Today, October 31, marks the 497th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous posting of his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, Germany, which ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation. Hans Hillerbrand’s 1973 book, The World of the Reformation (Charles Scribner’s Sons) is a great place to start if readers are looking for a quick, accessible guide to what the Reformation was all about. Let’s explore some of the key areas covered in the book.
1. The progression of Luther’s theology
Hillerbrand helps readers put the events of the Reformation in a chronological and logical order that makes it easier to make sense of what transpired in the early 16th century. Luther at first challenged specific abuses going on within the church, and then he challenged the papacy. He appealed to an ecumenical council to resolve the dispute between him and his opponents, but in time he even challenged the authority of general church councils. Recounting Luther’s famous debate with John Eck, in which Eck cornered Luther in to conceding that popes and councils both could err, Hillberbrand brought up a detail that is usually lost in historical accounts of the Reformation:
“Luther had tempered his rejection of councils with a crucial qualification—‘in matters not de fide’—but it was lost in the shuffle.”
Early on, Luther believed councils could conceivably err, but only when addressing peripheral issues, not in matters of faith. His skepticism about the general reliability of councils seems to have gradually grown as the Reformation expanded. As Hillerbrand said, “Luther insisted that his scriptural interpretation was correct and declared that he could accept a decision of a general council only if it agreed with the Word of God.”
Catholics understandably were frustrated by Luther’s position, as they took him to basically be saying that he would only agree with an ecumenical council if it concluded that his interpretation was correct after all. If a council tried to actually censure him, he wasn’t prepared to submit. It is because of things like this that many contemporary Roman Catholics perceive Luther as a stubborn individual who irresponsibly threw off all deference to ecclesiastical authority. From the Protestant viewpoint, Luther’s position is more understandable—Luther was merely saying that he couldn’t ignore what he believed the Bible to be saying, and that no matter who opposed him, or how strongly, he would stick to the Bible.
This doesn’t amount to a wholesale rejection of authority. Lutherans early on gave tremendous weight to the Scriptural interpretation of the church fathers. We must explore this more fully.
2. If the Reformation was a contest between old and new, which side was which?
The chief fault of Hillerbrand’s book is that the author seems to not appreciate Luther’s tendency to speak hyperbolically. Hillerbrand takes some exaggerated statements of Luther at face value although to do so at times mars one’s understanding of Luther’s actual position.
For example, Hillberbrand quotes Luther as saying his doctrine of justification by faith alone was dramatically new and “contrary to the opinion of all the doctors”.
Elsewhere, Hillerbrand says of the reformers:
“The assertion that they, and they alone, possessed the true insight was a foremost characteristic of the entire controversy. Indeed, such insistence occasionally extended into the past as well, as evidenced by Martin Luther’s comment that ‘until the present time no one has known what the gospel is’.”
Luther didn’t believe that the gospel had been lost from the time of the apostles’ death until the 16th century; his statement is clearly an overstatement (typical of Luther) meant to draw attention to his point, which was that the gospel had been obscured within the Roman Catholic Church for far too long. In Luther’s magnum opus, The Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther answers Erasmus’ criticism of being a theological innovator by saying, “Augustine is wholly on my side.” Yes, Luther could at times be hard even on Augustine, saying that the 5th century African saint didn’t write enough about faith in the Scriptural sense. In general, though, Luther regarded himself as being a teacher very much in line with the theological tradition begun by Augustine.
Hillerbrand says of the Reformation, “It was a conflict between conservatives and liberals, between those who were convinced that the way of the past was the right one and those who were persuaded that a new way of looking at things was best.”
The context makes it clear that, in Hillerbrand’s eyes, the “liberals” of the 16th century were the Protestants. This is debatable, though. The reformers didn’t see themselves as being theological innovators. This is especially clear in the 1530 Augsburg Confession, a document that goes to great length to demonstrate the continuity between Reformation theology and the church fathers. Hillerbrand makes mention of this:
“To them the matter was simple: their own teaching was found in Scripture and in the writings of the church fathers, while their opponents based their views on erroneous, man-made traditions.”
Whether Luther spoke hyperbolically or literally, it’s understandable that his opponents would get frustrated by his rhetoric. As Hillerbrand said:
“Those who were loyal to the Roman church could not help but wring their hands in dismay over such blatant simplification and generalization.”
It’s crucial to remember that the reformers saw themselves as teachers helping the church get back to her roots, to return to what she had once been. They saw Rome as the innovators, insisting on new doctrines that were foreign to the early church. The Lutheran reformers didn’t introduce anything truly new into the Christian church.
3. Weak points of the book
Hillerbrand devotes more attention to the political ramifications of the Reformation than to its specific theological content. He discusses in great detail political alliances between various European rulers, emphasizing how the Reformation could’ve never succeeded without cooperation from numerous magistrates. He mentions the 39 Articles as being confirmed by Queen Elizabeth in 1571, but says nothing about their content, other than to say they were theologically “evasive” (a charge this examiner disagrees with). He oversimplifies the Augsburg Confession, saying that its author Phillip Melancthon boiled reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church down to two issues—clerical celibacy and receiving both elements during celebration of the Eucharist. Hillerbrand sidelines justification by faith alone as having been only vaguely important to the overall Reformation.
Hillerbrand overstates the divisions between the reformers, implying that they all regarded themselves as the sole guardians of truth and refused to work hand in hand. There were factions, for sure, but in truth, from the 1520s onward the Reformed church expressed openness to fellowship with the Lutheran Church. This wasn’t reciprocated, but the point is that what united the reformers was far more substantial than what divided them.
Hillerbrand understates the significance of the “radical Reformation” abolishing images from the churches. Speaking of the Reformation in Switzerland, Hillerbrand says:
“Some of the changes were marginal (the closing of the monasteries or the removal of images).”
In 787 A.D., the 7th ecumenical council had decreed that the use of icons in churches was not only permissible, but mandatory. In fact, churches that did not display icons were placed under anathema by the council. Clearly, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint—and Eastern Orthodox viewpoint, for that matter—removing images from churches in Switzerland was far from “marginal”.
4. Final reflections
Hillerbrand’s book does a wonderful job of reminding readers that the Reformation was more complex than we sometimes like to believe. Both sides had godly, pious people espousing their views, and both sides had people whose motives may have been more mercenary. Both sides had people who caricatured and oversimplified, and both sides had writers who genuinely sought to understand the core issues. Political expediency played a huge role in the success of Protestantism in certain European territories.
Looking at the Reformation today with five centuries of hindsight, there are two errors evangelicals can fall into when discussing the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity. On one hand, there is a tendency to slur over the important doctrinal struggles of the 16th century, making the Reformation out to have been more a misunderstanding than anything else. This relegates justification by faith alone to being a peripheral doctrine we’re free to take or leave. On the other hand, there is a tendency to so tenaciously cling to the distinctive doctrines of the Reformation to the point that non-Protestants are regarded as not being members of the Body of Christ.
This examiner believers both of the following propositions are true and should be embraced:
1) The doctrine of justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel and we must draw the line at any attempt to compromise this doctrine;
2) Anyone who has undergone Trinitarian baptism and affirms the ancient Christian creeds (and this certainly describes devout Catholics) should be regarded as a Christian; it is much more sensible (not to mention charitable) for Protestants to regard Catholics as Christians who are in error rather than to regard them as non-Christians (for more on this, read the preface to C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity).
Practically speaking, this means Protestants, while fiercely defending their distinctives, have the liberty (and the responsibility) to treat Catholics as fellow Christians. May God give us grace to do so.