Heresies have always been permitted by God in the life of the Church, as to prevent their possibility would be to compromise the gift of free-will. Furthermore, although leading to acrimony and dissension within the Church, heresies have historically been the grounds for reassessing and clarifying the particular doctrine that is being misrepresented or attacked. The Reformation however, is a curious case, as the very Church herself was rent asunder, and the unity of the visible Body of Christ undermined ever after. It was infinitely more destructive than any other heresy, and has compromised Christendom’s ability to speak to the world with integrity ever since – why did God allow this to happen?
From the Protestant perspective of course, the Reformation represented a return to the pristine state of the early Church – a shedding of the accretions of superstition grown up through the Middle Ages, and a recapturing of the pure doctrine of the apostles. There are (to put it mildly) a couple of issues with this though. Firstly, the question of when the Church apostatised is never adequately addressed – was it immediately after the apostolic age? Then what about the doctrines of Nicaea and Chalcedon that the Reformers appealed to? Was it sometime in the early medieval period? Then at what point exactly did the Church become the Whore of Babylon?
Secondly, assuming that the Church lost its way fairly early on its life, then what was the Holy Spirit doing in all the time between that apostasy and the time of the Reformation itself? Furthermore, if the Church is (or indeed never was) infallible, how exactly does the Holy Spirit lead her into all truth? How can we be sure we have the right canon of books in the Bible for starters? If you have an ego the size of Martin Luther or John Calvin you could decide to answer these questions on your own authority, but for most of us I suspect a firmer guarantee would be needed.
Lastly, in today’s more ecumenical age, when referring to the Catholic Church as the Antichrist is more of a minority opinion within Protestantism than back in the 1500’s, then some other explanation is required to justify the enormous amount of division amongst Christians. So instead the idea of the Reformers that the Church is simply the invisible and unknowable conglomeration of those who are or will be ‘saved’ is appealed to. The problem here is that many Protestant churches (e.g.; Anglicans, Lutherans) subscribe to the view that the Church is a visible entity in the world. What then, the Church being visible, and visibly fragmented, can we say about the Holy Spirit – is it divided? Surely not; but if He is not divided, how can he guide so many denominations in so many different and mutually exclusive directions?
One thing the majority of Christians can agree on now though is that Christian unity is needed in order to bear effective witness to the world. If we cannot agree amongst ourselves, then people are much less likely to take what we have to say seriously. Also, in the face of an increasingly hostile secularism, and the casual nihilism that it infects cultures with wherever it goes, reunion seems to be an imperative from a practical point of view – the relentless march of valueless and vacuous modernity can only really be resisted in the long run by a Christendom presenting a united front.
Another thing most Western Christians* should be able to agree on, is that reform of the Church at the time was necessary; the Church, as it had done throughout its history, was looking to renew its life and rid itself of abuses anyway – the misleadingly named ‘Counter-Reformation’ was going to happen, Luther or no. Where Catholics and Protestants differ is on whether, during the Reformation itself, the baby was thrown out with the bath water somewhat. Most Protestants would answer ‘no’ to the baby-bathwater question, and as considered above, many are willing to overlook glaring difficulties in their ecclesiologies. For Catholics however, the question must always linger – why did God let this happen? Why did he let parts of his Body tear themselves away?
Was it divine judgement? As mentioned above, everyone can agree that the Church was suffering from some serious scandals and abuse at the time – perhaps this had happened one too many times, or the degree of scandal was so great, that God decided a lesson needed to be learnt, even at the cost of the unity of His Church. If this were the case, a distinction would have to be made between what God wishes to be the case (i.e.; His ultimate will; what is pleasing to Him) and His making the best of the messes we make of His world, writing straight with crooked lines.
We can see many instances in the Old Testament where the Israelites, through sin, fails to live the way God has planned, and so judgements are brought upon them, but ultimately for their own good, so that by trial they may learn where they have gone wrong and be made stronger and more faithful in the future. A good example of this is in Hosea, where God’s abandonment of Israel to misfortune and destruction by other nations is a way of helping them (via the prophet’s words) to recognise the depth of their spiritual adultery. Also, and this has particular resonance with the Reformation, in 1 Kings (11:26-15:1), Jeroboam’s actions led to the division of the kingdom, the disunity of which gradually contributed, with occasional periods of renewal, to the collapse and subjugation of the People of God. After this, during the time of Ezra, renewal was achieved, and the beliefs of the Jews were consolidated and reinvigorated.
All this time, God, through his prophets and seers, urged Israel to see that these judgements on them were both a result of their faithlessness, and a means of returning them to true communion with Him. Can we see the Reformation in similar terms? In his book Honest Religion for Secular Man, Leslie Newbigin wrote about the increasing influence of secularism in the world, and how one positive aspect of this process could be the removal of divisions and the affirmation of our common humanity:
‘Thus positively with some inexactness, but negatively with an agonising sharpness, men see themselves sharing a common history, facing a common danger and a common hope. This is something new. There have been, in the past, many attempts to write universal history from particular points of view…What is, I believe, wholly new is a situation in which great numbers of ordinary men and women in every part of the world feel themselves to be participants in a common human history, a feeling which does not arise from any belief that their own nation – or any other – is destined to unify the world, but from a feeling that…all men stand under a common danger and all men share (however vaguely) a common hope.’
taken from Honest Religion for Secular Man (1969), pp.12-13, SCM Press.
This is of course, a process based on shared material needs and secular aspirations (something Newbigin insists upon throughout), but it does occur to me that, in the wise providence of God, this process of breaking down national boundaries and reminding the human race of its common humanity, could pave the way for a future flowering of evangelisation; that once all barriers are removed, the gospel could (to paraphrase Isaiah) cover the nations as the waters cover the sea. It is a far-off hope, but, I would suggest, a plausible one. After all, the trade routes of the Romans (who were far from friendly towards Christianity in the beginning) played a similar role many years ago.
Similarly, the lessons learned from the Reformation – how important unity is; how we know what the mind of Christ is on a given issue; how important it is to hold fast to what is good and true in a world hostile to both goodness and truth – can, if and when reunion is achieved, make the Church much more resilient and confident in its proclamations. A reunited Church in the future may well be smaller than it is now, but the remnant within will know where its strengths lie, will know the value of the experiences brought from different denominational cultures, and will not take any of this for granted.
Also, members of this Church will accept its truths freely and with conviction, not just because they have grown up in a Christian culture. They will know what was assumed in the past, and what was lost as a result. They will know what a stumbling block denominationalism can be in evangelism, and treasure the unity of the Catholic Church with all its separated brethren returned to the fold. It will be a stronger Church, a more confident Church, and a less presumptuous Church. It will be a Church that could take full advantage of a world without boundaries, and perfectly placed to offer that world a hope that goes further and deeper than the materialist goals of secularism. If the Reformation was God’s judgement, then let us hope we can indeed learn from it.
* Commentary upon the schism between East and West was beyond the scope of my intentions here, but David Bentley Hart has written an excellent article on the importance and possibility of their reconciliation here. For readability’s sake I would recommend pasting it into a Word document first though!