as being canonical, and treasures them and uses them liturgically, she does not use them as primary sources in the definition of her dogmas.
The book Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protobresbyter Michael Pomazansky confirms the above. When reading many of the saints and fathers of the Church, you will find that they readily quote passages from these Deutero-canonical books, treating them similarly to other scripture. In other words, while they are not the primary scriptural authority, they are still considered to be authoritative. Contrast that with the teachings of the early Calvinists and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Article 3:
“The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”