If you ask most people with only a passing knowledge of Christianity to explain the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, they’ll probably mention communion. Catholics believe the bread and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, while for Protestants the ritual is merely symbolic. Something like that? Martin Luther would have been horrified.
The man credited with kickstarting the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago this month very much believed in the ‘real presence’ of Christ’s body and blood when Christians take communion. Among other things, Luther took issue with the Catholic church’s particular doctrine of transubstantiation, an attempt to square the miracle with Aristotelian metaphysics, but he certainly did not question the miracle itself. The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli did suggest communion was more commemorative than ‘effective’, an idea that rubbed off on the hot-and-cold English Reformation. But even John Calvin, the most intellectually thorough reformer, maintained that the bread and wine were visible signs of Christ’s spiritual presence, not props in an empty ritual.
To modern ears, of course, ‘spiritually present’ sounds a lot like ‘not really present’. Something that is not literally true is just not true. For the reformers, however, the spiritual was very real – and Christ’s spiritual presence was therefore no less miraculous than the gorier Catholic version. But the details mattered, because religion was not only a matter of life and death; it was more important than that. It was about eternity.
As a young monk visiting Rome, Luther had been shocked at the worldliness of his fellow Catholics. There were smirky rumours that Roman priests mumbled under their breath as they celebrated Mass, ‘Panis es, panis manebis, vinum es, vinum manebis’ – you are bread and wine and will stay that way. At least that’s Latin. Luther’s direct experience was of priests who didn’t even know the mother tongue of the Church, rushing congregants along as they went through the motions carelessly and making a mockery of the whole thing (1).
This is not to say ordinary Catholics were not pious, but to Luther and other reformers, the Church itself seemed far too at home in the world, with little apparent need for or interest in a supernatural God, except as an idea useful for wringing money out of the gullible masses, rich and poor. At the risk of stating the obvious, the Reformation was all about God.
Looking back on how the Reformation had swept from Wittenberg and thrown all Christendom into turmoil, Luther downplayed his own agency: ‘I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything’. (2)
So the Reformation is best understood as a religious revival rather than a mere reform movement. It was emphatically not about bringing Christianity up to date. Calvin wrote to his Catholic antagonist Cardinal Sadoleto, ‘our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours’. The Reformation was an attempt to ‘renew that ancient form of the church’ that had been ‘distorted by illiterate men’ and ‘was afterwards flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman Pontiff and his faction’ (3).
It was not only a revival in the sense of a return to orthodoxy, however, but also in the sense of a popular religious movement. And it was not intellectual hair-splitting or indeed umbrage at flagitious mangling that inspired thousands and then millions of Christians to embrace religious reform: it began as a powerful appeal to individual believers as persons. While the role of the printing press in driving the Reformation is rightly celebrated, arguably an even greater vehicle of reform was the sermon. The sermon was not a staple part of a medieval Catholic church service for ordinary Christians. For the most part, people showed up, heard priests mumble in Latin, swallowed their communion bread (the wine was just for priests, so the plebs wouldn’t spill it) and left. In contrast, the reformers preached to them, talking in their own language about things they had perhaps never thought about before. Some people, at least, seem to have loved it.
It is an oft-noted irony that the Reformation in many ways paved the way for secular modernity – individualism, capitalism, even atheism – but the irony may be deeper than is often appreciated. Jean Delumeau, the French historian of the Catholic Church, sees both the Reformation and the Catholic counter-Reformation (through which the Church cleaned up its act in various ways) as aspects of Christianisation, moving away from a popular medieval religiosity that was not far from paganism (4).
What if it were not simply a case of a religious movement unwittingly speeding the demise of religion, but of Christianity properly establishing itself in Europe for the first time? The seeds of secularism would then be less an accidental consequence of a disruption of the established order than something essential to Christianity itself. Something like this is argued by Theo Hobson in his recent book God Created Humanism (5). In any case, the essence of Christianity was very much at stake in the debates surrounding the Reformation.
In Why the Reformation Still Matters, Christian authors Tim Chester and Michael Reeves emphasise that the issue was not simply the corruption and worldliness of the Roman Catholic Church: ‘The problem was not a moral issue – the Reformers accepted that on Earth and in history the church would always have elements of corruption. The issue was theological. Luther had described justification by faith as “the article by which the church stands or falls”. Since the medieval Catholic Church was denying justification by faith through its teaching and practice, it was fallen.’ (6)
But perhaps morality and theology cannot be so easily separated. Luther’s theology arose from an intense psychological struggle, and it was that struggle that led him to the issue of ‘justification by faith’. Karl Marx famously described religion as ‘the opium of the masses’, and less famously as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world’. The point was not that religion dupes people, so much as that it comforts them in their misery. But the young Luther’s faith was anything but comforting. He felt deeply, personally convicted of sin – not in a trivial sense of guilt about particular transgressions, but in a more existential sense.
When Jesus was asked which commandment was the most important of all, he answered, ‘you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’, and ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. What would that mean in practice? And when you think about it, how can anyone possibly live up to it? How do you make yourself love a distant, mysterious entity you can never be completely sure even exists? And how can you care about every Tom, Dick and Harriet you bump into as much as you care about yourself? Never mind. Christianity is a religion for sinners, not saints. And Jesus died for our sins. So, nothing to worry about?
The Catholic Church taught that Jesus saves sinners’ souls, but it also asked the sinners to do their bit. One Our Father, 10 Hail Marys, something for the collection box. That stuff about love, too, sure. And it wasn’t shy about suggesting their salvation depended on it. As Patrick Collinson puts it in describing Luther’s early years in the monastery, ‘The sermons Luther heard and the theology he was taught made salvation a matter of God’s grace, not something that could be bought with a virtuous life. But for grace to work it was necessary for a man to do what he could from his side of the equation: facere quod in se est [do what you can]. How could Luther know that he had ever tried enough?’ (7)
Relief finally came when Luther decided there was no Biblical warrant for that nasty bit of Latin. The Scriptures, and in particular Paul’s letter to the Romans, taught that Christians are justified by faith alone. They are imputed with the righteousness of Christ, regardless of their own sin. It is an entirely external thing and it comes first, before they are expected to do good works in loving response, and with the help of the Holy Spirit. For Luther, this was the best news since the gospel itself.
The best secular analogy might be the difference between a parent telling his or her child, ‘I love you. Now do your best,’ and saying, ‘Do your best. And then I’ll decide if you’re worthy of my love’. According to a certain ‘economic’ logic, the latter approach should incentivise better behaviour, but if you know anything about human beings, you know the opposite is true.
But what about justification ‘by faith’? Is this not just another kind of qualification, requiring something of the sinner in return for justification? One of Luther’s early adversaries was Cardinal Cajetan, sent by the Pope to confront him at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518, where the question of faith was pivotal. Lyndal Roper explains: ‘Luther argued that the sacraments [such as communion] were ineffective without faith, while Cajetan insisted that they were valid in and of themselves; indeed, as the cardinal argued, since one could never be entirely sure of one’s faith, it was vitally important that the sacraments did not depend on it.’ (8)
This brings us to an important clarification about the meaning of faith in the Protestant tradition. In his book Calvin and the Christian Life, Michael Horton notes: ‘Calvin recognises that “unbelief is… always mixed with faith” in every Christian. He frequently reminds us that it is not the quality of faith, but the object of faith, that justifies. “Our faith is never perfect… we are partly unbelievers.”’ (9). It is the object of faith, God, who bears the burden.
Returning to the parent-child analogy, we might say that Christian faith in God is like a child’s response to his or her parents’ love, his or her recognition not of their existence but of their status as parents. A child’s dinner is ‘effective’ regardless of how he or she feels about it. But the love of a parent, which is sometimes manifested in the form of dinner, steadily elicits something else in the child. Trust, gratitude, reciprocal love, even – the things that make Christmas more than a transfer of expensive objects from parent to child. But a loving parent does not test the child’s feelings for authenticity. Most reformers were content to accept the fact that some congregants would not be faithful: in the spirit of Jesus’ parable of the tares, they would allow the weeds to grow along with the wheat till harvest time.
In this respect, there is an important distinction between the mainstream, so-called magisterial Reformation and the ostensibly more radical, Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptist means ‘rebaptised’ – because they believed Christians should be baptised as adults, making a conscious decision to embrace Christianity rather than simply being born into it as babies. There were various Anabaptist sects, including some socially radical ones that were later claimed as harbingers of the age of political revolution, though it is the pacifist, separatist wing of that tradition that survives in the likes of the Mennonites today.
In world historical terms, the magisterial Reformation was far more important. The name comes from the fact that the Lutherans and Calvinists sought the support of the secular powers, whether princes or magistrates. That was how they were able to ‘turn’ whole cities, provinces and even countries Protestant without unleashing anarchy. Luther argued that princes had the right to act as ‘emergency bishops’, reforming the faith and society in line with reformed teaching (10). Separation of church and state it was not, but it did affirm the legitimacy of territorial, secular authority, beginning the process that would lead to the development of the modern nation state, whose people are citizens by default and not by choice.
Observing that the Anabaptists sought a ‘pure church’, Luther once commented: ‘But I neither can nor may as yet set up such a congregation; for I do not as yet have the people for it.’ (11) He was unwittingly anticipating his countryman Bertolt Brecht, who four centuries later suggested ironically that the East German Communist government should dissolve its unsatisfactory people and elect another. The Reformation was about preparing for the Kingdom of God, not establishing it.
And arguably it was the reformers confidence in the Kingdom of God that allowed them to affirm the value of the mundane, material world, and the validity of secular ‘callings’. Anticipating Adam Smith this time: ‘When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” Luther says, God answers it “not directly as when he gave manna to the Israelites, but through the work of farmers and bakers”. They are God’s “masks”.’ (12) In attending to their own work as businessmen, tradesmen and labourers, or indeed mothers, cleaners and servants, ordinary Christians were no less holy than priests and monks.
Arguably then, far from bringing about the ‘disenchantment’ of Europe, the Reformation imbued everyday life for Christians with new meaning. Of course, it would have been experienced very differently by its leaders and their enthusiastic followers, for whom it was a kind of personal awakening and psychological liberation, and those simply carried along in its wake, for many of whom it would have meant unwelcome disruption to no obvious purpose. Of course, the Reformation also led to vicious wars that lasted generations, but then Catholic Europe before that had hardly been noted for its Christian peace and harmony. The Reformation also imbued bloody power struggles with new meaning.
Ultimately it is impossible to say what would have happened had the Reformation never happened, or had it happened very differently. Looking back on what was significant about it at the time, however, it is possible to see it less as a bridge between the medieval and modern worlds than as reminder that the human story is more complicated than that. It was an historical process that involved both deep personal introspection and engagement with interwoven traditions of human thought going back millennia (partly made possible by the earlier Renaissance).
It also reflected both a persistent human intuition that there is more to life than animal existence and a yearning to transcend the merely human. Given the persistence of religion across much of the world, it remains to be seen whether those things will ever be fully secularised. In any case, anyone willing to take seriously the various debates and controversies thrown up over the course of the Reformation will find that in perhaps surprising ways they remain deeply relevant to the question of what it is to be human and how we ought to live.
Picture published under a creative commons license.
(2) Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton, Crossway, 2014.
(3) Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton, Crossway, 2014.
(4) The Reformation: a history, by Patrick Collinson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
(5) God Created Humanism, by Theo Hobson, SPCK, 2017.
(6) Why the Reformation Still Matters, by Tim Chester and Michael Reeves, Crossway, 2016.
(7) The Reformation: a history, by Patrick Collinson, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
(8) Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, Bodley Head, 2016.
(9) Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton, Crossway, 2014.
(10) Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, by Lyndal Roper, Bodley Head, 2016.
(11) Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton, Crossway, 2014.
(12) Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever, by Michael Horton, Crossway, 2014.
First published on the spiked review of books, October 2017