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.

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

Musings of a historian turned parish priest.

This is part one of a presentation I gave at Grace about the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. Part II is here.

You may have seen or heard about the recent Pew study exploring religious views of Western Europeans. The headlines were meant to shock: “500 years after the Protestant Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe has faded.” According to the survey, most of those surveyed thought that Protestants and Catholics were more alike than different; pluralities or majorities on either side of the confessional divide believe that faith and works are necessary for salvation.

Another set of results from that same survey reveal other data that seem to undermine the notion that the events of 500 years ago still matter. In the Netherlands, which saw violent and destructive religious for almost a century from the mid 16th to the mid 17th centuries, almost 48% of the population claims no religious affiliation. In nations like Norway, Belgium, and Sweden the numbers are almost as high (43, 41, 37% respectively). And of those who identify as Catholic or Protestant, across many of the nations surveyed, the percentages who claim religion is important in their lives hovers around 10%.

Similar trends are evident in Britain. There, more than half the population claim no religious affiliation, only 15% of adults in Britain claim to be Anglican, and among those under 24%, that number falls to 3%. As I have noted on many occasions, in the US, surveys find results that are less dramatic than those from Europe, but the trend toward non-affiliation is clear.

I cite these statistics in this context of reflecting on the significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st century Christianity because, on the one hand, they are at least to some degree a long-term consequence of the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, and on the other, because they challenge any conclusions we might draw about the continuing relevance of the Protestant Reformation for our contemporary world.

I have been a full-time parish priest for over eight years. Before that, I trained as a historian of the Protestant Reformation, or perhaps more precisely, a Historian of Early Modern Christianity. For fifteen years, I taught, researched, and wrote on topics within that broad category in the context of Religious Studies programs. In what follows, I would like to do several things. First, I will provide a bit more detail about my scholarly background and especially about the questions and issues that sparked my interest. Second, I will draw on theory and method in the study of religion to elucidate my approach to the study of religion in early modern Europe. Then, I will sketch out some key themes in the Protestant Reformation that I think continue to have salience in our context.



I began my doctoral work in the History of Christianity at a fascinating time. The old confessional approaches had collapsed as new questions, new source materials, and new approaches were emerging. Social history was dominant as scholars sought to recover the lives and experiences of ordinary people and women’s history was shedding light on the role of women in various historical movements, and on the effects on women of religious and social change.

Among the important new sources for the Protestant Reformation that became a focus for my research were pamphlets. Since the 1960s, scholars had begun to explore the importance of printing for the Protestant Reformation and the ways in which reformers exploited this new technology to convey their ideas.[4] At the forefront of this movement was Martin Luther himself, whose works were quickly disseminated across the Holy Roman Empire and all of Europe. I studied with two scholars whose work focused on pamphlet literature, Steven Ozment, who in many ways was responsible for drawing attention in the US to this type of literature, and Mark Edwards, who examined how Martin Luther used pamphlets and the printing press to disseminate his ideas.[5]

I should acknowledge another important influence on my thinking regarding the Protestant Reformation. I had the great good fortune to study with Fr. John O’Malley who is widely regarded as the greatest living American historian of Early Modern Catholicism. His books on the Council of Trent and the early Jesuits are masterpieces and he has also written about Vatican II. At age 90, he still hopes to complete a book on Vatican I. O’Malley introduced me to the great diversity and vitality in early modern Catholicism and encouraged me to see its strengths and attraction to early modern people. For Protestants, and for most secular historians, the Catholic Reformation, usually referred to as the Counter-Reformation, was a force of reaction, oppression, and challenge to the freedom proclaimed by Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Another scholarly trend contributed to this perspective. In Germany, historians became interested in the similarities among Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth centuries and in the ways religion was used to assist in the creation of the modern nation state, on both sides of the confessional divide. For rulers seeking to shape obedient subjects, religious conformity was another weapon in their arsenal of identity-building.

In my own early work, my focus was on pamphlet literature as a weapon in the struggle to define orthodoxy and marginalize dissent. I explored how Protestant and Catholics used pamphlets to define and “other” the Anabaptists, a disparate group of reformers who emphasized adult baptism and a visible Christian community that would come to focus on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (non-resistance or pacifism, refusal to swear oaths, et al).

Pamphlets were both an intriguing and problematic source. Intriguing because they clearly targeted the entire population—they were often meant to be read aloud and included visual images that connected with illiterate and semi-literate audiences. But they are problematic because they are the product of learned culture and it is difficult to measure how effective they were in transmitting and inculcating ideas and beliefs.

Perhaps because of those problems, as I continued to pursue scholarly research, I became more interested in exploring how people constructed their religious lives, how they were attracted to new religious ideas and how they resisted the imposition of those ideas from outside. I wrote essays about how accused Anabaptists negotiated the criminal process and system arrayed against them, how people resisted the definitions and behaviors that governments and religious authorities sought to impose on them, and how they sought to construct religious lives between and across heterodoxy and orthodoxy.

What fascinated me most was the question of how to gain access to the religious lives of ordinary men and women, to learn about their efforts to make meaning, and how they negotiated the tension between their religious needs and practices and the expectation of secular and religious authorities. It is notoriously difficult to gain success to historical people especially when they leave little in the way of texts or monuments behind. Still, we can learn a great deal, from the records of civil and religious courts, accounts of visiting officials, clergy, wills, and the like. I was constantly surprised by how seriously people took their religious lives, by the creativity they expressed as they sought to express their religious beliefs and practices, and their resistance to the will of secular authorities and the institutional church.

I discovered an enormous chasm between the theological ideas and expectations for behavior of pastors, rulers, and theologians, and the lived religious lives of ordinary people. I saw individuals using the resources they had available, their creativity, their access to images, texts, and other devotional items, as well as folk practices to construct religious lives, to make meaning, and to solve problems. Often these practices were labeled superstition or false religion by authorities. Often they were regarded as relics of Catholicism by Protestant theologians. The reality was that whatever theologians wrote, whatever pastors, ecclesial authorities, and secular rulers sought to inculcate, ordinary people were resistant, independent, and creative. When reform was successful, it often took decades, even generations to create lasting change, both on the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides. It has been an important lesson I have brought with me into parish ministry.




One of the most important influences on my thinking about the religious history of Early Modern Europe is that my training and scholarship occurred in the context of the field of the Study of Religion and not primarily in the academic discipline of history (or theology, for that matter). I want to take a few minutes to explore this.

If I were to ask you, “What is religion?” how would you respond, how would you define it? In fact, over the years that I taught Religious Studies, I always began my introductory classes, whether in Religion or Biblical Studies, with that very question. I’m guessing that for most of you, the first thing that comes to mind in response to that question is something about “belief” or “faith.” That’s a widespread notion in the West, especially in the US, and that we think about religion in that way is itself in large part a product of the Protestant Reformation itself.

But thinking about religion in that way does not capture all that constitutes the religious dimension of human life. There are practices, patterns of behavior, rituals. In many places and cultures across the whole expanse of human history, such activities have been much more important than belief—that remains true in many places and cultures today.

Furthermore, over the last decades, scholars have called into question the very notion of “religion” as a separate category of human experience and activity. It may come as a shock but take Hinduism for example. There was no such concept before the encounter of Westerners with Indian civilization. The practices, rituals, and thinking that has come to be categorized as Hinduism in religious studies was all simply part of life for people in the subcontinent.

One can see that same process of winnowing in early modern Europe. During the Protestant Reformation, certain practices came to be understood as “false.” To go back to last week’s conversation, iconoclasm, the destruction of images was part of that. For Protestants, to pray to Mary was superstition; images were idolatry. True religion was internal, a matter of belief.

To approach the Protestant Reformation with this more broadly conceived understanding of religion has significant consequences. In the first place, the scholar is more interested in what people do than what people believe, or say they believe.

Again, as we saw last week in Dr. Wandel’s presentation of the Eucharist in Catholic and Lutheran catechisms, there was a shift toward the text and away from all of the other things associated with the mass, and with the senses:

If we desire to say mass rightly and understand it, then we must give up everything that the eyes and all the senses behold and suggest in this act, such as vestments, bells, songs, ornaments, prayers, processions, elevations, prostrations, or whatever happens in the mass, until we first lay hold of and consider well the words of Christ, by which He completed and instituted the mass and commanded us to observe it. For therein lies the whole mass, its nature, work, profit and benefit, and without them [i.e., the words] no benefit is derived from the mass. But these are the words: Take and eat, this is My body, which is given for you. Take and drink ye all of it, this is the cup of the new and eternal testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. These words every Christian must have before him in the mass and hold fast to them as the chief part of the mass, in which also the really good preparation for the mass and sacrament is taught; this we shall see. (Luther, Sermon on the New Testament, that is, the mass)

It is quite clear from this quotation, from similar language in Luther’s catechisms, and as Dr. Wandel pointed, even in the wildly popular Roman Catholic catechisms written by Peter Canisius, that for both Protestant and Catholic theologians, and the institutional churches to which they belonged, this understanding of the Eucharist was of central importance.

For me, this poses the question whether, and how, such views became central to the experience of ordinary Catholics and Protestants. Is there evidence from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that would prove that such notions were widely held among the people? And on the Roman Catholic side, doesn’t the continued importance of practices like the reservation of the sacrament suggest that the senses continued to matter, especially sight—that there was something powerful, something transformative, in seeing the consecrated host.

But this issue of defining religion is much broader than the intellectual or official efforts to define what constituted true religion over against superstition. My reading and research convinced me that people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (as in the twenty-first) lived complicated religious lives and used a wide range of materials, practices, and beliefs to find and make meaning in their worlds.




Celebrating the Reformation

My twitter and RSS feed gave me links to reflections on the significance of “Reformation Sunday.” One was from Crusty Old Dean; the other from Stanley Hauerwas (a sermon preached on Reformation Sunday, 1995). Both offer insights into this odd event. It’s not commemorated in the Episcopal Church—we’ve pretty much done away with the “Protestant” in our traditional name “The Protestant Episcopal Church.” But our communion partners the Lutherans observe it and rightly so.

Of course, Stanley is right. Reformation Day (or Sunday) celebrates the disunity of the Church. It commemorates Martin Luther’s break with Rome. Over the last almost 500 years, Reformation Day has meant many things—German Nationalism, the triumph of Martin Luther, the victory of the individual over the institution. Like almost every other historical event, it has been invested with all sort of meaning, world-historical significance. But that’s more than a single day, a single event, can bear.

When Luther posted his 95 Theses, he sought debate on matters that he thought were of eternal significance—the significance of the rite of penance. That his theses ended in a major schism within Western Christianity was unimaginable to him in 1517. That he might be excommunicated for his questions and for the ideas that he developed in response to his questions was also inconceivable.

Yes, it’s a tragedy that Luther’s courageous witness ended in schism. It’s a tragedy that the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t find a way to embrace the profound theological insights that Luther developed (as has been documented recently, Luther’s ideas were hardly unique in the early 16th century and there was significant support for much of what he wrote as late as the 1540s). It’s a tragedy that after 500 years we remain divided in so many ways.

On the other hand, Luther’s insistence on the correctness of his theological insight in the face of Papal and Imperial opposition did something else. It provided inspiration to all those who in the last 500 years have sought to follow their vision of God and of Jesus Christ even when the authorities of Church and State have claimed their vision was wrong. It has given voice and power to the voiceless and powerless. It has provided a stance of prophetic opposition to the complacency and power of church and state. It reminds us daily that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not confined to the trappings of papal or imperial power, of state or church, or of institutional self-satisfaction.

For us Anglicans, by the way, who try to avoid the label of “Protestant” whenever possible, Luther and Reformation Day remind us of an uncomfortable historical reality. Without Luther, without his brazen defiance of papal authority, without his appeal to and protection by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, there might not have been an English Reformation. Had he not gone before, had he not shown a way, Henry VIII might not have had the courage to resist Clement VII.

Luther, the Protestant Reformation, remind us of the important role of critique. They remind us that it’s too easy to let the gospel be coopted by power; it’s too easy to compromise to make sure the institution survives. When we remember Reformation Day, when we sing “Ein feste Burg” we are not celebrating the victory of the Protestant Reformation over the forces of evil, we are calling for reformation of ourselves and of our churches; we are calling for transformation: ecclesia semper reformanda!

 Oh, and by the way, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. Start planning your party now!