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Graham Osborne

Was the Reformation good for Christianity?

Voices Dec. 7, 2017

Wilhelm Ferdinand Pauwels depicts Martin Luther posting his 95 theses in this 1872 work. Martin Luther's initial reform efforts addressed some abuses in the Church but it fractured Christian unity, writes Graham Osborne.

If you read my column regularly, you know my great desire for Christian unity. I have tremendous respect for our separated Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ. And there has been exciting ecumenical progress made recently, and the rediscovery of much common ground.

We are not adversaries. We are brothers and sisters in arms, linked in an epic battle against darkness. It is from this vantage point that I want to discuss a very sticky topic: was the Reformation good for Christianity?

I believe it was a tragedy.

Martin Luther’s initial reform efforts certainly did address some abuses in the Church. But let’s leave that for a moment and focus on something even more important.

In John 17:17-23, Jesus' final prayer is for the unity of his followers. The unity he prayed for was not some “we-all-love-Jesus-good-enough-let's-agree-to-disagree” unity. Twice he prays for "perfect" unity, the same unity he has with the Father.

Jesus then adds an incredibly important point: by this perfect Christian unity, the world will come to “know that you [the Father] sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” This is the heart of evangelization – that God so loved the world that he sent his only son (Jn 3:16). Jesus is saying that “perfect” Christian unity is the key to evangelizing the world!

Nothing in the history of Christianity has fractured that unity more than the Protestant Reformation. Were some Catholics in Luther's time abusing the church's teachings, particularly in the area of indulgences and purgatory? Certainly. But was the Church’s doctrinal teaching in these areas wrong? Absolutely not.

Eventually, Luther was no longer just opposing corrupt individuals in the Church. He began to attack the Church’s authority and doctrinal teaching itself, eventually rejecting both. In the process, he introduced several new, problematic teachings as well.

His first doctrinal novelty would be sola scriptura (only the Bible ) – the idea that we follow the Bible alone as the sole way of knowing God’s truths and that Scripture alone contains everything we need to believe. The authority of the Church and oral or sacred tradition are both rejected.

But here is the stunner. The concept of sola scriptura is not found in the Bible; is unscriptural! By its own definition, it refutes itself! Similarly, we can't even know which books belong in the Bible from Scripture alone, since it contains no Holy Spirit-inspired table of contents.

Additionally, the New Testament wasn’t finished until 70 to 90 A.D. We didn't have the Bible in its finalized form until the late 300s. Furthermore, in the first 15 centuries of the Church, Bibles were hand written and prohibitively expensive, and most people couldn’t read. The early Church was not a Bible-alone Church, but a predominantly oral tradition Church. “Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, whether by word of mouth or by letter,” St. Paul commands in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

The other problem is that  sola scriptura simply doesn’t work. Its fruit has been the relentless fracturing of Christianity. If there is one Holy Spirit, one Bible, and one set of unchangeable truths, how is it that we have so many seriously conflicting interpretations of Scripture, resulting in thousands of different denominations? Luther himself lamented, “there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads.”

The second pillar of the Reformation is sola fide (faith alone). Simply put, this doctrine holds that we are justified [made right with God] and saved by our faith alone, apart from good works.

But incredibly, the only place where the words “faith” and “alone’ appear together in all of Scripture is James 2:18-26, which refutes Luther’s teaching: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead ... a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

Jesus also answers our question unequivocally: “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” He answers, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:16-17). We must also keep the commandments – do good works – to have eternal life. We are not saved by our faith alone!

The Catholic position holds that we are justified or saved by the grace of God alone – ironically, a statement most Protestants would agree with – through “faith working in love” (Gal 5:6). The Church teaches that faith in Jesus and grace-inspired good works are both necessary for salvation, but both also flow from God’s grace.

Catholic teaching emphasizes God is working through us when we do these grace-inspired good works. Philippians 2:12-13 shows this clearly: “God is the one who … works in you both to desire and to work.” Similarly, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: “there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.”

But we also need to note that these “good works” are not the Old Covenant “works of the law” denounced in Romans and Galatians [and misinterpreted by Luther, who erroneously equated them with good works], but the good works praised in Romans 2:6-10: “God … will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life … through perseverance in good works.”

Scripture clearly refutes Luther’s novel doctrines. If these two pillars of the Reformation crumble, what are we fighting about? Certainly Luther stirred some needed reform into the Church. But his “reformation” went too far when it split the Church. Egotism and pride on both sides escalated this dispute to unimaginable levels. It’s time to put this all behind us.