The Reformation at 500

Luther at the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner, 1877 (via Wikimedia)
Two new books explore Martin Luther’s complex legacy.

The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.

My Vatican bumbling came to mind earlier this year as I reread Georges Bernanos’s classic novel The Diary of a Country Priest (1937). Recall the horror of the book’s Catholic protagonist as the guest scholar’s lecture on “the origins and causes of the Reformation” is greeted with yawns from his parishioners. The priest concludes that this lack of passion is, rather than proof of apathy, evidence of his congregation’s remarkable, and appalling, sense of security. “Not one of those men would ever suppose that the Church could be in danger, no matter for what reason,” the clergyman confides. Speaking of danger, the fact that a (very) Protestant Evangelical would be welcomed at the Vatican — rather than, say, assigned to an Inquisitor — is, I suppose, a small symptom of the Reformation’s success. But the fact that the company at Saint Peter’s can discuss with smiles the document that once tore Europe apart might just be a sign that the Reformation no longer poses the threat it did in Wittenberg.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, launched in 1517 by a larger, more intimidating copy of Luther’s theses of indictment of medieval Catholic structure and practice. To celebrate the occasion, groups of American Protestants are making — for lack of a more Protestant word — pilgrimages through Europe, from Wittenberg to Calvin’s Geneva to Cranmer’s London. As they do so, the rest of the population, Protestant and Catholic, religious and secularist, is finding a Gutenberg-level print explosion of books on the Reformation, Reformation figures, and the ongoing influence of the Reformation on everything from analytic philosophy to the Iowa caucuses.

Perhaps the best of these new works is Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. One could imagine nervousness among historians, when learning that Roper, holder of the Regius Chair in modern history at Oxford, planned to give attention to the “inner life” and psychological influences on the German Reformer. After all, many still remember Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther, in which the psychoanalyst attempted to put Luther on the Freudian couch, discovering Oedipal conflicts to boot. Roper’s work, though, turns out to be no careless psychobiography. She recognizes the limits of her historical sight, and makes bold claims with boldness and tentative claims with (mostly) tentativeness. More so than Erikson’s, Roper’s investigation of Luther’s psyche fits well with the extensive written corpus of the Reformer, a corpus that is remarkably personal and often self-disclosing. The farther one reads in this magisterial biography, the more one realizes that any less attention to psychology would fail to portray adequately a theologian who, from start to finish, addressed the deepest recesses of the psyche — namely, what to do with a guilty conscience.

Indeed, Roper’s psychological detail seems to prevent her from caricaturing Luther as either an iconoclastic hero or a fraudulent villain. She pictures a complex Luther, one who is, like the redeemed in his theology, simul justus et peccator, a saint and sinner all at once. The Luther of Roper’s biography is one who, for the most part, is driven by strengths that are also weaknesses. His tumultuous relationship with his father, she concludes, was perhaps the reason he was able to stand up to father figures — the most significant of whom were, of course, the pope and the emperor.

This ability to stand up to patriarchy led to Luther’s protests against the selling of indulgences and ultimately to broader questions about the doctrine of salvation. Roper relates that Luther, like a child chafing under an unpleasable father’s impossible expectations, hated the phrase “the righteousness of God” until, through Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he came to see the righteousness of God as itself a gift, something found entirely outside the sinner, in the crucified and interceding Christ.

If, as is central to Protestant theology, there is only one mediator between humanity and God, then we shouldn’t expect mediation from our Reformation heroes.

Resistance to the herd mentality — a tendency that went back at least as far as his walking away from his father’s wishes and embracing instead a vocation to an Augustinian monastery — gave Luther the courage to debate his Church’s leaders, even to the point of excommunication and the threat of execution. This is the Luther that his Protestant heirs love — the Luther who ends the Diet of Worms with a defiant “Here I stand.” That same trait, though, Roper concludes, led to an all-too-easy fracturing of relationships and alliances. The anger Luther could muster against those seen by him as abusive authorities was, of course, also what could later drive him to split with Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to label one of his wandering protégés an “Absalom,” and to exile from his table those who deviated in virtually the smallest matter.

Roper does not shy away from Luther’s anti-Semitism. While she does not picture him as a kind of proto–Hitler Youth, she also refuses to simply absolve Luther as a “man of his time.” She writes that his anti-Semitism was even more “visceral” than that of his contemporaries. She attributes this (wrongly, in my view) to his theological ideas of the distinction of Law and Gospel and of the relationship of the Old to the New Testament. A better explanation for the origin of this noxious bigotry would be, in my view, the fact that all of Luther’s views — both for the good and for the disastrously bad — came from a “visceral” place.

This Luther biography can be disorienting for a committed Protestant to read. On one page, one cheers as the courageous Luther commits to go into Worms, facing even death. On another page, one winces as Luther erupts in anger over a narcissistically small difference with a fellow Reformer or revels in providing too much information about his own defecation or sexual habits. And then, of course, on other pages one is chilled by Luther’s words on the Jews or on the execution of heretics (who, by Luther’s definition, surely would have included my Luther-honoring Baptist self). The kaleidoscope of these reactions commends the book. If those of us who are Protestants believe, as I do, that Luther’s frenetic writing and preaching and dramatic protesting led to a recovery of the clarity of the Biblical Gospel, then we should expect that God would not use a plaster statue of a saint to do so. If, as is central to Protestant theology, there is only one mediator between humanity and God, then we shouldn’t expect mediation from our Reformation heroes.

Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World also takes a psychological view of the Reformation. Unlike Roper, Ryrie does not do so microscopically, in the life of one leader, but telescopically, in a view of “Reformation” that blurs rapidly from Wittenberg on through to today’s global Pentecostal movement. Ryrie argues that the distinctiveness of Protestantism is neither the fights Protestants are drawn toward, nor their shared commitment to Scripture as the sole, final normative authority. Protestantism is, first of all, he asserts, defined by love — by a common experience of God’s grace in the Gospel. This love led, in Ryrie’s view, to Luther’s “failed revolution.” He failed in the sense that the Catholic Church was not reformed the way Luther wanted, nor was it, of course, replaced. The revolution succeeded, though, in bringing forth a “new world” — a world that, for Ryrie, includes limited government and free-market economics.

In Ryrie’s view, the wild, swirling revolution of Luther was saved from centrifugal breakup by the emergence of Calvinism. While by no means the paradox that was Luther, Calvin, in Ryrie’s estimation, was both a theological “street fighter” and a political statesman. Ryrie is clearly right on the first point, as evidenced by Calvin’s debates with Pighius and Sadoleto. On statesmanship, Ryrie asserts that Calvin was determined that the Reformation not be seen as a threat to the political status quo. Ryrie even sees Calvin’s part in the execution of the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus as part of this campaign: Calvin “positively wanted radical blood on his hands” as a “marker of respectability” that would show Catholics that the Reformation didn’t mean antinomianism and anarchy.

Another paradox in Ryrie’s reading is the way that opposition gave velocity to the Reformation: He pictures Protestants, mirroring the early Church, gaining strength from the hatred of their enemies. Yet divisions in the Protestant movement meant that the Reformation couldn’t effectively police its own boundaries except through persuasion and occasionally state power. The beneficiaries of this, in Ryrie’s argument, were the Baptists, a sect with “conventional Calvinist” theology but a “radical” structure. The Baptist movement thrived on opposition from fellow Protestants, both in England and in colonial America, just as the Lutherans before them had on the Continent.

Ryrie briefly addresses the specific doctrinal divisions of the Continental Reformation — on predestination and free will, the extent of the atonement, and the presence or absence of Christ in the Eucharist — but without great detail. His priorities are not primarily theological, but sociological and experiential. This lack of theological nuance is seen most starkly in his treatment of Protestant debate, centuries after Luther and Calvin, on the question of slavery.

The Baptist movement thrived on opposition from fellow Protestants, both in England and in colonial America, just as the Lutherans before them had on the Continent.

Ryrie pictures the pro-slavery Protestants as principled and consistent — standing on sola scriptura with a Bible that sanctioned slavery — while abolitionist Protestants were universally a liberalizing force. The lesson in the abolitionists’ “confrontation with the Bible” over slavery, Ryrie argues, is that “Protestantism’s prophets have shown from Luther’s time on” that “when the heart of the Gospel is at stake, Protestants will not even let the Biblical text itself stand in their way.” This, though, is a facile reading. Were many abolitionist groups made up of Unitarians and other liberal Protestants? Yes. But many of them — including hellfire-and-brimstone Second Great Awakening revivalist Charles Finney and antebellum Southern Baptist fundamentalist J. M. Pendleton — argued against slavery from the Bible’s authority. The question was whether the “slavery” mentioned in the Bible is the same as the terrorist regime of race-based chattel slavery. Protestants concluded — virtually all of them, ultimately — that this is not the case. Ryrie wrongly presents the debate as a simplistic fight between Bible believers on the slavery side and progressives on the other.

Ryrie shows his hand at the book’s conclusion. His narrative of a Protestantism willing to jettison even the Bible in the name of protecting the Gospel allows him to conclude that the churches’ opposition to the sexual revolution is culturally maintained and that the Biblical texts on sexual morality will go overboard, just as slavery did, when the rejection of traditional sexual morality is ubiquitous. For Ryrie, both sides of the current debates on gender and sexuality rending Protestant communions (such as the Anglicans) are “driven by society, not theology.” In his view, Protestant theology is little more than the ratification of social trends, a bit after they have been normalized in the rest of society.

Is this often the case? Yes. I have spent most of my life arguing against a kind of nominal, cultural Christianity that embraced slavery and Jim Crow and often was (and is) made up of what I’ve called “slow-motion sexual revolutionaries” — those who accept such social trends as premarital sex and divorce culture 20 or 30 years after the outside world. That is hardly unique to Protestantism (see some of the moves of Western European Roman Catholic bishops on communion for the divorced and remarried). It also, though, is far from the whole story. Even Ryrie concedes that abortion is an exception, as the more orthodox versions of Protestantism continue to buck the cultural consensus.

Moreover, what Ryrie misses is that this is often the case within conservative Protestantism (and other orthodox forms of Christianity). Luther’s Reformation was not limited to cultural trends, heart-religion, or the bucking of ecclesial authorities. Luther’s stand launched a movement that (Ryrie concedes this fact but leaves it underdeveloped) shaped global culture virtually alone, by rediscovering the truth about God and man found in the Biblical Gospel. The slave trade and Jim Crow segregation were dismantled, despite being a cultural given, at least in some parts of the world, and at least in part (again, Ryrie concedes this but does not integrate it into his argument) because figures ranging from William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to a Gospel that teaches individual human dignity and a Bible that announces that there is no partiality with God.

Ryrie’s arguments here notwithstanding, his chapters on King and Billy Graham are perhaps the best parts of the book, and constitute exceptions to his sola-sociology viewpoint. He grounds King’s activism in his Baptist spirituality, though he does not, in my view, give adequate attention to King’s use of Scripture. Unlike others, he does not present Graham as a phenomenon of Cold War anti-Communism and the Nixon era. Ryrie rightly points to Graham’s experience of personal conversion and his unifying ability to move Evangelical Protestants out of often pugilistic and endlessly dividing fundamentalism without veering into the sterility of mainline liberalism. Here again, though, Ryrie accurately reflects the role of personal experience (sola fide) while downplaying the role of Biblical authority (sola scriptura). It is impossible, though, to understand Graham, and the way he was received both by believers of all denominations and by those streaming down the aisles at his crusade altar calls, without understanding what he meant by his repeated refrain, “The Bible says . . . ”

The key strength of Ryrie’s book is that it is something of a biography of the Reformation, as Roper’s Martin Luther is a biography of the Reformer. Unlike Roper’s subject, though, Ryrie’s is still living. Ryrie recognizes that a major theme of the Reformation was a Church “reformed and always reforming.” He binds together the various events of the Reformation as a good biographer binds together the various moments of his subject’s life. In this case, the narrative continues on through a vibrant and exploding Chinese and African Church, ended with a “To Be Continued.”

Like Roper’s Luther, the life of Protestantism is, to this moment, paradoxical and complicated.

Like Roper’s Luther, the life of Protestantism is, to this moment, paradoxical and complicated. On one hand, much is to be celebrated. As the theological liberalism of North American and Western European Protestant churches euthanizes those institutions, others — usually more orthodox and intentional about Protestant distinctives — are rising to take their place. This is true not only in the strikingly orthodox Anglican communion in Africa and Asia and Australia but also in the resurgence of a kind of Calvinism in North America (one that is growing even in Latin America). To be sure, this Reformed awakening appears uniquely American in many ways — encompassing multiple denominations and centered around such modern innovations as massive conventions and conferences and even hip-hop concerts, in addition to the daily liturgies of churches. The catechism of the Gospel Coalition, for instance, is robust in its Reformation confessionalism on God and justification but carefully avoids the more divisive points of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (points that would have brought Luther and Zwingli almost literally to a fistfight). Evangelical Protestant seminaries are abuzz with students, with several posting record enrollments even as their mainline liberal counterparts dwindle. At the same time, a growing contingent of theologically conservative African Americans (such as those in the Reformed African-American Network), Asian Americans, and Hispanics are calling the younger Protestant movements to see that a Gospel rooted in the atonement of Christ, and a Bible calling for a church that tears down divisions, must mean multiethnic identity and leadership — not just a North American Evangelical establishment dominated by white middle-class men.

Alas, this is not the whole story. Entrepreneurial Protestantism still finds ways to be driven by the market. Some Evangelicals have even pioneered the idea of Internet church services — sometimes including “online” baptisms and the Lord’s Supper. Global Pentecostalism is often led by orthodox Protestants of solid Evangelical confessions of faith, but it is also, all too often, represented by a health-and-wealth gospel that every generation of Reformation Christians would regard as heresy. One can imagine Martin Luther watching these television prosperity evangelists promising financial blessings and physical healings from God for those who send in checks. Perhaps his reaction to Tetzel’s indulgence-selling would have seemed tame by comparison. After all, the Reformation-era indulgences at least built St. Peter’s Basilica, not an evangelist’s private jet. There are still doors to nail theses on, but often what must be protested is itself Protestant.

At the same time, Catholic and Protestant tensions have lessened. Again, this is a complicated phenomenon. On one hand, the closeness of Protestants and Catholics to each other has ameliorated an anti-Catholicism that was often, at least in America, fueled by nativism. Catholics, too, have not abandoned the Council of Trent but are far less likely to anathematize the “separated brethren.” On the other hand, some of the unity between Catholics and Protestants is due to the sad reality of being in the trenches together — metaphorically in North America, for instance, in the fight for religious freedom, but also literally, in the Middle East and Africa and Asia, as Islamic extremists and Communist dictators don’t typically differentiate between the heirs of Luther and the heirs of Pope Leo. And, sadly, some of the thawing in the cold war between Catholics and Protestants is due to a weakening commitment to our churches’ teachings. The move to civility and, in some cases, genuine unity is a good development; a slide toward doctrinal apathy as part of the deal is not.

The Reformation persists, even if the rancor of the Reformation does not. The Protestant claim is the idea that while the Church will withstand even the gates of hell, any particular church can lose the lampstand of Christ’s presence. And, the Protestant claim continues, the core of those churches must be the Gospel — that God declares us right with him because we are united, by faith, to the righteousness of God, which is Jesus Christ. This means that we must approach God not with proxies but personally, and only by abandoning any other plea than that of the crucified and resurrected Jesus. That emphasis is still needed, not just in protest against any church but as a gift of reminder, to the larger Church, of the unearned and unearnable grace of God. That’s why, unlike many of my ancestors, I am happy to visit the Vatican anytime the pope would like. It’s also why I’ll have 95 theses in my pocket, when I do.


Luther’s 95 Theses, 500 Years Later: A Mixed Legacy

Adolescents in Crisis: Why We Need to Recover Religion

Post-Christian America: Gullible, Intolerant, and Superstitious

— Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. This piece originally appeared in the June 26, 2017 issue of National Review.


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