Also, this is the longer version--I cut out some of the detail before submitting it to CT.
When my wife began graduate coursework at Duke University in the fall of 2000, she decided to take a seminar on Martin Luther (her primary field is American church history). When informed of this decision, her mother replied: “Good idea--that’s when we all started.”
The celebration of October 31 (traditionally All Saints’ Eve) as Reformation Day by many Protestants reflects this intuition that in some way the Reformation was the beginning of “our” identity. But who are “we”? Protestants are an immensely diverse tradition, or broad family of traditions. What do the Pentecostal evangelist T. D. Jakes, the Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper, and the liberal Episcopalian retired bishop John Shelby Spong really have in common? Does their common heritage in something that could be called “Protestantism” really mean more than what any of them might share with, for instance, Catholic and Orthodox Christians?
Indeed, the vast majority of Protestants share far more common ground theologically with Catholics and Orthodox than they do with the “non-theistic” Spong or the non-Trinitarian Jakes. Yet both the liberal Protestantism of which Spong is an extreme example, and the unorthodox version of Pentecostalism of which Jakes is a representative, appeal to the Reformation as a model. In 1998, Spong issued a “Call for a New Reformation,” complete with twelve theses of his own. By Spong’s own admission, these theses are far more radical than those of the Reformers. But Spong’s choice to link himself with Luther (his 2001 autobiography was titled Here I Stand) wasn’t just clever marketing. It reflected a long history of more radical figures claiming to “complete” Luther’s work and carry his own principles farther than Luther dared to do himself.
From the very first, Luther’s writings struck a chord with people who had very different theological preoccupations than Luther himself. Indeed, since Luther’s theology was continually evolving, such “misunderstandings” were to be expected (and may not always have been misunderstandings at all). For many of his early admirers, Luther was a more radical version of the great humanist scholar Erasmus--a hero of intellectual freedom and scholarship who called for a fresh look at Scripture and a focus on inner renewal instead of ritual and elaborate dogma. For educated supporters of the working-class revolutions that broke out in 1524 and 1525, Luther’s doctrine of freedom was a charter for political liberty. For Zwingli and the Swiss Reformers, Luther was a prophetic figure who could be expected to agree with the Swiss conclusions about the radical idolatry of Catholic worship and the error of the doctrine of the Real Presence. As Luther disappointed these early admirers one by one, a chasm opened between those who agreed with Luther’s developed (and developing) theology more or less in its entirety and those who did not. Those who disagreed with Luther claimed that Luther, while inspired by God to challenge the authority of the papacy, did not see the full implications of his own principles, and that his followers were too deferential to him, giving his teachings more authority than any merely human theology ought to have. Some of these critics were unsuccessful in gaining wide support from those with power and influence in European society, and were demonized as “radicals” whose doctrines would overthrow godly order and were radically incompatible with historic Christian orthodoxy. But a wide network of more moderate critics of Luther did succeed in gaining political support, particularly from the magistrates of independent city-states in southwestern Germany and Switzerland.
This “Reformed” version of Protestantism eventually would prove far more durable internationally than the strictly “Lutheran” version, becoming, in fact, the central “orthodox” tradition of Protestantism. The French refugee John Calvin created a systematic theology that drew richly on Scripture, the Church Fathers, selected medieval authorities, and the teachings of both Luther and his “Zwinglian” critics. Over the long term, Calvin’s version of Protestantism, enshrined in confessional statements such as the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort, would come to be seen as the central, orthodox form of Protestantism, with Lutheranism as a smaller, more ethnically limited alternative. Non-Calvinist movements, from seventeenth-century Baptists to 21st-century emergents, have fundamentally the same relationship to Calvinism that Protestantism as a whole has to Catholicism. They are “heretical” variants of the Reformed tradition, rooted in the claim that the Reformed tradition was itself insufficiently Biblical.
As a result, there are two basic reasons to celebrate “Reformation Day.” One may believe that the Protestants were right in their basic doctrinal claims and that these claims remain the indispensable foundation for healthy Christian faith and life. Or one may see the Reformers as examples because of their willingness to question received tradition in light of Scripture. Of course, plenty of people hold to some version of both. But they always stand in tension with each other. The more firmly one is convinced that the original teachings of the Reformers are correct, the less likely one is going to be to do what the Reformers did all over again. The history of Protestantism is largely the story of people imitating the original Reformers by challenging existing tradition in light of Scripture, and eventually challenging tradition and Scripture in light of reason and experience.
When the Baptists, most of whom were heirs of the Calvinist tradition, decided that the Anabaptists were right about infant baptism, they were explicitly rejecting a practice that was extremely important to the “magisterial reformers.” When Jacobus Arminius, around the same time, rejected unconditional predestination, he was embracing ideas more akin to those of the Jesuits than those of the classical Reformers. Luther had claimed, in his 1525 debate with Erasmus about free will, that this was the central point at issue between himself and the “papists.” Yet Arminius and the many Protestants who would eventually come to agree with him decided that on this key point, Erasmus had been right all along. And they did so, again, on the basis of an appeal to the authority of Scripture over human tradition.
Meanwhile, the religious conflicts of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries led to a powerful rationalist movement in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in which traditional Christian belief was identified with “superstition” and “priestcraft” as well as with political tyranny. The evangelical movement emerged in this context as an alternative both to “dead orthodoxy” and to rationalist heresy. From the beginning it assumed Protestant orthodoxy as its doctrinal formation, while calling for a less pugnacious orthodoxy that focused on “essentials” rather than squabbling over “minor matters.” John Wesley, in his famous sermon on the “Catholic Spirit,” called for broad tolerance of disagreements among Christians (even over such matters as whether the sacraments should be celebrated at all): “Let all these things stand by: we will talk of them, if need be, at a more convenient season, my only question at present is this, "Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart.””
In the 19th century, this kind of appeal to the heart led to a new kind of liberalism. Schleiermacher and his followers in Germany argued that true religion consisted in experience rather than in doctrine or morality. At the same time, the rise of historical criticism led to an awareness that the Bible was itself the product of history and tradition. The same principle that had led Protestants to criticize tradition in light of Scripture now led many of them to criticize parts of the Bible in light of others, or even to relativize the Bible compared to reason and experience. In the mid-20th century, Paul Tillich defined the “Protestant principle” as “the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith.” Far from Luther’s confident appeal to Scripture, Tillich’s “Protestant principle” relativizes all doctrinal claims, even those of Scripture and the ancient Creeds. To hold to anything unconditionally was, for Tillich, a form of idolatry. Spong’s “Call for a New Reformation” is a more radical and more simplistic version of Tillich’s theology.
Evangelicals define themselves by the rejection of this “modernist” trajectory in Protestantism and by the reaffirmation of the authority of Scripture. Yet the “Protestant principle” is at work in evangelicalism as well, even if in a more moderate form. Ever since the revivals of the 18th century, evangelicalism has given rise to movement after movement claiming to restore New Testament Christianity or to bring about a more immediate relationship with God. Some of these movements, like Mormonism, denied basic beliefs of historic Christianity and are often seen as not really Christian at all, yet their roots in evangelical Protestantism are undeniable.
Within evangelical theology in recent decades, numerous challenges to traditional Protestant belief have arisen. The “New Perspective on Paul,” championed by N. T. Wright among others, challenges the key exegetical claims on which the soteriology of the Reformation was built. A more radical challenge is the “open theism” championed by a number of leading Arminian evangelical theologians such as Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd. In his 2001 email exchange with Chris Hall in the pages of CT, Sanders responded to Hall’s appeal to tradition by invoking the Reformation:
You sound just like John Eck, the Catholic inquisitor of Luther, who claimed it unimaginable that so many theologians could have been wrong on so central a teaching as salvation. I would have thought that someone such as yourself, teaching at a Baptist college, would have more empathy for those who challenge certain traditions. Lutherans, Reformed, and Catholics killed Anabaptists for espousing beliefs that most evangelicals today take for granted. Clearly, Protestants believe that traditions sometimes need changing.To be sure, Sanders affirms certain important elements of the tradition: “the ecumenical creeds, the main teachings of the Reformation, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of prayer and community.” But on the specific, very important philosophical point where he challenges tradition, the importance of the Reformation is not what Luther and Calvin actually believed about God’s omniscience but that they were willing to challenge previous theology on the basis of Scripture. This provides, for many Protestants within as well as outside the evangelical community, a warrant for further challenges to traditional ideas the Reformers did accept, while claiming loyalty to their heritage.
Alister McGrath’s readable and thought-provoking Christianity’s Dangerous Idea fleshes out this understanding of the Reformation more systematically. McGrath argues that there is no one essence of Protestantism except the ongoing willingness to challenge tradition in light of Scripture. The variety and disunity of Protestantism are, for McGrath, not its shame but its glory. The hero of his telling of the story is Pentecostalism, a dynamic movement that sweeps aside dogmas and institutions through a direct appeal to the witness of the Spirit in the lives of believers. But the same language of freedom and diversity that McGrath uses to praise Protestantism could also be used to praise liberalism. McGrath admits (p. 400) that “revisionist approaches” such as those of Spong “are part of the inevitable free market of ideas that shape Protestant identity.” “Protestantism,” says McGrath, “is not a static entity, but a living entity whose identity mutates over time. But that mutation leads to a variety of outcomes--among which some flourish and others wither.” “Revisionist” versions of Protestantism, he argues, “have not attained the wide acceptance found by other new developments, such as Pentecostalism.” The implication seems to be that “wide acceptance” is evidence of spiritual value, because it shows that a particular tradition is meeting people’s spiritual needs. The numerical decline of mainline churches would then be (as many conservative Christians have recently argued) evidence for the spiritual bankruptcy of liberalism. McGrath gives no substantive reasons for considering Pentecostalism truer than liberalism--or for that matter than traditional confessional Protestantism, which isn’t doing very well numerically either.
An alternative picture of the history of Protestantism was offered by Presbyterian pastor Tim Keller in a recent roundtable discussion with John Piper and D. A. Carson. Keller spoke for all three by saying that the Reformation “essentially got the Bible right.” He argued that later centuries of Protestantism--the Puritans, the revivalists, and the Princeton theologians--added to this Reformation heritage without contradicting it. But this linear account of Protestantism dismisses the many branches off the Calvinist tree as irrelevant. Furthermore, Keller treats revivalism as one monolithic thing, a kind of middle term between Puritanism and the Princeton theology. But many revivalists rejected Calvinism--revivalism was in fact a major force in 19th-century America’s move away from Calvinism. And accordingly, the stalwart Calvinists of the “Old Princeton” school were very dubious about revivalism. Keller makes the story of Protestantism far too linear.
John Piper, in the same discussion, offered a more strongly worded version of the same basic position. According to Piper, the Reformation did not happen just because the Reformers read the Bible differently--it happened because they “read their Bibles,” which seems to imply that previous Christians didn’t. Piper cites the Renaissance “return to the sources” as the cultural factor that led to this new look at Scripture. (This in spite of the fact that the greatest Renaissance Biblical scholar, Erasmus, was unconvinced by the key doctrinal claims of the Reformers and accused Luther of inventing a new kind of scholastic theology, complicating the simple message of Scripture with his abstract “paradoxes.”) But if Piper is seriously claiming that people didn’t read the Bible, or didn’t do so seriously, before the Reformation, he is clearly wrong. A mountain of scholarship in recent decades has demonstrated just how deep and rich medieval engagement with Scripture was, and how many continuities (as well as deep differences) there are between the Reformation and the previous tradition of Biblical interpretation. (My grad-school mentor David Steinmetz’ two volumes Luther in Context and Calvin in Context flesh this out with regard to the two most famous theologians of the Reformation, as well as many of their contemporaries.) The difference in the Reformation was precisely not that people read the Bible for the first time, but indeed that they read it in a different way, informed by Renaissance literary theory among many other factors. And, as the history of Protestantism shows, Christians did not stop looking at the Bible in new ways in the sixteenth century. To set the Reformation apart from previous tradition as the first time when people really started taking the Bible seriously is to invite other Christians to ask, “what if we haven’t taken it seriously yet?”
An alternative is to go back behind the Reformation and seek a broader and deeper basis for orthodoxy. This approach has been championed particularly strongly by the Methodist theologian Tom Oden, and was set forth succinctly in 2011 by the evangelical Anglican priest Gerald McDermott. In a First Things article, “Evangelicals Divided,” he argued that the movement is splitting into two distinct camps, the “Meliorists” and the “Traditionists”: “The former think we must improve and sometimes change substantially the tradition of historic orthodoxy. The latter think that while we might sometimes need to adjust our approaches to the tradition, generally we ought to learn from it rather than change it.” McDermott noted that this division largely (but not entirely) coincides with the older division between Calvinists and Arminians. The leading “meliorists” such as Roger Olson are confidently Arminian. Many of the staunchest “Traditionists” are Reformed, though there are certainly Arminians in the Traditionist camp as well. McDermott’s definition of the two camps has its problems. For instance, he admits that Olson, one of his prime examples of a “Meliorist,” “accepts the Great Tradition (the consensus on “mere Christianity” among the Fathers, the medieval theologians, and the Reformers which for most conservatives is authoritative) as a “Third Testament,” which can be ignored “only with fear and trembling,” and warns that “whatever overthrows the Great Tradition is likely to be heretical.”” That is extremely strong language--most conservative evangelicals would probably find it too strong, rather than too weak, in its affirmation of tradition. Yet apparently, for McDermott it’s not enough, because Olson’s affirmation of the historical, contextual nature of tradition (and even of Scripture) inevitably gives cover to more radical views such as open theism or the affirmation of gay unions.
The bigger problem with McDermott’s formulation, though, is that he includes the Reformers in the “Great Tradition,” as if they fit seamlessly with the pre-Reformation tradition. If that had been true, there would have been no schism in the sixteenth century. In this McDermott follows Tom Oden, author of the phrase “the Great Tradition” and one of the most significant figures in getting Protestants to take the early Church more seriously. Oden’s Justification Reader attempts, unconvincingly (at least to me), to show that the Protestant Reformers’ view of justification was the same as that of the early Church. Alister McGrath is more accurate, in his Iustitia Dei, when he acknowledges that imputation was a novel idea in the sixteenth century, and that in fact Augustine explicitly identified justification and sanctification. In response to letters pointing out the problems with arguing for “Traditionism” while upholding the Reformation, McDermott pointed to the body of scholarship showing continuities between the Reformation and the Middle Ages, and concluded, “Luther was a Traditionist.” This is hardly accurate. David Steinmetz’ essay, “Luther and Calvin on Church and Tradition,” shows that Luther was quite willing to dismiss any Council or other element of Church tradition that contradicted his own theology. That is hardly McDermott’s ‘Traditionism.” Of course Luther upheld those aspects of the previous tradition with which he agreed. Of course he studied the previous tradition and was informed by it. The “meliorists” McDermott is attacking do the same. But only a few of them are nearly as cavalier toward previous tradition as Luther was.
To say that the Reformation was correct is to say that radical revisions of the Tradition are sometimes necessary. This is the fundamental problem with both the confessional and the neo-patristic versions of conservative Protestantism. But McDermott rightly identifies the fatal flaw with what he calls “meliorism.” To hold up the Reformation as a model for endless criticism of the previous tradition leaves us helpless against the spirit of the age. Evangelical “meliorism” can indeed easily turn into liberalism, as similar movements in evangelicalism have done in the past. The nervousness about slippery slopes that has led to pious and learned people like John Sanders and Tom Oord losing their jobs at evangelical institutions is not without basis. But it is also a disease that will kill evangelicalism spiritually if it is not cured.
It is clear, historically, that the Reformation was very much a culturally limited, biased interpretation of the Christian faith. It was not a pristine recovery of New Testament Christianity, as Piper and Carson seem to suggest. Nor was it a new divine revelation in its own right, obviously. Therefore, Reformation formulas must be regarded as open to further critique and even possible rejection. This is not the case for the core affirmations of the early Church enshrined in the Creeds and historically shared by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. In short, the Creeds should be non-negotiable, while the confessions of the sixteenth century should not be.
Perhaps, then, instead of celebrating “Reformation Day,” evangelicals should learn once more to celebrate “All Saints Day.” The relationship between the two holidays is emblematic of the relationship between Protestantism and the older and broader Christian tradition it critiqued. Luther chose All Saints Eve to post a bold criticism of practices rooted in the doctrine of the communion of saints, but which had become radically corrupted. This corruption went deeper than the obvious financial scandal of selling pardons for money. It was, as Luther saw, rooted in a flawed way of thinking about our relationship with God, as if it was our job to wheedle salvation out of God rather than throwing ourselves on his mercy. But by replacing All Saints with Reformation Day, by placing the Reformers alongside or even above the Fathers as normative figures for Christian theology, we have cut ourselves off from the broader streams of Christianity and have committed ourselves to a position riddled with contradictions.
By restoring All Saints’ Day, we do not need to turn our backs on the spiritual insights of the Reformation. Protestantism has its saints too. When I first visited Oxford in 2003, I paid homage to the “Martyrs’ Memorial” that commemorates the burning of three Protestant bishops by Queen Mary’s Catholic government in 1556. But I did this in a Catholic way, by crossing myself and kissing the spot. Only by gestures like this can I personally do justice to my conflicted feelings about the heritage of the Reformation. We can and should celebrate the principles of free grace, the priesthood of all believers, and the importance of free access to the Scriptures for all Christians. We should sing the great songs of the evangelical tradition, and honor the many men and women throughout the past 500 years who have devoted their lives to the Gospel within Protestant communities. But we should never forget that “we” did not, in fact, begin in the sixteenth century. We began in the first century. And if we want to claim all 2000 years of Christian history as our own, we must exercise proper humility about the role the Reformations of the sixteenth century play in that long story. We should stop exalting the Reformation as an unchallenged norm either in its substantive teachings or in its methodology of critiquing previous tradition. We should offer the great spiritual riches of our evangelical heritage to our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions, and receive spiritual riches from them in return. We should embrace generosity and freedom of spirit, not because we do not care about doctrine, but because we have rediscovered a firmer and broader basis for doctrine. Only then will evangelicalism be able to flourish as the renewal movement within the universal Church that God’s providence has prepared it to be. Only then, in Wesley’s phrase, will we have a truly “Catholic Spirit.”