Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows that I can wax polemical from time to time. Given my story and the little tree stump I’ve been given, some of my more polemical writing has centered on the goodness of Protestantism, the necessity of the Reformation, and various angles on why I haven’t (and have no plans to) convert to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.
On the one hand I have no problem admitting that the fact that we are even having this conversation is in some ways a good sign. We are not a bunch of hermits huddled in our ecclesiastical caves flexing in our mirrors (not that such hermits don’t exist in any number of traditions). And not that there aren’t plenty of young roosters preening themselves, posting theological selfies on Facebook like the most desperate teenage girls. But alas that’s a post for another time.
But in honor of another birthday cake for the Protestant Reformation, 496 candles by my reckoning, here’s another go at explaining why this is something to celebrate and honestly give God thanks for and not as some kind of sectarian, fundamentalist cave dweller. With Luther and Calvin and Bucer and Cranmer, I don’t believe the Church was born in 1517. Nor do I believe that the Church was born at Pentecost and promptly went into cardiac arrest and lay in a coma throughout the “dark ages” until a choleric German monk did mouth to mouth on the catholic corpse and voila, here we are.
No, we, with Luther and Calvin and (more recently) other Reformational luminaries like Philip Schaff, maintain that the Protestant Reformation was a reformation of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, an organic, Spiritual institution born at Pentecost growing up through the centuries into the image of Christ, flaws, failures, triumphs, and victories all wound together, a field with much wheat and a fair share of tares. And it is our contention that this same Spiritual institution continues unabated unapologetically up to the present including many brothers and sisters in the Roman and Eastern Churches despite the attempts of many in leadership to obscure the gospel together with many in the Protestant tradition despite the attempts of many in our leadership to obscure the gospel. And to anticipate one common objection, your thumbing through the ecclesiastical yellow pages and bemoaning the proliferation of denominations giveth me no pause, as the Puritan father might have put it. And my point isn’t that every new denomination has been formed in a pristine sin-free environment, faithfully overflowing with the fruits of the Spirit. But there’s a certain kind of romanticism that resents the messiness of the Spirit and mistakes what true unity actually is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, let’s be clear that what Luther and Calvin objected to primarily were the innovations and flagrant abuses in the Roman church. In other words, the Reformers did not object to the traditions of the fathers per se. What they objected to was the way popes and priests and cardinals ran rough shod over the most ancient traditions, you know relics like love your neighbor as yourself and thou shalt not steal. The doctrine of transubstantiation was not official church dogma until the thirteenth century. It was only a couple hundred years old when the Reformers gave that contemporary worship movement the European equivalent of the Bronx cheer. Priestly celibacy had only begun to be enforced by the Papacy as late as the eleventh century. Likewise, while the origins of papal abuse can be traced earlier, it was the extravagance and political domineering and open immorality of the popes and cardinals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that demanded reform. Even the most die-hard papist can hardly read of the popes in Avignon without blushing. Indulgences were invented to leverage a relatively recent church growth program called The Crusades. In other words, many faithful catholic Christians worshiped Jesus with varying degrees of biblical understanding for hundreds of years before the primary abuses of papalism became dogma. In so far as the Reformers uniformly cried ad fontes and sought the recovery of the true church which had sought obedience to Jesus’ commands for a thousand years, it was the Romanist movement that was schismatic. The Reformation was thoroughly catholic. Demanding that we overlook the utter debauchery and political greed of the church hierarchy during these centuries in the name of an ideology called apostolic succession is as sectarian and fundamentalist as you can get. I see, your grandma signed a card and threw a pinecone into the fire in A.D. 1250. How quaint.
Second, let’s defend the idea of division. Better, let’s celebrate it. But let’s distinguish schism from division. When God tore open Adam’s side, we don’t have any pictures, but I suspect it was a bloody business. Bones probably popped. If you were an angel in scrubs in that first operating room, I imagine you might have wondered what the Maker was up to. But this was a glorious division, the creation of something beautiful. This was not God being schismatic, this was God being creative.
Likewise, when the new Eve, the Christian Church was born, it was not Rated G. A Man was scourged within inches of His life, His hands and feet were pierced, a crown of thorns hammered into His skull, and finally amidst jeers and taunts from the bloodthirsty crowd, a spear sliced into His side releasing a gush of blood and water. Then Jesus gave up His Spirit, the Spirit that would hover over the blood and water from which a new Eve would be formed. Again, though it appeared the most dark, the most awful moment in the history of the world, that great division, that great separation, when the Father turned His back on His Son, that moment has become our glory, something precious and beautiful to every forgiven child of God. The cross was not God being sectarian; it was the center of all true, biblical catholicity.
Nor is birth itself a casual, Sunday afternoon sort of affair. Once again, there’s blood and water, there’s severe pain, sometimes for many hours, and when a woman feels that she cannot go on, when there is nausea and vomiting and she cries out in agony, ready to give up all hope, then a small human being enters the world wrenched from warmth and safety into the cold, into the air, and she screams with fear, with hunger. But this division ultimately results in joy, in laughter, in tears of happiness and thankfulness. It may look and sound from various angles like something horrific, but every year on that very day songs will be sung, gifts given, and that division will be marked as an enormous gift. The birth of a child is not a rancorous divorce; it’s a painful, traumatic, beautiful moment of new life.
Sure, if the pope is your point of unity and this is your mantra then you’re tempted to view the Protestant Reformation as a botched lobotomy. But what if the Reformation was, on the whole, a moment of birth, more of the new Eve being formed from the side of our New Adam? What if the proliferation of new churches, new movements, new families of churches, new missions was an enormous growth spurt and not a cancer metastasizing? The Reformation wasn’t a caustic divorce. It was the division of life, more of the new world coming into existence.
Finally, we can make a similar point by asking: What exactly is the gospel? If it is the rebirth of the whole world, if the whole world is heaving with birth pangs, groaning for the redemption of the sons of man, then why wouldn’t the Church convulse too? Isn’t God in heaven shaking everything down, until that which cannot be shaken remains? People who resent the Protestant Reformation and the English Reformation and the Great Awakening and the founding of new colleges and seminaries and missionary works because their flow charts just got messed up don’t understand the gospel. The gospel is God become a man and thrashed to a naked, bloody pulp for the salvation of the world. The gospel is the gift of His Spirit breathed out on men, women, and children scattered over the hillsides of Judea and Samaria and now even to the ends of the earth. Get off your high horse. Burn your letterhead. If our salvation is the story of a perfect God broken for sinful man, then you better believe there’s going to be some breaking, some tearing, some ripping, some popping, some blood. Welcome to the new world of the gospel, the new world breathed out by the Spirit, the new world ruled by the saints of God, enthroned in a crazy, messy, glorious institution called the Church.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t have any use for fleshly pride in denominations. There’s no room for “us versus them” in the body of Christ, no room for being of Paul or Apollos or Driscoll or Sproul or whatever. But so much of the Scripture’s praise for unity comes packaged in praise for diversity, godly differences, eyes, hands, feet. Sure, let’s confess the sins of our fathers, the individualistic vainglory, theological gnat strangling, pharisaism of every stripe and flavor, but let’s also give hearty thanks for the fathers who stood firm on the Word of God, who risked life and livelihood for the sake of the gospel, the truth once delivered for the saints, preserved by the Spirit in the Church down through the ages. Stop your mumbling, your apologetic embarrassment of being Protestant as if it was an accident and you’re not exactly sure how you ended up in a Presbyterian church. Look, we don’t have a corner on the market of holiness, but the way to true unity is by loving Jesus right where He put you. What part of the body of Christ are you? Then be that part with all the gusto you got. For some, repentance will mean being a lot more thankful for your Protestant heritage, for others it will mean leaving your idolatrous superstitions (e.g. pictures, popes, confessions, slick worship bands) and finding a new home.
So give it up for the Reformation. God busted out another rib and it’s been a bloody painful mess, but on the whole, while we may still be in the awkward throes of adolescence, the new Eve has only gotten more lovely.