Some thoughts on the Feast of the Reformation



The criticism of the point of view expressed in the following quotations is not intended to be a personal attack upon anyone or an indication of animosity towards any who give credence to what is, admittedly, the dominant historical narrative concerning the Reformation. I simply wish to register my disagreement with this narrative.


On this day in 1517, the priest and scholar Martin Luther approached the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation.

I must take issue with this description of events.

On this day, even as we rejoice at the Reformation of the Church, let us not forget that Luther did not start the “Protestant Reformation.” We must be very, very careful with our phrasing — shoddy phrasing begets shoddy thinking, which begets bad historiography, which culminates in the base falsehoods of vulgar Protestantism.

What should we say then? We should say that God used the witness of the Lutheran confessors — Dr. Luther chief among them — to reform the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and bring it back to the sure foundation of His Word.

Far be it from us to think of Martin Luther and the Confessors as “revolutionary” or as “innovators.” They surely were not. If they were, then the papists were right to condemn them and right to condemn us today. But they were nothing of the kind. They were conservators of the ancient faith, the faith once passed down to the saints. It was the papists who were revolting against the Gospel. It was the papists who, like Nadab and Abihu, brought the strange fire of corrupt and novel doctrine into the house of the LORD. A reformation is not a revolution. It is a restoration of something that has been lost.

Moreover, there was really nothing revolutionary about Luther posting his theses to door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. R. Scott Clark puts it thusly:

There are shadows and hints here and there in the 95 Theses of what would become Luther’s mature views, but for the most part the 95 Theses were not terribly novel. Others had made similar criticisms well before Luther formed them. Did you know that it’s possible and perhaps likely that Luther never actually nailed his theses to the church door at Wittenberg? There’s little confidence among modern that he did so. He certainly mailed them to the authorities but there’s real doubt that he ever nailed them to the door. Whatever the history of the Theses themselves, in his later years Luther said that when he wrote them he was still a “right roaring papist.”

People speak as though Luther was nailing his catechism to the wall complete with annotations, yet nothing could be further from the truth. His actions were equivalent to posting something on a bulletin board for a formal academic disputatio. This was de rigeur in the medieval university. The writing from the Treasury this morning is apropos:

On October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk posted ninety-five statements for discussion on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Dr. Martin Luther hoped that posting his theses would bring about an academic debate regarding repentance, the sale of indulgences, and other matters of concern within the Roman Catholic Church. However, Rome eventually excommunicated Luther, judging him to be a heretic. Luther’s reforms, centered on the teaching that a believer is justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, sparked religious reforms not only in the German states but also in many European countries. In 1667, Elector John George II of Saxony standardized the custom of observing Luther’s October 31 posting of the Ninety-five Theses.

The reason we moderns see Luther’s posting of the theses to the church door as a revolutionary action is because we have a bad habit of doing history in reverse. We know the “end” of the story (or so we think), so we assume that what ended up happening happened inevitably, or at the very least as the product of a neat and tidy chain of causation. “One thing led to another.” Post hoc ergo propter hoc. But to assume in this way makes an ass out of you and me and caricatures out of historical persons. The “Whig Interpretation of History” is justly pilloried as a shallow triumphalist narrative for this very reason. It is an outgrowth of the radical English Protestant ethos, especially as it took root in America. And we are all susceptible to it on account of our political heritage. But it is not Lutheran. We do not, we dare not, think this way.

We do not have common cause with “Protestantism” in general. Not at all. As Luther himself once famously said, “I would rather drink blood with a papist than wine with an Anabaptist.” So say I. At least the papists aren’t a pack of howling gnostics, like the greater part of Protestants seem to have become. At least they have the sacraments. At least they have the Church Fathers.

Moving on:

They became known to their opponents as Protestants; gradually this name came to apply to all who believed the Church should be reformed, even those outside Germany.

Again, we must ask as Lutherans, “What does this mean?” A perpetually Protestantizing church, rejecting any and all forms of authority apart from the solitary conscience and its private interpretation of Scripture? No way. No thanks. We believe in the Office of the Holy Ministry. We believe that every pastor is a bishop in his own right. We are bound to follow where our fathers lead, unless they lead out of the catholic faith.

By the time Luther died…his revolutionary beliefs had formed the basis for the Protestant Reformation, which would over the next three centuries revolutionize Western civilization.

I’m going to beat this dead horse until it gets up and runs away, but there is no such thing as the Protestant Reformation. There is only the Reformation, and it does not include anything that went outside of the Confession which was first made at Augsburg. It does not include the Reformed with their repristinated Nestorianism and their infernal double predestination. It does not include the Anabaptists with their gnostic rejection of the External Word and Manichaean rejection of earthly government.

I am extremely leery of hitching the cart of three centuries-worth of generic revolution to the horse of the Reformation. Again, this is a mythologized, progressivist view of history. Papists love this one, because then they get to blame a veritable Greatest Hits-album of bad stuff on “Protestantism” — which Martin Luther of course “started” — including, but not limited to: the French Revolution, the World Wars, Nazism, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Sexual Revolution, etc., etc. So why give them the rope to hang us with when it isn’t even true in the first place? That’s just stupid.

On this day, we do not celebrate revolution. We do not practice hero-worship. We thank God for sending His Son to forgive the sins of the world and bring us to Himself in heaven. We thank him for the Absolution which He speaks to us through His servants. We thank Him for Baptism and the preaching of the Gospel in which He gives us the Holy Spirit so that we might have faith to trust Him until He comes again or death takes us. We thank Him for the Eucharist, in which He strengthens us with His own Flesh and Blood as we walk through this vale of tears. We thank God that He accomplished all of this in His Church. In this alone we rejoice.

Yet even as we rejoice, we also lament. We lament that so much error followed the Reformation (I will not say “came out of”, but “followed”), so much so that many were deceived and jumped out of the frying pan of the corrupt papal Church into the fire of radical Protestantism. We lament, indeed, that the enemies of the Gospel, within and without the Church, can so easily look upon the shattered external visage of Christendom and sneer. We must each see our own sin as the cause of this, and repent.

To recur to my initial point, it is very, very important that we are careful to tell a truthful story when we speak of what happened in the Reformation. Because shoddy phrasing begets shoddy thinking, and shoddy thinking begets bad history, and bad history is a cancer that will infect the minds of generations to come. It’s about time that we Lutherans stopped doing this to ourselves.