The Protestant Reformation
This was the hardest post in the whole series for me to complete. It was changed many times because I have mixed feelings regarding the Reformation. From a historical and theological perspective, the Reformation 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. Being in the West, the Reformers’ bishops were Roman Catholic.
From the earliest days of the church, submission to church authority was important. But considering the state of the Roman Catholic West in the 16th century, rebellion may have been a necessary evil. By Martin Luther’s time, the selling of indulgences to forgive sins and teachings on purgatory were popular in the West. Church services and scriptures were only available in Latin, so the general population, while probably having some knowledge of Latin, could not engage deeply.
In 1517, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther 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. It has shaped Western 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 and purgatory, Luther also opposed the Roman Church by allowing the Bible to be translated into local languages. Luther’s insistence that everyone own a Bible in their own language was good.
Roman Catholic authority had become almost like a dictatorship in which the Roman Pope decreed himself to be the sole authority of every Christian on earth (though the Eastern Churches rejected that claim). While Luther’s challenge of papal supremacy was good, the Reformers’ later decision to reject ALL ecclesiastical authority and tradition was not good.
Luther also held to various aspects of church tradition such as the perpetual virginity of Mary (which was not widely doubted until the 19th or 20th centuries) and the actual presence of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist.
The cries of sola scriptura (only scripture) made every man his own pope. Rather than uniting Christians – as the early reformers naively believed would happen – it divided them. Several hundred years later, every person is still their own pope and we have tens of thousands of denominations. Unfortunately, a “plain reading of the Bible” caused great division, bloody fights, and innumerable opinions about interpretation.
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.
A precedent was set that any scripture that does not fit well with a man’s theology can be removed or diminished. 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’ve seen Christians do this with several New Testament books in which the authorship is disputed by some modern scholars, so they feel no need to be theologically “bound” by those books.
* Since writing this article a couple of years ago, I have learned a bit more and recently received some constructive criticism from a reader (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 no differently than any 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.”