Christian History – The Reformation: What Was the Point?

Die_Reformation_Gustav_Eilers_nach_Wilhelm_von_Kaulbach

I’ve talked much about the Reformation in the past few weeks. So, what exactly did they not like? Why do we find their thought so…out-dated, to put it bluntly? To admit my own fault: I did not know that “Reformed” fit into a denomination; I merely figured that all Protestants were Protestant. While that’s true in a sense, recent events and modern culture show that three sets of thought emerged out of the Protestant tradition: conservative, liberal, and charismatic. Each came out of a system where the individual became his own master, and each found its own way to completely turn the Gospel on its head.

The point of the Reformation, far from this goal, was freedom: freedom from tyranny and freedom from doctrinal opression. It is the same freedom which Paul talks about in Galatians 5:

13 For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Unsurprisingly, human nature turns that on its head; give us a little power, and it goes to our head. For, you see, without a central authority, humans naturally tend to make themselves that authority. The original doctrine erodes to the point where we find ourselves in a sticky position of free doctrinal establishment and differences of opinion. This doesn’t come down to trifles alone, but fundamental issues. Why do some oppose homosexual marriage, and some do not? Why do some believe Jesus literally rose from the dead, and some do not? In a sense, it all comes down from the Reformation’s theological anarchy. Obviously, these men did not intend for this result, but they ended up in a position of power, willingly or unwillingly. Subsequently, people abuse the freedom Protestantism gave and warp it to their own ends.

Let us establish a bit more of the problem with such anarchy, though. For one, it devolves into public opinion. The pursuit of what is now called, with great derision, “capital T truth” was the sole goal of Christian theology, their modus operandi. God’s revelation, God’s word, was that truth. Of course, hearing God’s word did not end disagreement – clarity does not entail infallibility. The Reformers themselves debated on a number of issues and seperated based on these. Still, they agreed in spirit for the most part.

In Zwingli’s case, various groups disagreed on the nature of reform, as some groups wanted a voluntary Church of committed Christians to be entered in the community by adult baptism. Zwingli, however, defended infant baptism, on the basis that it is the sign of the covenant that embraces the whole family and not just the individual. But, baptism does not bestow new birth and forgiveness of sins. It is an outward sign of faith and a symbolical act. He also argued with other reformers over the Eucharist, speci cally over Luther’s idea of the real presence continuing (consubstantiation). He maintained, in a reasonable way, that the body and blood were symbols. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present at communion, but not the actual body and blood, which stay in heaven. The communion makes the “mass” into a thanksgiving memorial in which the Church look back to the work of Jesus, and fellowship with the gathering Body of Christ in the Church.

Most of these debates revolved around actual practice and belief – why does one do act X, as a Christian? These were questions the Reformers sought to answer. The Reformers, furthermore, did not even agree on methodologies – whereas Lutherans abandoned “reason”, so to speak, the Reformed tradition emphasized the intellectual humanism, advocating a “rational” methodology to analyze Scripture.

Even so, the division of the Churches into di erent denominations all revolved around the same basic beliefs, the same faith, and the same ideas – it was assumed that these were the important questions by virtue of their place in God’s Word. Reactionaries could certainly frame and create conflict, but positive ecumenical developments today have shown that the central issues were very much the same.

However, the 1800s and the Enlightenment brought quite a change to the relatively homogeneous conflicts and debate. For one, the emergence of Deism in the 18th century posited a simpli ed and “pure” religion based on reason as an alternative to the supposed superstition inherent in the Christian religion. Deism was a distinctly rival religion, and it veiled itself under Christian terms to appeal to its audience.

But that was not the only challenge: rationalism, science, historical criticism, secularization, and postmodernism each challenged Christian theology and belief at its core. Specifically, nearly all of them rejected the authoritative tone of Scripture as a naive optimism, ignored out of hand. Rationalism was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, a “phase” in human history where reason as a methodology became primary, even more so than in the Renaissance. As such, Christianity was attacked in the name of reason, allowing a growth of atheism and agnosticism in the Christian West. Although the power of reason as an effective method has waxed and waned in importance, the same attacks continue even today.

Science was an outgrowth of Christianity as well; naturally, stating the world is made by God and is good would engender some kind of curiosity as to its composition. In that sense, the scienti c method implies testing of all claims and the refusal to place any authority beyond all criticism. The development of technology has also allowed increased independence by undermining the sense of dependence on God. As Bertrand Russell put it, a seaman in a sailing boat is more likelyto pray than one in a motor boat. Why bother about the “next” life if one is happy and comfortable here?

Furthermore, historical criticism was a new approach that thinks in terms of sources rather than authorities; usually, one was checking who wrote the source itself, but the contemporary eye examines the source itself. Now the Bible could be analyzed from a source critic with some obvious ideological commitments against authority. It becomes a source to be criticized rather than an authority to be accepted. As well, the “Jesus” of history becomes radically transformed. Secularization comes about as a result of Christianity’s waning authority. Religion becomes a private affair in a pluralistic culture, and “other” belief systems hold equal validity. Religion, in modern society, has become akin to signing up to a local health club rather than a personal and communal commitment. Postmodernism only exacerbates this, leading to the idea that objective truth accessible by reason is merely a farce – hence, again, an attack on Christianity’s claims. One is always colored by their starting point; hence, no one can really know anything, and claims to truth are power struggles to oppress others.

Zwingli’s mode of thought, in that sense, goes against everything that rationalism and the age of Enlightenment have taught the world. It is distinctly anti-rationalist but not anti-reason, disputing any alternate world-view or methodology that is not “The Word of God” as an idol. How does one have a conversation with such a man? He is certainly not willing to engage in disputation with other religions except to show their error!

Although it is true that equality and diversity flourished in modern times, the sense of community has been lost. Society has cleaved itself into a variety of different cultures which all propose entirely antithetical solutions to the same problems. One only needs to examine the Trayvon Martin case, for example, to see two diametrically opposed sides espousing George Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt based upon pure speculation. This political arena does not strike any observer as a place for civil disagreement.

Of course, these are all things that happened within the last two centuries, but the real issue presents itself starkly: authority. Christianity, for nearly two millennia, was mostly seen as a given, a revelation from God that must be accepted by faith. Debates among Christians concerned the identity of the revelation, not its truth. But now, revelation itself has been questioned by believers and non-believers alike. While it is always good to ask questions, Christianity is always based on some authority – namely, that of God – and cannot really be Christianity otherwise. That authority, in terms, must accord with the idea of individuals and communities both willing and able to understand the desires of that authority in the way in which their lives take shape and form. The modern age simply shifted the authority to a new master, one more willing to advocate one’s personal ideas than the other.

Thus, Christianity’s subtle shift away from normative claims and “truth” has much to do with the intellectual culture which surrounded it. Over time, what was intended as a relatively straight-forward task – to understand God through God’s word – became a tangled mess of hermeneutical propositions and confused standards of judgement over the source of Christianity’s authority. The Bible certainly does not, in any sense, come in accordance with modern culture, whether of the popular or academic varieties, nor does it conform to some preconceived notions as Zwingli noted. These presuppositions inevitably a ffect those interpretations that come along the line. For most of the laity, “hermeneutics” exist “out of sight, out of mind” or remain totally unintelligible. That, in itself, is the greatest problem with theology in the contemporary era: that it cannot speak to the person in the pew.

What has become primary, in the Enlightenment, is the method rather than the authority which provides it. What bearing does a methodology have per se – its usefulness? That seems a highly suspect analysis. In terms of Christianity, should the method of analyzing the religion itself or its primary holy books ever determine, trump, or invalidate those beliefs? When did the Bible’s instrumental value become the focus, rather than its intrinsic value? A divine entity could certainly communicate his message in some way, one might imagine, yet the tendency to ignore such commonsensical notions remains rampant through theological discussion.

The answer is obvious: hearkening back to earlier times isn’t a bad thing! That’s why this series exists, after all.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.