The Significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st Century Christianity, Part II

The second half of my talk on the significance of the Protestant Reformation: Musings of a historian turned parish priest. Part I is here.

To summarize all of this. What was the Protestant Reformation? I think it is important to recognize the strength of the Roman Catholic Church and the deep bonds most European Christians had to traditional religion in 1500. Traditional scholarship held the view that the Roman Catholic Church was on the verge of collapse. Fifty years of research in late medieval Christianity has put that notion to rest. Certainly there were problems and there were new ideas percolating, especially humanistic reform ideas that stressed internal piety. The rise of literacy and the printing press offered new ways of disseminating ideas and challenged traditional authority.

Martin Luther was a theological genius, probably the most important thinker in Western Christianity after Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. His genius lay not primarily in his ability to expound a convincing and compelling theological system—Calvin was much better than him at that. But rather his theological genius derived from his religious life, his sense of sin and guilt, and his encounter with a gracious and forgiving God. Putting that experience into language through which others could share accounts for much of the early success of his ideas. The second part of his genius was his uncanny ability to marshal a new technology, the printing press, to disseminate his ideas.

Luther and his theological ideas were only part of the story, and perhaps not the most important part. In the next decades, Luther’s ideas would be adapted and reshaped in other contexts; the initial break with Rome broke the sense of invincibility and unity of the Roman Catholic Church and opened up to others the possibility that they, too, could challenge the papacy. Luther’s ideas were only one of the catalysts; his example was another. In the next decades, rulers, city councils, and reformers of all varieties sought to articulate their own theological positions and to create institutions reflecting those ideas and reorienting the lives of ordinary Christians.

Chronological perspective is crucial here. As I mentioned a moment ago, looking at the religious landscape in 1500, the events of 1517 and following decades would be unimaginable and largely inexplicable. If one were to survey the religious landscape in 1550, the complete collapse of the Roman Catholic Church in the west might have seemed inevitable. France was divided, Poland, Hungary, Moravia, Bohemia all had significant Protestant presences. A century later, Catholicism was resurgent and triumphant, dominating not only Europe, but also the new world and making significant inroads in Asia.

I realize I’ve wandered a great deal already this afternoon, but I want to get back to my initial question or theme—the significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st century Christianity.

I would like to begin with my final point, chronological perspective. Just as the religious landscape of Europe, even the world, looked very different at different times, 1500, 1550, 1650, and no one could have predicted what it would look like in 1650 from 1500 or 1550, so too, do we need to admit that we can’t predict what the religious landscape of the US or the world might look like in 2050 or 2100. Christianity continues to grow in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while it seems to be in steep decline in the US and Europe. Those trends might continue, or there might be new historical developments that change things dramatically. We can’t know, assume we know what might happen. From a theological perspective, it’s important to remember that “the spirit blows where it wills.”

The second thing is this—to acknowledge that our definition of what it means to be Christian is a product of historical development. However we define it, by baptism, by adherence to a particular set of beliefs or doctrines, by a set of practices, all of that is conditioned by our own historical contexts. In our day, we tend to think that to be Christian is to believe certain things: the creed, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or for many evangelical Christians, you are only Christian if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. But all of these are historical developments, the products of individuals and movements, like Luther, or John Wesley, or American evangelicalism, that have defined Christianity and set limits around who are what could be regarded as Christian.

There are and there have been other ways of being Christian or of defining Christian and we need to take those seriously, to listen as people from the historical past tell us, often obliquely or unclearly, what they understood being Christian meant. People who might not have been able to recite the Ten Commandments, the Nicene Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, very well might have understood themselves to be devout Christian because different practices mattered to them, for example the experience of seeing Christ’s presence in the elevation of the host at mass.

Perhaps the most important contributing factor to the Protestant Reformation and the transformation of the world of early modern Christianity was the printing press. Luther used this new technology in revolutionary ways. He exploited it to disseminate his ideas. We know, for example, that within three weeks of posting the 95 theses, they had been printed all across Germany and were being translated into the vernacular. Luther and other early reformers printed thousands of texts, many of which in forms that were meant to be read aloud in public, offering cues to illiterate or semi-literate people. Catholics followed suit. The Council of Trent mandated that every diocese have a printing press and produce devotional and doctrinal works. This flood of printed material washed over Europe. But being printed, and read, did not mean that the words on the page, or the ideas the books and pamphlets conveyed, were received in quite the way the authors or printers intended.

There was the problem of literacy, for example. We estimate that in the German-speaking lands, roughly 10% of the population was literate.   How did the ideas from books reach those who couldn’t read? We know many works were read publicly, but how were they understood? There are examples of the reappropriation of ideas for other purposes. In 1524, the Peasants’ War broke out in Germany. It was a revolt by serfs against the lords who controlled their labor and lives. There were preachers and reformers involved in various aspects of the Peasants’ War. One of the most famous documents produced by the peasants was the 12 articles of the Swabian peasantry. In it, they and their learned supporters appealed to Reformation concepts like the authority of scripture and Luther’s notion of the freedom of a Christian, but they used those ideas to support their hopes for freedom from unjust tithes and labor obligations, and the right of rural communes to have some independence from feudal lords. Luther himself took up his pen to oppose the revolt and urged the nobility to take military action against the revolutionaries. It is an example of how ideas can be adapted for purposes quite different than their original intent.

We are in the midst of a technological revolution of our own. The rise of computers, the internet, and now social media have some parallels with the printing press. Both transformed society in significant ways—offering new access to knowledge and challenging traditional authorities. Both changed the way individuals related to each other and to larger groups and institutions. Like the printing press, the internet and social media seem to increase the trend toward individualism. Both also contributed in some ways to globalization and uniformity (thanks to the printing press, the Roman Catholic Church could be sure that the liturgy was celebrated in the same way and in the same language across the globe).

We don’t know how this revolution will play out in our own context, whether the challenges to traditional authority like the media, government and religion will lead not just to the undermining of those authorities and institutions, but to their complete collapse and disappearance. We would do well to remember the lesson from the sixteenth century that in the hands of a gifted user like Martin Luther, technology can be harnessed to create something new. Similarly, when the Roman Catholic Church mastered that new technology, it was well positioned to use it effectively for reform. The same may be true in our century.

Back to those statistics I cited at the beginning of my talk. There are several problems with them. First, the notion that because Protestants and Catholics no longer seem divided about the nature of salvation we can conclude that the divisions caused by the Protestant Reformation no longer matter is a misreading both of the Reformation and of contemporary relations among Protestants and Catholics. On the latter, numerous ecumenical agreements have laid out how close the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines actually are. Further, there was never agreement among Protestants about sola fide, and over the centuries, many denominations moved away from that, not least the Methodists. And, until the definition at Trent of the official Roman Catholic doctrine, there was a great deal of internal diversity in Catholicism about the nature of salvation. Finally, it’s important to ask whether doctrinal differences were ever as important as other matters; for example, allegiance to the pope, communion in one or both kinds, following the calendar of saints, marian devotion. All of these helped to create Protestant and Catholic identity and were as important, if not more so, than any underlying doctrinal differences.

The second set of data from that Pew study and other surveys on the decline in religious affiliation in Western Europe (and also the US). Scholars have long seen a direct line from Luther to the process of secularization, the disenchantment of everyday life, and the decline of Christianity. Those consequences are often perceived to be unintended, the product of Luther’s insistence on the status of the individual coram Dei before God, and the delivery of scripture to individuals to read for themselves. Another important cause is often asserted to be the removal of religion from politics in the wake of the European wars of religion, themselves caused by the 16th century religious divisions. But it’s never been clear to me whether that process was caused by the Reformation—there were other interrelated developments like the rise of capitalism and the nation state. The industrial revolution broke down traditional ways of life across Europe, including traditional religious ties.

The secularization thesis relies on an underlying assumption that people in the Middle Ages were uniformly and holistically religious. If we return for a moment to my comments about developments in the study of religion, it’s worth pointing out that such assumptions are based on a certain notion of what “religion” is. If we approach the question differently, if instead of asking people whether they are religiously affiliated, we ask about certain religious or quasi-religious practices or activities, the results might be very different.

For example, when I was planning this series, before scheduling the dates and times, I looked at the schedule for the Green Bay Packers, knowing full well that attendance might be affected if the lectures were scheduled against Packers games. People wear packers jerseys, fly Packers flags, treat a visit to Lambeau Field like a pilgrimage. In all appearances, devotion to the Packers is very like the behavior exhibited by religious devotees. No doubt for some fans, Packers victories, especially a Super Bowl victory, gives their lives meaning, and certainly attendance at a game is an experience of effervescence very like what in other circumstances would be called a spiritual experience.

Secularization, or the rise of the “nones” may not be so much a change in attitudes towards, or experience of religion, but a change in the expression of what we call religious behaviors or practices.

To conclude, what are the legacies of the Protestant Reformation? Beyond any institutional or theological traces that remain, I think the most important legacy is that studying it helps us orient ourselves in our uncertain and changing times. We need to remain open to the unexpected, to changes that we might not be able to imagine. And as Christians, even as we see the institutional legacy of the Protestant Reformation collapsing, both among the Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic, we can expect that the Holy Spirit is still moving, still working, still creating new things, and that people continue to experience the Risen Christ in their own lives and in the world in which we live. Thanks be to God.

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