How the Reformation Failed, A Response: Paradox or Contradiction?

Early last week, First Things posted an excerpt from a piece by Peter J. Leithart titled How the Reformation Failed.  The longer piece can be found at Leithart’s Theopolis Institute site.  After reading the longer piece I tweeted a recommendation to read the post and that I agreed with much of it.  Following my tweet, an Evangelical friend sent me a Direct Message on Twitter asking what specifically I agreed and disagreed with. Thanks for asking the clarifying questions Dan.  Here is your response.  What follows is my reaction and thoughts in roughly the order they occurred.

Is the Failed Reformation a Paradox?

Leithart wastes no time in getting to the point.  His first sentence sums it all up:

The Reformers did not start out with a plan to found separated churches. Their goal was to reform the entire Latin church. In this they failed.

That just seems obvious, like saying the sky is blue or water is wet.  I wholeheartedly agree.  The historical records also seems to bear this out with crystal clarity.

His second sentence is less clear and more curious:

The paradox is sharp, and we need to feel its point and its edge if we Protestants are to reckon honestly with our history during this year of celebration.

I totally agree that this anniversary of the Reformation is an important milestone and all Christians should pause and reflect on the state of Christianity in the West.  However, I’m not clear on what exactly the “paradox” is to which he refers.  Perhaps that the Reformation set out to do a thing and that it failed in doing so?  Since the second sentence can only refer to what he states in the first, I am going to take the following as the “paradox” to which he is talking about: “Their goal was to reform the entire Latin church.  In this they failed.”  Furthermore, this is not a mere paradox, but a “sharp” paradox–this is a serious and pointed apparent contradiction.

Let’s stop and unpack this a bit.  What is a paradox?  A paradox is an apparent contradiction.  I’m not clear on what is apparently contradictory.  Nor am I clear on what is “sharp” about said alleged paradox.

Here is what I think he is saying: the “Reformers” set themselves an ambitious, idealistic goal of reforming the entire Latin church and failed.  If this is the case, is the apparent contradiction that they didn’t actually fail?  Or that they failed in their ultimate goal but accomplished something else?  Is the sharpness due to the vast gulf between their lofty goal and the ultimately messy reality they created?  This latter possibility seems most likely given where Leithart goes with some of the examples he sites.  More on that below.

A Recovery of the Gospel?

Okay, now on to sentence number three:

The Reformation was genuinely a recovery of the gospel. Scott Hendrix (Recultivating the Vineyard) has argued that the Reformation was an effort to re-evangelize and Christianize an officially but superficially Christian civilization. In many ways, they succeeded, setting the church and the world on an unprecedented course.

Given all the failures and sharp paradoxes, what of the gospel was actually recovered?  Not really clear on that point.  Certainly Luther’s criticism of the ways in which indulgences were being used for crass fundraising purposes is on point.  Perhaps too the desire to read and understand the Scriptures in one’s own language could be part of this “genuine recovery.”  However, if the Reformers only “…in many way, succeeded…,” how “genuine” really was the “recovery?”

Next, he takes aim at “erroneous medieval theologies of grace,” but I think the doctrines and theologies of grace were less the problem.  The real problem was the ways in which the theology of grace was used and exploited, rather than the theologies per se.  Let’s also distinguish between “theologies” and authoritative teaching.  I’d posit that the authoritative teaching on grace was not problematic, the theology of merit that lie underneath the understanding of indulgences was more to blame.  This theology of merit was merely a way of explaining how grace worked in a concrete way.  It was, however, too physicalist and too concrete, and was vulnerable to the kind of abuse to which it was subjected.

A Sharpened Paradox or Just Outright Contradiction

Leithart goes on to recount how quickly and pervasively the Christian world fractured and denominated from 1500 to 1600.  He states:

Some have charged that the Reformers were willing to split the church because they had little interest in visible unity, but that is false. All the Reformers and all Protestant confessions stressed the unity and catholicity of the church. Calvin lamented the “mutilation” of Christ’s body.

This is very difficult for me to understand.  How can a group so allegedly committed to unity create such division?  Perhaps the easiest and simplest answer is that they in fact weren’t really committed to unity at all.  They may have confessed and stressed unity, but they in no way achieved it.

These facts of disunity and division seem to push this paradox to the brink:

All this merely sharpens the paradox of the Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel, and emphasized the unity and catholicity of the church as an implication of the gospel. Yet they left the church divided.

I’m still not clear on why this is a “paradox.”  What is apparently contradictory?  Why is it not simply contradictory?

He asks toward the end of the reflection on a divided church:

How did this happen? How did a Reformation committed to the gospel, catholicity, and unity shatter the Western church and European civilization?

An important question in this entire discussion is whether this alleged “sharp paradox” is really just a contradiction.  The whole notion of the Reformation has always struck me as a confusing mix of Orwellian Doublespeak and short-sighted wishful thinking.  The “Reformation” actually reformed nothing, but actually had an intensivly opposite effect.  Leithart acknowledges much of this, but still wants to call all of this a paradox.  I think it is just a contradiction he doesn’t want to acknowledge as such.  Much in the “Reformation” was contradictory.  Why not just call it what it actually was–and still is today.

It’s the Catholic Church’s Fault?

Really?  After telling us how the alleged reformers initiated a program of unprecedented disunity, division, and conflict across Europe, I am now to believe that the Catholic Church is the “main culprit?”  Leithart accurately points out that the Church officials that were handling Luther’s case against the Church could have given him a more thorough hearing. Okay, fair point, but Luther was given a hearing and his work, at least up to early 1520, was reviewed by the Church.  In the midst of this his confessor, his Augustinian superiors, his local Bishop–on up to the Pope himself, advised Luther to “stand down” in his aggressive criticism of the Church.  He did not do so, and thus set himself against the entire structure of the Church.  For this stance of pride and disobedience, Luther was excommunicated.

Toward the end of this section, Leithart asks:

What if the Catholic church had recognized Luther, as many Catholics do today, as a “witness to the gospel”?

Yes, if the Church had recognized this at the time things probably would have been quite different.  However, Luther did not approach the Church with even a modicum of humility and deference that is appropriate of any son or daughter of the Church, past, present, or future.

Division in the Body of Christ the Work of God?

Leithart posits and untenable proposition: “More theologically, the divisions were God’s mysterious work.”  This just strikes me as blatantly un-Biblical. God does not divide the Body of Christ.  If we are to take the Incarnation as seriously as we should, this is simply impossible to accept.  Why would God the Father divide His Son’s own Body.  This kind of theological rationalization of Reformation-era–and present day–division within the Body of Christ illustrates the real distance between Protestants and Catholics.  St. Paul himself teaches in Ephesians 4:1-6 the kind of unity we are to have a Christians:

I, then, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love,striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace:one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Leithart does state in the following paragraph that:

Yet this cannot be an excuse for Reformation divisions, or a cause of complacency. God divides in order to reunite: Adam becomes Adam-and-Eve so that the two might become one flesh; Israel and Judah separate in order to be reunited centuries later; Jews and Gentiles are divided by the cut of circumcision in order to be reunited in the Messiah’s circumcision on the cross.

This attribution of division and reunification within the church to God Himself seems to reflect the characteristic imbalance in Reformed theology of the “sovereignty of God” over and against human agency.  What of human agency for those divisions within the Body?  What of Luther’s contentious attitude that the Catholic Church undoubtedly reacted to with swift and firm condemnation?

Marburg and Division Entrenched

The fractured trajectory of both the Protestant Reformation as well as the next 500+ years of Western cultural history were solidified in the inability of the Protestant Fathers to agree on one of the most important Christian realities: the Real Presence.  Leithart recounts the events as follows:

The story of Reformation fragmentation is a complicated one, but we can isolate one central thread: Luther and Zwingli divided over the issue of the real presence at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. Once they divided, their followers perpetuated the division. Each side, of course, was convinced it was defending the true Reformation and that the opposing side had compromised or distorted the gospel. So convinced, they maintained separated traditions in order to protect the purity of the gospel.

While Marburg had the intention of unifying and bringing disparate parties together, it didn’t actually accomplish this.  It had the opposite effect, as Leithart notes:

The initial division at Marburg in 1529 was unwanted. Marburg began as an effort to unify the Protestant movement. But once Luther and Zwingli parted ways, the development of separate Lutheran and Reformed traditions was intentional.

A House Divided Still

Until we get the story of the Reformation straight, our divisions will persist.  Leithart’s ultimate view of the story of the Reformation is telling:

Had the Reformers been permitted [CS-empahsis added] to remain in the Catholic church, had the Catholic hierarchy been amenable to correction and repentance, the Reformation might have succeeded.


Forcibly expelled [CS – emphasis added] from the Catholic church, divided into separate traditions, the Reformation failed: Failed in its initial and over-arching aim – to reform the Western church according to the gospel, to Christianize Christian civilization in Western Europe.

Luther was permitted to remain in the Catholic Church.  He was not in any way “forcibly expelled.”  This obscures the basic facts of the situation and misunderstands how the Church has always dealt with matters of heresy.  Luther stubbornly and defiantly refused to recant and repent.  He was deemed out of bounds by the legitimate authority in the Catholic Church.  Luther excommunicated himself.

Leithart concludes:

Protestantism will not reach its end goal until the Reformation’s divisions end.

A key aspect of ending the divisions will have to do with healing the divisive attitudes and practices that started the whole thing.  I’m going to end on what I think is a key aspect of the current agreement between Lutherans and Catholics in From Conflict to Communion, from Section 16:

What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. Remembrance makes the past present. While the past itself is unalterable, the presence of the past in the present is alterable. In view of 2017, the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.

Ut unum sint! (so that they may be one!)

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