As a student of church history (I am not a church historian) and one who has tried to dig deep into my Christian roots so I am best able to position myself and the congregations I have influence with, I have a strong connection to both the ancient and future church since the height of the tree is limited by the depth of the roots!
As part of my journey, I have often asked if the Protestant Reformation was worth it. As in other words, did the Reformation do more harm than good regarding the health of the church and the influence of the Kingdom of God? I ask myself if the Reformation was something that could have been avoided since it dissolved Christendom into mere Christianity. This is something many on the Anabaptist, pietistic side welcome while those working for a kingdom witness and reconstruction of the nations are working hard to recapture. Some of us fall between these polar-opposite positions.
One of the unsung heroes of church history was the Catholic theologian Erasmus. He represented a third option besides the positions of the Roman Catholics and Protestant pioneer provocateur Martin Luther. Erasmus wanted to reform the church, return the church to its biblical roots, and rid it of internal abuses but was not willing to break the ecclesial unity of the church.
Often I have wished that Erasmus won the day instead of Luther. But unfortunately the popes of his day did not heed his warnings, resulting in a third schism. Besides the first schism of East and West in the eleventh century, this was the most devastating schism of the church. It wasn’t until Vatican II of the early 1960’s, almost 450 years too late, that the Catholic Church finally started coming towards Erasmus!
I have also wondered if there was biblical precedent for the Reformation. I have come to the conclusion that the Scriptures are clear: God honors His name above all else and He does not tolerate abuses in His name by any faith community, whether Israel of the past or the church of the past and present!
Our primary historic case study is the nation of Israel. As much as God values unity among His people (as prayed by Jesus in John 17:20-23) He judged the twelve tribes of Israel by dividing their kingdom because of the apostasy of King Solomon.
First Kings 11:9-11 says:
And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the Lord commanded. Therefore the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.”
Later in 1 Kings 11:29-34 it says:
And at that time, when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him on the road. Now Ahijah had dressed himself in a new garment, and the two of them were alone in the open country. Then Ahijah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. And he said to Jeroboam, “Take for yourself ten pieces, for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and will give you ten tribes (but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did. Nevertheless, I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand, but I will make him ruler all the days of his life, for the sake of David my servant whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes.”
In the very next chapter we see this prophesy fulfilled when the tribes of Israel broke away from Solomon’s son, King Rehoboam, which left him as the ruler of Judah only.
Then, to take it a step further, when both of the kings of Israel and Judah continued to turn away from the law of the Lord, God scattered all of His people among the nations. They didn’t return again as one nation until the post-exilic period during the days of Nehemiah and Ezra. We see this during the days of Jeremiah when God was already planning to divide and scatter His people because every facet of leadership representing the religious, social, judicial and political spheres committed apostasy by turning away from the word of God!
Jeremiah 2:8-9 says:
The priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the shepherds transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal
and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore I still contend with you,
declares the Lord,
and with your children’s children I will contend.
Jeremiah also declared that God would scatter His people by using the pagan nation of Babylon (the nation from the north) to judge His people, which eventually led to them being taken captive to Babylon and disinherited.
Jeremiah 1:14-15 says:
Then the Lord said to me, “Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah.”
Thus God bypassed His religious and political hierarchy—the entire institution of leadership—and chose Jeremiah as the only one to be His oracle!
Also, we see this principle during the days of Elijah several hundred years before they were scattered. At that time there was so much syncretism (King Ahab worshipped both Baal and Yahweh) that God used a remnant of 7,000 prophets preserved from the school of prophets set up by the prophet Samuel (many years before) as a sub-culture preserving the holy remnant who kept the word of the Lord and faith in Yahweh until a king arose who would restore the nation back to God (1 Kings 17-21)! But even godly kings like Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah were not enough to prevent the eventual disinheritance witnessed by Jeremiah.
Furthermore, we see God operating powerfully through the scattered remnant in Babylon. Daniel was used by God to transform the entire nation of Babylon (Daniel 1-6)! This shows us that God doesn’t need all the political, social and ecclesial accoutrements to transform culture and promote His kingdom! He will even bypass the unity of His church and faith community if necessary to accomplish His purposes if His people forsake His law and compromise their faith by worshipping and serving God and manmade traditions!
Finally, by the time of John the Baptist we see God totally bypassing the religious hierarchy of the restored nation of Israel which was then under Roman rule, including the Scribes and Pharisees, by revealing the birth of Messiah to the lowly shepherds at night (marketplace leaders). God was making a statement by bypassing the priests and religious leaders with this sacred announcement!
Also, we see St. Luke accentuating this point by mentioning all the priestly and political leaders before announcing that the word of God had bypassed them and instead came to an unknown person named John the Baptist in the wilderness (wilderness in this context represents that he was outside their context and power base).
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Of course, John was the forerunner of Jesus who, as a carpenter, was outside the priestly clan of Aaron and was not a member of the Sanhedrin nor a political leader. Yet He suddenly appeared on the scene as a herald of good news (Luke 4:18).
John 7:15 says Jesus was not a man of letters (He wasn’t officially trained in the Scriptures by the accepted system of education run by the religious leadership) but was God the Son who came to bring the way, the truth and the life to the world (outside of the ecclesiastical or religious structure of His day).
One of the most profound things Jesus ever said was that the religious traditions of men make the word of God of no effect (Mark 7:13)!
Of course, I am still a proponent of church unity and understand it is something the Scriptures teach us to strive toward so we can function with the maximum amount of power and purpose! The Body of Christ needs each part as shown in 1 Corinthians 12; Jesus prayed for His followers to be united in John 17:20-23; 1 Corinthians 1:10 teaches us not to be divided in the church; and Acts 2:44-47, 4:32-34 shows that one of the primary reasons for the power of the early church was their love and unity.
The following are my opinions related to the advantages and disadvantages of the Protestant Reformation:
The Disadvantages of the Protestant Reformation
1. It weakened the influence of Christendom which led to individual Christianity
With much of the strength and unity of the Catholic Church broken, the church no longer had the political, cultural and economic power to hold the ultimate power to influence every sector of society. This eventually meant the end of Christendom (the church and Kingdom of God ruling the nations) and the resurgence of individual Christianity.
2. It opened the door for secular humanism to reign in culture through the Enlightenment
With the fragmentation of the church, faith in scholars finding a “grand synthesis” from the Bible to give meaning to all truth in every realm was shattered! The autonomy that came out of the church’s weakened position, both in the religious and secular world, led to (among other things too numerous to mention in this short essay) men searching for meaning and answers via human reason and no longer only via divine revelation. (This trend actually started somewhat through the writings of Thomas Aquinas who was influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and taught that men could learn truth apart from divine revelation.)
3. It led to a gross fragmentation resulting in thousands of denominations
When we have thousands of denominations and clusters of churches all proclaiming that they have the truth (although most don’t proclaim they have exclusive truth) it hurts the faith of some who question whether any person can actually truthfully interpret the Bible. It also hurts the witness and power of the church in culture because we are not putting our money, time and talents together to preach the gospel.
However, there is now something arising that is better than denominationalism or Roman Catholicism: the emergence of complex apostolic networks a la the first century church. I wrote about this in my article entitled “The Present Seismic Shift of the Evangelical Church.”
As I once heard someone say, “In Roman Catholicism we have one pope; in Protestantism we have many popes!” I think having many is safer than having only one because, historically, whenever too much power is concentrated into the hands of one person or entity, including the church, the results have been tyrannical and detrimental to the cause of Christ!
4. It led to mainstream Protestant denominationalism which is mostly liberal in nature
As much as I strongly disagree with the Roman Catholic system (which places human tradition above Scripture and has led to, among other things: prayers for the dead, worshipping Mary, praying to the saints, belief in purgatory, salvation and regeneration through infant baptism, and vows of poverty and celibacy among the priesthood) at least they still maintain orthodox views regarding the deity of Christ, the virgin birth of Christ, the Trinity, and other essentials of the faith which most of the mainline Protestant denominations have jettisoned.
The Episcopal Church is only one example of a liberal Protestant denomination that now ordains homosexual bishops. Many in their ranks also now deny the physical bodily resurrection of Christ and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures.
5. It had disastrous results for nations
The following is from Theology for the Third Millennium by Hans Kung:
The Protestant Reformation led to: the Thirty Years war of Germany which, to this day, Germans cite as the most devastating war in their history (even worse than World Wars I and II); the wars in France between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots; for Spain, internal separation from Europe through the destruction or exile of its Erasmian humanists and Protestants; for Italy, the religious expulsion of its religious non-conformists as well as their state police and inquisitions stifling the inner life; and England distanced itself from the rest of Europe and broke away from all others with the Anglican Church. The Reformation continued to set Western Europe against the Eastern Church, Russia, and even to some extent against its own people, the underground of the masses.
6. It gave rise to an independent, subjective Christianity and moved away from the creedal confessional expression of Christianity
Many of us come from the revivalist evangelical tradition of John Wesley, George Whitfield, and Jonathan Edwards which led to the modern-day evangelical revivalism of Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.
Although there is much in this tradition that is very powerful and good, many of us generally jettisoned belief in corporate confessions of the church (the Confessions of Augsburg and Westminster, to name a few); moved away from catechizing our children (the Heidelberg Catechism being one example) which took away the responsibility of parents to disciple their children and has left our churches depending only on surface instruction found in Sunday schools and youth groups; and moved away from putting value in and knowing the historic creeds of the church such as the Apostle’s, Nicean and Athanasian creeds. This has led to interpreting Scripture without regard for the writings and work of the church fathers of the first five centuries which sometimes leads to subjective interpretations of the word and heretical doctrines a la Carlton Pearson and Rob Bell.
The Advantages of the Protestant Reformation
1. It brought back the primacy of the Scriptures for faith and practice
To this day, the Roman Catholic Church still does not have a clear view on which is more important: church tradition or Scripture. If we do not go by the tradition brought by those the Lord Himself chose to pass along His word (the writers of the New Testament) then we are open to subjective traditions of men, which Jesus said nullify the word of God (Mark 7:15).
To me, the most important accomplishment of the Protestant Reformation has been that the Bible is now in the language and possession of the common people instead of those paid to interpret the word based on their job security and politics (for example, the professional priests of the Roman Catholic Church before the Guttenberg Press printed thousands of Bibles made available to the masses).
2. It brought more clarity to salvation by faith and not by works
Before Martin Luther’s epiphany regarding justification by faith alone, based on reading the book of Romans and that “the righteous shall live by faith,” the church was caught up in a mish-mash of salvation by works and the giving of money to the church in the way of indulgences. Underground counter-movements led by Peter Waldo, Peter Lombard, and John Hus made some headway regarding going back to the Scriptures and justification by faith but never broke through to the mainstream of the church.
3. It demonstrated how God’s glory and honor are more important than religious unity in the face of apostasy
God does not share His glory with others (Isaiah 42:8) and will not even allow His church to misrepresent His name to the world if it falls away from His truth! Jesus said more than once to the seven churches in Revelation that He would remove their lampstands and judge them if they did not repent of false doctrine and practice (Revelation 2-3)!
The Protestant Reformation shows (like the division of the Kingdom of Israel in 1 Kings) the lengths God will go to purify the faith and for the true knowledge of God to be revealed in the world (Hosea 3:4-6)!
4. It gave rise to a move towards the simplicity of the first century church and the apostolic movement
As I wrote in my article “The Present Seismic Shift of the Evangelical Church” there is presently an historic move of God (as seen in the Global South and East as well as parts of Latin and North America) that is bringing a huge shift back toward the establishment of complex apostolic networks a la the first century church. These apostolic networks are led by apostolic leaders with clusters of denominational and non-denominational churches that voluntarily come together in a region for the cause of Christ.
This shows us the reformation of the church is still ongoing as we are getting closer to the ideals of the church as found in the Book of Acts and the first 200 years of church history.
My hope is that we will combine the best of the pre-Constantine and post-Constantine church because I also believe God has called the church to become institutionalized in every sector of society until we establish a new Christendom. This new Christendom should not be based on political influence alone but also known by its love, service and Holy Spirit-power manifest through creativity in all of culture for the benefit of all in society!
5. It took away the power of the pope and brought about checks and balances in the church
As much as we would all like to have only one leader for stability and to harness our influence in culture, because of sinful human nature we have found that too much power in the hands of one person is usually not a good thing! We have seen this not only in secular political rulers like Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot but also through some of the corrupt popes who ruled medieval Europe and established the Inquisition!
Furthermore, God warned Israel in 1 Samuel 8 against having a religious king over them because, ultimately, He is our only King (1 Samuel 8)!
In conclusion: Although I wish Erasmus won the day and averted the further fragmentation of the ecclesial structure of the church resulting in the Protestant Reformation, I also would rather have Protestantism with all its flaws than go back to one church under Roman rule because of its propensity to elevate human tradition over Scripture. God shares His glory with no man (Isaiah 42:8)!