12. Reformers sought to end the arrogance of Catholicism with the arrogance of individualism.
Reading through Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, you get the impression there’s more than a little irritation there. He’s not just a little upset. Moderately perturbed. Slightly irritated.
No. The dude was pissed.
He was pissed at his church. He was pissed at his fellow leaders. And perhaps most of all, he was pissed at his pope.
And that sense of pissedness came from two different sense of injustice. One ecclesiological and one deeply theological. But both of these informed each other. They weren’t any good separate.
The document shows an obsession with the selling of indulgences. But it also reveals an underlying obsession with repentance. Truly, there was no power behind his argument about indulgences without his belief in repentance.
We know from our history that the Western church was all (pretty much) Roman Catholic during the late 15th Century. There were other Christianities, they just weren’t part of the church we call Western. And that church was led under the leadership of a single man: the Roman Catholic Bishop of Rome. Also known as the pope.
Roman Catholicism was built around order and structure and thrived in the comfort of hierarchy. Until they didn’t. Until authority was questioned and the nature of the papacy became a problem.
Luther found this one flaw in Roman Catholicism: he saw in his church a belief that humans could be responsible for their salvation. Through the practice of buying indulgences, Christians could purchase assurance of salvation. This seemed to Luther a mockery of our theology around repentance and God’s mercy.
So, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther endeavored to tell the church so.
Here Come the Reformers!
I don’t believe Martin Luther looked to start the Reformation as we know it. But, like any one who is convinced of their really good idea, he surely wanted other people to hear it. Luther also happened to be exceptional at PR and branding.
But something happened along the way to the Reformation. Somewhere between Luther expressing some ideas a bunch of people had and the continental reformers burning hymnals and killing Catholics, there was a realization that there was something wrong with Catholic theology and something right with this new thinking.
Martin Luther’s critique of indulgences wasn’t wrong. The dude nailed the problem like a carpenter. And just as good was his connecting the purpose of repentance and forgiveness to the very necessary mercy of God.
There were also some serious clunkers in there, too. Like his thoughts about Jews. And the fact that he was a serious racist.
Luther made a compelling and powerful argument to a church in desperate need for reform. He outed the movement which was growing below the surface and because of that, gave them cover to join in reforming the church.
And whether or not the Roman Catholic church would be willing to admit it today, much of the reforms they fought over would get lodged in Catholicism too.
But no reform is perfect.
The Not-So-Great Reformation
As much as Luther was right about indulgences and the cheap purchase of grace, he brought, in some ways, an even cheaper grace.
His prioritizing of God’s giving of grace didn’t stop there. He didn’t put a period at the end of that sentence. Nor did he place that theological conviction within the formula Jesus made about love. He didn’t put the place of grace in the hands of God and in the hands of the people.
The many various reformed theologies which developed over the next 500 years recognized the faulty premise in Catholic theology, but embraced a new Protestant theology which had a faulty premise of its own. A premise with historic roots.
Luther, Paul, and James walk into a bar…
There are few fights in the church more familiar to Christians than Paul v. James by way of Martin Luther. Christians have long seen different articulations of providential faith from Paul and James. But Martin Luther took the debate to a whole other level.
We know this as the debate between righteousness by faith vs. works. But this isn’t a terribly honest articulation. Unless you like putting your thumb on the scale.
Broken down, the battle as framed by Luther is that we are ultimately saved by our faith in Jesus, not by our good works. This he gets from Paul while spitting on the book of James and accidentally spilling his beer over the pages.
James, on the other hand, never says do a bunch of good junk and you’ll be saved. If it were an honest-to-goodness, polar-opposites debate, Paul would be all in on this vision of God’s mercy and James would be like “what’s God got to do with it?” But James doesn’t do that.
James is all “if you’re good with God and God’s all ‘you’re awesome!’ then you’re bound to be doing good stuff! You can’t pretend that belief is all you need. I mean, look at the dirtbag down the street! You think God likes it when he beats his wife?”
But Team Protest had committed to the slippery slope of faith righteousness and a belief that Roman Catholics must hate God with their check-list Christianity, so they really had no choice but to see where that junk would go.
About the time Calvin and Zwingli were out-condemning each other and coming up with double, triple, and quadruple predestination [what are we up to, btw?], a good bunch of protesters look at each other and ask “what did we get ourselves into?”
Fighting Arrogance with Arrogance
The problem for Team Protest is that individual grace only gets us so far. And from the beginning, it could never really answer the simplest question about this equation of grace: why are so many people who have been saved by Jesus such dirtbags?
And really, this question has never gone away.
Instead, Team Protest started to split between two groups: those willing to double-down on the flawed theology, riding that slippery slope like the bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove and those who not only recognize the flaw, but are actively looking deeper into tradition to find a better answer.
I’ve come to see the Protestant reform as entirely likely and would always be nearly as deadly. Rome wasn’t looking to address it’s foundational problem. And many of the reforms have brought rich diversity and beauty to the church.
But it seems to me that, in bringing reform to the arrogance expressed by Catholic theology, the reformers introduced a new arrogance in Protestantism. A reform which puts too much emphasis on the individual at the expense of the community.
Fundamental Protestant theology fuels much of our nihilistic climate skepticism, rapture theology, and support for war in the Middle East. It fuels Dominionism, corporal and capital punishment, and racism and opposition to human rights.
Primarily, the modern protestant mutation has turned a theology about the generous grace of God given to each and every one of us into an absolutist individualism of personal religion, sincerely-held belief, and the utter rejection of a common good.
This is the flaw embedded in Protestantism.
[This is Thesis #12 of my 31 Theses. To read them all, visit the 31 Theses introduction page.]