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ReformationA Catholic friend of mine is fond of referring to the Protestant Reformation as “the Deformation.” Well, perhaps. Certainly the Reformation in England was a deformation. Henry VIII’s stripping of the altars was not only a monumental act of iconoclastic vandalism, but the cultural revolution brought about by his break with Rome—which included the dissolution of the monasteries and his daughter Elizabeth’s reign of terror—was a precursor of the horrors of the French Revolution or Mao’s cultural revolution in China centuries later.

The year 2017 will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is right therefore to look again at the events and their consequences, and assess our terminology, for what historians benignly call the “Reformation” was indeed not only a revolution, but the mother of all revolutions.

Before the Protestant Revolution, Europeans were united by a shared allegiance that transcended individuals and nation-states. To be European was to be Catholic. Whether you were Spanish or Swiss, Swedish or Scottish, your spiritual, intellectual, and cultural roots were first and foremost in the Catholic faith. Likewise, whether one was a prince or a peasant, a monk or a milkmaid, one ascribed to a higher loyalty that transcended national, ethnic, economic, class, and linguistic boundaries. Through the diocesan system of administration, the monastic infrastructure, and the shared Latin language, a genuinely trans-European culture existed. City-states and petty princes might go to war with one another, but there was a higher unity rooted in a shared spiritual and cultural patrimony.

The Protestant Revolution broke all that. As nation-states emerged, canny kings and grasping princes adopted the Protestant revolutionaries and used their spirit of religious independence to power their own temporal ambitions, which led to rapacious vandalism, social chaos, and ultimately persecution, bloodshed, and war. Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s tyranny in England is the prime example, but the German princes lining up with Martin Luther and the Protestants sparked first the Schmalkaldic War, after which various conflicts simmered for decades, finally breaking out into the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War, which tore Christendom into shreds for good.

Shattered Christendom was then plunged into a series of seemingly endless conflicts, culminating in the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Were all these wars and revolutions directly caused by Protestantism? The causes are complex, but it can be argued that the Protestant Revolution was the breach in the dam breast that allowed the subsequent flood.

The Protestant Revolution set a precedent. It provided a spiritual justification for something that had hitherto been anathema: rebellion and armed revolution. For the first time it was a noble and courageous thing to rebel against the established powers. The Protestant Revolution cast rebels as brave pioneers, prophetic voices, and banner-bearing crusaders for the common man. The Protestant Revolution established a new normal: the social dynamic of progress through conflict. Friedrich Hegel would summarize it in the age of revolution, with his famous dialectic: thesis, antithesis and resolution, and Karl Marx glorified it as the class struggle. Hence, the way forward would always be through revolution.

The revolution was one of attitude as well as arms. While violent revolt was always a possibility, it was the attitude of progress through revolution that was most fundamental. To this day, political, religious, and cultural struggles are conceived and perceived as great conflicts between the revolutionary forces of progress and the reactionary forces of repression and tradition. While the battles may take place with ballots instead of bullets, and the conflicts are conducted in back rooms rather than on battlegrounds, the atmosphere and attitude of revolution is still the default setting for progressives who view the world as one long battle against the reactionary forces of conservatism.

Need it be so? Conservatives should always be enthusiastic about true renewal. There should be nothing hidebound, legalistic, and defensive about conservatism. In the face of revolution conservatives should put forward the principles of proper renewal. Renewal, whether in religion or politics, is a return and refreshment of founding principles. Renewal re-charges the original charism and calling while avoiding the easy temptation of iconoclasm and violent revolution. Renewal repairs and re-paints; it does not revolt and violate. It weeds the garden and prunes the vine if necessary, but it does not uproot and destroy.

While revolution is to be eschewed, and renewal espoused, true unity and peace can only be established when individuals and groups of people are united in a higher and nobler belief system that transcends nationalism, ethnic loyalties, or individualism. Christendom is broken, and with it the chance for true peace is broken. Should it ever be restored it might just overcome the Prince of Chaos and welcome home the Prince of Peace.

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31 replies to this post
  1. Of course, Martin Luther would have preferred to stay in the Church, but the Church did not permit his “renewal” through the dialogue he attempted to have over the the Church’s misconduct.

    • In point of fact, representatives from Rome were already on the way to meet with Luther to invite him to Rome to discuss his theses when Luther made his break with Rome. Luther was an impatient, stubborn, bullheaded German who was being egged on by the local princes who wanted Church property for their own. There is fault on both sides, but Luther’s action was the critical path; without what he did, things would have been much different, and I dare say we’d have churches dedicated to St. Martin Luther, Doctor of the Church.

      But we don’t. And we won’t.

  2. You painted a really rosy picture of pre-reformation Europe. I would suggest that one can hardly prune a thorn tree and expect peaches in the spring. When something becomes dead, Jesus prunes it. He doesn’t preclude the use of protestant sheers.

  3. Also, I don’t think you can compare the American Revolution to the French, which may have started on “Idealistic” grounds but soon devolved into a bloodthirsty mess.

  4. What I have noticed in my years of listening to people in the USA is that 95% do not know or even believe in History and how One Point in History effects their present time. FYI—- I was born in Belgium and raised there as well as in the states, so I experienced the reality of both worlds good and bad!!!

  5. A nice and neat overarching explanation for why everything is wrong with the world Fr. Longnecker. But lets move the clock back and use an Eastern Orthodox lens. Instead of “once upon a time there was a good and nice continent with a basically good and nice church and then Luther wrecked it” lets use “once there was a good and nice Orthodox church until the Roman folks insisted on adding a phrase to a creed, and elevating their main man to a position of unlawful authority thus setting a pattern of rebellion in the west”. But seriously the problem with blaming ideology for all the world’s ills is that one is tempted to substitute one’s own ideology in its place. I enjoy this website and your writing but I do think you Romans sometimes trespass into idealogical ground with this sort of catch all blame it all on Luther narrative. We protestants have an opposite narrative which puts the pope etc as the bogeyman. Perhaps a base of unity between us could be a meditation on Chesterton’s response to the question “whats wrong with the world?” which was ” I am.”
    Blessings-

    • I do agree that more time needs to be spent on the East-West divide. As s seeker on the outside, it seems that Rome likes to underplay and minimise the issues, while the Orthodox exaggerate and overplay their hand. The whole notion, as articulated by Kallistos Ware and others, that those in the West aren’t even asking the right questions, makes one wonder if something very profound is being missed in the quest for all that is right and true.

  6. The essay ignores the first dividing of Christendom that occurred five hundred years before, between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Doesn’t seem reasonable to blame Luther for that. Perhaps pre-Reformation reforms might have healed that schism. Would it have precluded the Reformation? Who knows?
    Just how many Catholics would be comfortable in the pre-Reformation Roman Catholic Church?

  7. “My point is that the American Revolution was still a revolution ”

    The American Revolution was a rebellion against mindless authority.

    • @Eric: Hardly. The crown’s objectionable measures were mild (often milder than what the new US government would do in a few years!), and hardly mindless. Two major things the colonists did fear:
      1) The king might actually require them to respect the treaties that had been made with Indians; and
      2) Britain looked like it was turning anti-slavery, and this might endanger slavery in the New World.

      • I don’t think slavery was much of an issue, Britain didn’t formally abolish slavery until several generations later. But the Declaration of Independence was one of the greatest documents ever written. It was perhaps the only example in which one power rebelled against another, but only after first spelling out the exact reasons why. The abuses of the British crown may have been minor compared to the political abuses of 20th century dictators, but they were abuses all the same.

        • ” I don’t think slavery was much of an issue…” There is extensive evidence that it was.

          “The abuses of the British crown may have been minor compared to the political abuses of 20th century dictators…”
          In fact, they were minor compared to the abuses of the American government 20 or 30 years after the revolution. Are you suggesting people should have a revolution every time their government is not perfect?

          • Who said anything about “Perfect”? But certainly our revolution was vastly superior to remaining “Subjects” of a foreign power.

          • Yes, understood, thanks. With that in mind, one of the other great myths falsely propagated in American History was when Paul Revere made his famous horse ride through town yelling to the townspeople “The British are coming!” when instead he was actually saying (or shouting out) “The Redcoats are coming!” To your point, a great portion of the colonists by 1776 of course still viewed themselves as in fact British and many also still loyal to the Crown.

  8. I think this article places too much emphasis on the Protestant reformation as separating our world from the Medieval. In point of fact, the Protestant Reformation followed the Great Schism (not to be confused with the East-West Schism), the foundation of the Hussites and the Albigensians, not to mention numerous peasant revolts.

  9. Christendom may appear to be broken but it is a certainty that the gospel is not broken. Christians live and die in the certitude of salvation given through faith in the promise of God’s word made flesh. This flesh, Christ himself, God of very God, assumed into himself the sins of all the world and died for the forgiveness of all the ungodly. We suffer in this faith in the peace that passes all understanding, waiting to be revealed upon our Lord’s return.

  10. RC triumphalism on display here, and I dare say many (and probably the vast majority of) RC historians would refute it. It’s more likely that the Protestant Reformation was itself a consequence of the Avignon Papacy and Great Schism, among a lot of other factors, of course. The move to nationalism and secular political supremacy was well underway before 1517. You could argue that the the ProtRef was fueled by this and added fuel to it, but it’s inaccurate to say that the ProtRef caused it.

    • Luther’s central focus was Justification, the very righteousness of God revealed in the incarnation of this God/man, Jesus, who is God’s mercy revealed. This is the central focus of all doctrine. Yes, Christ defeated Satan and death itself. RC triumphalism? In no way! Jesus Christ rose from the grave and lives and Reigns until he returns ito judge both the living and the dead. Luther’s reformation stands apart from the Protestant reformation. Man’s wisdom is not God’s Wisdom given through His Word proclaimed throughout this world of woe. It is in His word we take our stand; “It is finished”.

  11. The American Revolution when understood as the “War for American Independence” from Great Britain (i.e., from 1776 to 1783) was really not technically a “revolution” per se. It was far more accurately speaking a “War for Independence” or the “War for American Secession.” It should be understood that the colonists were essentially fighting to regain their traditional common law rights and constitutional liberties as Englishmen. More broadly historically speaking however, there was something of an “American Revolution” within the thirteen colonies that occurred gradually in the minds of the colonists and within their societal/cultural framework from about 1701 to 1760. Much of their revolutionary thinking, in addition to the Protestant Reformation, was also greatly influenced by the subsequent European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

    The War itself however has been misnamed the “American Revolution” when it really should be called the “War for American Independence” or the “War of American Secession.” Intellectual historian and philosopher Donald W. Livingston has pointed out that the term “revolution” can be understood idiomatically in three ways: revolution as “restoration” as in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (which was essentially “whiggish” in nature); revolution as “Lockean” as expounded upon by the English philosopher John Locke in his treatise/writings and revolution as “transformative” as what occurred in the French Revolution of 1789. Once again, my point is that the War itself, which was waged from 1776 to 1783 between the american colonists and the British does not accurately describe nor fit the “idiomatic meaning” of the word “revolution.”

  12. As a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, raised in a strongly Reformed Presbyterian household where I was taught to revere Elizabeth, Cromwell, and to despise the Irish, I’d love it if you’d recommend some reading on Elizabeth’s Reign of Terror. I feel like everything I’ve been taught over the years is Reformist Propaganda, particularly the British treatment of the Protestant Revolution. Do recommend some books or particular historians! And thank you for this excellent article!

  13. One way of viewing the Protestant Revolution is as the Mother of all conspiracy theories. ‘All along, the Catholic Church deliberately wasn’t teaching true Christianity. In fact, the Pope is secretly the Anti-Christ.” A very successful conspiracy theory, to judge by how many believe such nonsense.

  14. “Eric, until the Revolution, Britain was not a foreign power! ”

    They behaved like a foreign power, and clearly by the time of the Declaration of Independence, they were SEEN as a foreign power.

  15. Edi Denton, two books that are essays written in the 20th century are available on Amazon. They give an overview of the Reformation that is easy to read and marvellous scholarship; the English Reformation by Gerard Culkin and The Beginning of the English Reformation by Hugh Ross Williamson. Also Hilaire Belloc and GKChesterton have written great concise histories. A more comprehensive history of the Reformation is a 3 volume set by Philip Hughes entitled The Reformation in England.
    As to Luther, a Catholic perspective on Luther is that of Msgnr Patrick O’Hare’s book entitled ‘the Facts about Luther’. Contributors to this site who seem to believe Luther to have been capable of canonisation may be interested to read the book written by Luther himself, entitled, ‘The Jews and their Lies’, a book which does not seem to be discussed a lot lately, but which was influential in Germany. When this is read, consider that it is the founder of Protestantism who wrote this. To Catholics, including Father Longnecker, our foundational premise is that the founder of our church was Jesus Christ Himself. Luther certainly did not qualify for sainthood.

  16. Mr. Longenecker: I understand the argument, and it’s certainly an interesting trajectory you outline, but do you honestly think this line is true, “For the first time it was a noble and courageous thing to rebel against the established powers.” I seem to remember quite a few times in history before this when rebellion against established powers was in fact praiseworthy.

  17. These days, it is very common to hear that Luther did not intend to start his own church. What then are we to make of the Lutheran church? Do they really have a father or not? It seems that in trying to salvage Luther’s theological reputation, an entire Christian sect had to be bastardized. Neither founded by Christ nor Luther. I am glad Pope Francis opens his arms to them. They should not fail this chance to call him father.

    Pope Francis reminds me of the great St Francis of Assisi who appeared in history at a time when the Church was plagued with scandals and abuses. St Francis was called by God in a vision to reform the Church. He answered the call, and when he finished his reformation, his work bore much fruit. The Church remained intact and was in better shape than when he found it. The same cannot be said of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli.

    These Protestant “reformers” left the Church in shambles, and effectively destroyed Christian unity. Five hundred years of Protestantism shows that the only game in their town is schism and dissensions. By their fruits, ye shall know them….

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