What was it all about? And what does it mean for us today?
Protestants generally – and Evangelicals in particular – frame the Reformation as a question about the source of our faith. Protestants point to the Bible and say, “Sola Scriptura.” They say that the medieval Church had smothered the Bible with too-frequent references to Tradition. Protestants tend to see the Bible and Tradition as alternatives, one given by God and the other by Man.
Catholics see the Bible, however, as one element in the Christian Tradition, even the leading element. And the idea that the Bible is some kind of self-authenticating text which conveys the faith of Christ and creates the Church without human effort and ingenuity is plainly a screwy idea. If you drop a Bible (in their language) upon some isolated tribe, some members thereof may become followers of Christ, and they may begin to worship him, even baptizing and so on. But the idea that they will inevitably re-create the one, the true, the authentic Church as it ever was and ever will be is ridiculous. We read the Bible, as we read all books, from within a particular community’s history and point of view.
No, the Reformation wasn’t, at bottom, just an argument about the relationship between the Bible and Tradition. So, what was it?
The Reformation was an argument about Authority. Not just the sources of our teaching and practice – the Bible vs. Tradition or the Bible-as-Tradition – but an argument about whose responsibility it was to do quality control over what was taught and what was practiced and over the actions of the leadership.
The High Middle Ages saw a protracted struggle over authority within the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope and his henchmen and apologists wanted to preserve papal absolutism as the governing principle in the Church. The Conciliarists kept trying to find a way for a General Council to govern the behavior of whoever the Pope was. Councils met and made decrees and then were ignored or subverted by the Popes. Meanwhile, the behavior of bishops and priests was not only sometimes scandalous in itself, it worked to harm the ordinary members of the Church financially as well as spiritually. St. Ambrose had famously said, Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia, ibi Deus (where Peter is, there is the Church and there is God). But long before there was any petrine function in any religious body, the Roman poet Juvenal had asked, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (who watches the watchmen)? What do you do if the Agency that defines the faith defines it wrongly? What do you do if the Agency that is charged with supervising others – especially with defending the faithful from the bad actions of their leaders – excuses the abuses committed by the bad actors, nay, colludes with them? Given that ultimate authority must rest with somebody, who can call that person to account or correct his abuses?
Luther’s rebuke was welcomed by many churchmen across Europe, and the effort at reforming the Church went on. But the Pope worked to prevent any bishops from actually endorsing Luther’s proposals. Luther eventually lost patience and called on the German princes, in their position as Notbischofe (emergency bishops) to reform the Church in their lands. And so, having wrong-footed Luther, the Pope gave to all Catholics a choice: him or me. The ancient faith and its ancient expositors, or some German monk and a bunch of worldly nobles. One by one, even the most ardent Catholic reformers – diehard Conciliarists – even Erasmus – sided with the Pope. And papal absolutism was fixed in the constitution of the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther got the Evangelical princes to reform the Church in their lands. Henry VIII used Parliament to remove the entire English Church from its obedience to the Pope, although it should be pointed out that the Church of England was the only body to secede from Catholicism as a whole and take its leadership into the Reformation with it. John Calvin just sat down with a blank piece of paper and created the Church-as-it-should-Be from first principles. He was not the last to do so; once you remove the idea that some official Somebody has to give you permission to organize the Church the way you want, then there is nothing stopping you from giving yourself the authority to do it any way you like, and that has been the regrettable side of the history of Protestantism.
Today, The United Methodist Church faces a similar problem. Our rules – widely supported by large majorities at successive General Conferences and known to everybody when they enter the clergy – are being routinely ignored by clergy in many places. The presenting issue is sexuality, but at bottom, it is the age-old question of authority. Who defines the rules? General Conference. Who administers the rules? The bishops. Who investigates, charges, and tries offenders? The elders. But who will call bishops to account when they pervert justice and refuse to enforce the rules? Who will make elders do what they took an oath to do?
The disobedient and their apologists rejoice in the brave stand against bad rules. But whether the rules be good or bad, they’re still the rules. Tearing down the house you occupy because you think you will inherit it when the bad rule-makers have all passed from the scene is folly. And we’ve seen where this leads. The UCC, The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterians, the Disciples of Christ – all the “mainline” denominations but The UMC – have gone down this road. It leads to decline. And even if decline were God’s will, heresy and blasphemy are not, and when I hear people say that they are behaving like Christ when they disobey the rules, I cannot go there. Christ submitted to the rules and the rulers – he paid a price for what he did, and even then the charges against him were trumped up. These schismatics would like to mutiny and then be pardoned while they are still in the act of seizing unlawful control of the ship.
General Conference and the Judicial Council issue rules and judgments – and the bishops ignore them. What shall we do?
Some figure, they’ll just leave, either by ones and twos or as a body. As so many Protestants did all those centuries ago, citing various justifications. And that is a legacy of the Reformation. Nobody thinks it odd that a group of people who feel frozen out by their own denomination should simply leave and organize for themselves a True Church. But the fact that The UMC may tear itself apart should not distract us from the central question of this article: who can call to account a leadership that refuses to obey what they swore to obey? That refuses to teach what they swore to teach? That rules by personal fiat from their positions of power, insisting that all the rest of us be “accountable and connectional,” while they just make it up as they go along? If the Reformation’s answers don’t appeal to us, that doesn’t mean there are any better ones on offer.
So we are still there, tacking up our protests on our own church doors. And the Powers that Be are as remote and unmoved, as determined to hold onto their personal power, as any medieval Pope.