A Reformation or a Schism

Year A, Proper 25, Track 1

Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Nineteenth-century painting by Julius Hübner (1806-1882) [Public domain] This painting sensationalizes Luther's posting of the 95 Theses before a crowd. In reality, posting theses for a disputation would have been routine. Wikimedia Commons

Reformation Sunday is celebrated by many churches every year. This year, the celebration is larger than usual because it is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, or arguments, against the Church. This day is important because it is the day that most people recognize as the start of the Reformation.

I can visualize what Luther did and I can almost hear Paul’s words coming out of Luther’s mouth. Thessalonians 2:4-5, “Just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed.” In Luther’s theses, he was being honest and truthful about problems that he and many other observed in the Church.

Posting questions and ideas on the door of a church was a fairly common method to start an academic discussion or to exchange ideas in Luther’s time. Just 6 months earlier someone else had posted a similar yet more theology radical set of theses. In posting these papers, Luther was looking for Academic debate. He was hoping that out of this debate the Roman Church may reform, change some of its practices and theology.

I would categorize Luther’s theses into four major themes. He wants the abolishment of indulgences, to reform the theology of purgatory, and to reform how repentance and punishment of sin is handled by the church. There is also a theme in which he spins his words so that he sounds like he is agreeing with the pope, when in reality he disagrees with the idea that one person can do good deeds on the behalf of someone else.

Over the next three years, some of Luther’s views changed, some due to his own theological growth, others from his anger at the church, and yet others changed due to the influence of his followers. Instead of a reformation we ended up with a schism in which a sizable segment of the population broke away from the Roman Church. Even within this new breakaway group there were many factions lead by Calvin, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists, who had bitter disagreements.

There is no doubt that Luther ignited a revolution. Even with this said, most of the tinder was already set in place many years before. Significant attempts to reform the Roman Church are document as far back as the late tenth century with Peter Waldo. Though Luther’s reformation was more of a revolution, the Roman Church finely began major reforms during the Council of Trent beginning in 1545.

Unlike Luther’s Reformation, the English Reformation was sparked more by politics than theology. We often think King Henry VIII started this reformation when he sent a request for divorce to Pope Clement VII in 1527. His denied request was one part of the schism, though there were other more broad issues that King Henry had. Henry was becoming more displeased that Canon law, or Church laws, all came from Rome. He no authority over and was unable to approve or discipline bishops and priest. Henry also did not like that all the Church taxes were paid directly to Rome. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which made King Henry the "Supreme Head, on earth, of the Church of England.” This act became the official break from Rome forming the Anglican Church.

Even though Henry was openly hostile to Luther, Henry did make some major reforms. Many of his reforms dealt with issues of the power of the king, bishops, clergy and monasteries along with their finances and land holdings. The first English translation of the Bible was also introduced through Henry. The liturgy itself was still in Latin and didn’t change until Henry’s son, Edward VI, reigned 15 years later.

Edward changed the liturgy to English and made it much more Protestant through the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer. About five years later, Queen Mary I, often known as Bloody Mary, rescinded the act of Supremacy and put England back under papal jurisdiction; making England a Roman Catholic country. By 1558 Queen Elizabeth I took the throne and reenacted the act of Supremacy; once again breaking with Rome. Elizabeth is often thought to be the one who made the Anglican Church “via media,” through the middle, in which the church adheres to both Roman and Protestant elements. Out of this balance arose a new faction called the Puritans. The Reformation clearly brought about a larger diversity of denominations within the Christian Church.

Reform and change is often hard even back in in Jesus’ day. When we listen to the interaction between a few Pharisees and Jesus today, we notice that these Pharisees are again trying to trap Jesus. Jesus answers, out of the 613 laws in the Torah this is the greatest, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The first law that Jesus speaks to come from the Shema, a prayer that Jewish people say at the beginning and at the end of the day. Children are taught this prayer from the earliest age and this would possibly be the most recognized piece of scripture of all. The second part of Jesus’ answer is what much of the Torah is about; loving our neighbors. So Jesus is pointing out the obvious and I would contest that these two laws are still the most obvious themes of our faith. We are to love God more than anything and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Many denominations of Christianity seem to raise their differences upon a proverbial flag pole. They seem to do this so that they can display how they are different and thus better than other denomination. We often think of Catholic as being a word that differentiates us and them. After all as a result of the Reformation this became a clear difference.

When we hear the word Catholic we often take it to mean Roman Catholic. Catholic means universal and some churches use the word Catholic to be exclusionary. From the Roman point of view, they consider themselves as the one universal church in which most everyone else is not following the true Christian Church. We, along with many other denominations, consider ourselves Catholic. But instead of being exclusionary we are inclusive in that there is one Universal Church under Christ of which we are a part. I would contend that if all the denominations raise up the most important tenants of faith, we will find that our similarities outweigh our differences and it is through Christ that brings us to see one another as brother and sister.

For whatever reason, Luther was in the right place at the right time in which people felt justified in questioning the Church. What I now find interesting is that in some ways, all the various denominations, Roman or Protestant, are closer than we ever have been since Luther’s time. Through Pew research and others, this is also what most Christians believe as well.(1),(2) Yet at the same time many denominations, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, do not seem to appreciate inquiries into their theologies or practices. When we are unable to debate our concerns in collegial ways, we become much like the Pharisees. Instead of coming to common understanding these Pharisees use God’s word to trap and condemn the other instead of finding unity. Rigidness and the inability to discuss doctrine is ultimately what brought the Church into schism instead of reformation. And I wonder if it is the same type of rigidness that is bringing our country toward schism instead of reformation?


1) https://www.thedailybeast.com/500-years-after-martin-luther-does-the-protestant-reformation-still-matter

2) http://www.pewforum.org/2017/08/31/five-centuries-after-reformation-catholic-protestant-divide-in-western-europe-has-faded/

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