A good deal of discussion has taken place this year on the Protestant Reformation, which is apparently a big deal now because it happened 500 years ago, and 500 is a really round number. A number of writers whom I respect have written about it. There is much truth in what they say, and their writing deserves careful consideration. And yet…
While the Protestant birthday celebration is occasionally caveated with “but we should remember that reform is still needed from time to time” and the Roman Catholic stalwarts shake their heads at the gross overreaction of their wayward children, allow me to briefly give in to my chronic pessimism and categorically state that there never was a reformation and there never will be. Come along with me on a short excursion (realizing that I’m in the minority) as I share an alternative perspective on the Reformation.
Most people attribute the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to Martin Luther who challenged the corrupt doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in an effort to reform the organization and quickly found himself in the center of a violent religious conflict. Luther certainly catalyzed the mass exodus from the Roman Church, but I believe that the seeds of the Reformation had been planted some 60 years earlier when an insignificant inventor and inept businessman managed to complete a secret project and changed the course of history. This inventor was Johannes Gutenberg, and he invented the movable type printing press. In a day when bibles used to be hand-copied (in Latin to preserve the majesty of The Book, of course) and carefully controlled by clerics, the printing press allowed bibles to be mass-produced in the languages of the common people. Eventually, people began to see through the most flagrant abuses of the prevailing religious system. Luther was the catalyst. The reaction was fueled by knowledge the masses gained by reading biblical texts.
There was a lot of goodness that came out of the Reformation. Many reformers were brave men who pointed out some of the serious doctrinal errors and outright lies perpetrated by the religious leaders of the day. The Reformation broke the spiritual stranglehold that the Roman Catholic Church held on Europe. Luther wanted the Church to amend its ways and give up its corrupt and greedy practices of financially and spiritually exploiting its subjects. But you know the story. Rather than reforming, the church took grave exception to Luther’s audacity and kicked him out. So Luther started his own version of the “true Church.” The Catholic Church’s religious monopoly was broken.
But much of the evil perpetrated by the prevailing religious system was carried over into the new splinter religious systems. The most prominent leaders of the Reformation, including Luther, used the same sort of political alliances and violent tactics of the Roman Catholic Church to compel adherence to their “reformed” doctrine. The protesters became Protestants, and the Christian religion morphed from a monolithic, coercive institution into the loose aggregation of coercive institutions that we see today. The old, underlying religious system was embodied in new institutions.
Reform implies taking something that is bad and making it good. In my experience, I have never seen an organization, once it became corrupt, able to turn itself around and be “reformed.” The corrupt organization always had to be discarded entirely in order for members to be free of the institutional baggage and influence. Today, Protestant churches often maintain just as powerful of a stranglehold over their people as the Catholic church did (does). To say that “the church was reformed,” assumes that the Roman Catholic Church was, at least at one time, the legitimate expression of life as a follower of Jesus. The religious system that the Roman Church embodied and which Protestant churches embody today is completely antithetical to the spiritual life that Jesus brought and his apostles taught. The first mistake of the reformers was their failure to completely disavow the illegitimate institution. The corruption wasn’t the problem. The corruption was a symptom of the problem. The system was the problem. And reformation of the Christian religious system is not possible.
Those of us living in the twenty-first century have been given a gift whose radical potential for knowledge dissemination exceeds that of the printing press. That gift is the internet. For all its abuses, the internet has become a place of shared knowledge and alternative perspectives. Christians now have a theological library’s worth of free bible study tools, a multitude of perspectives on God and humanity, and the ability to easily access information that they’ll never hear from their religious authorities. Religious institutions are no longer the sole source of spiritual teaching. My hope is that God will use this tool to shatter the bonds of those who wish to be set free from the chains of religion.
In Evangelical circles, one will occasionally hear a feeble call for revival or for the continued reformation of the church. But Christianity in the western world is characterized, not by spiritual life, but rather by a businesslike, program-driven system. An institution. An establishment. A human-powered thing. For those who are looking for spiritual life, the religious system, no matter what denomination, is the problem. It is not merely broken—it is a lifeless, soulless, fabrication that needs to be completely discarded. Is reformation possible? I don’t think so. There never was a reformation, and there never will be.