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Myths of the Reformation

“God knows the thoughts of the heart. It is well that Zwingli, Carlstadt, and Pellicanus lie dead on the battle-field, for otherwise we could not have retained the Landgrave, Strasburg and other of our neighbours [true to our doctrine]. Oh, what a triumph is this, that they have perished! God indeed knows His business well.”

Martin Luther’s reaction to hearing of the death of fellow “Reformer” Zwingli in battle in 1531, and the false report that two other “Reformers” had also fallen.

 

 

 

I find it bleakly appropriate that the Reformation began five hundred years ago on Halloween.  On this date in 1517 Martin Luther sent to his Bishop a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, what has become known as his 95 theses.  He may or may not have nailed up the 95 theses to the door of All-Saints Church in Wittenberg.  If he did, there would have been nothing unusual about this, as this was a common custom to begin scholarly debate on propositions.  A scholarly debate, and no more, was probably what Luther initially intended, but debate swiftly became revolution with the Latin 95 theses begin translated into German by friends of Luther in January 1518 and swiftly spreading throughout Germany and then Europe.  The Reformation thus begun was a vast historical event, now shrouded in myths.  When it is recalled today, most people doing so will not be remembering the actual event but rather the popular myths that have been propagated about it.  Here are some of the myths.

  1.  The Church Was Corrupt-Actually the Church overall was in better shape just prior to the Reformation than it had been in centuries, with a better trained, educated and pious clergy.  Most revolutions occur in a time of rising expectations and that perhaps was the case with the Reformation.
  2. The Reformation Was a Victory for Freedom of Thought-Nothing could be further from the truth.  Luther and most of the other so-called Reformers stood foursquare against any idea that people had a right to freely discern truth in religion or other areas.  Luther, if he were alive today, would be appalled at the moral and intellectual anarchy he would perceive, none of which would have surprised him as he thought most men needed to be kept in constant check by State and church.
  3. The Reformation Was a Victory for Freedom of Religion-Luther thought that Christians should have the freedom to believe how Herr Doktor Martin Luther believed since he had discovered the truth of the Scriptures.  He took opposition poorly to say the least.
  4. The Reformation Stands for Separation of Church and State-This is the most laughable of all the myths of the Reformation.  Luther and his followers actually stood for the proposition that the State should be in charge of the Church, at least if the State were willing to impose Luther’s version of Christianity.
  5.  The Reformation Led to an Improvement in Morals-Luther himself would have laughed at that one.  At the end of his life he frequently lamented that people were worse than they had been when he was a young man.  He saw no improvement in morals at all and rather the reverse.
  6. The Reformation  Led to an Immense Religious Revival-We are indebted to the first generations of Protestant pastors who often kept careful records.  They frequently lamented how few people came to the new churches, although they were now legally compelled to come, and the ignorance, indifference and outright contempt of those who did come.  If a religious revival occurred during the Reformation it is very well disguised in the copious records that have come down to us.
  7. The Reformation Was a Victory for Democracy-Actually it was the Church, with quite a bit of difficulty, that had restrained the ambitious rulers.  Those rulers who turned Protestant were immensely strengthened, with the plunder from the Church at their disposal, a subservient local church under their control, and ministers who preached that they were God’s anointed.  The Reformation, taken as a whole, was a defeat for limited government and popular rule.

This list of myths could go on and on.  The point is that what people will be celebrating or mourning today bears little resemblance to the actual event.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

12 Comments

  1. Our parish has an event called “A civil conversation on our Christian differences”, which I think is much better than saying “celebration”. If I started my own church and change some scripture for my own bible and then wrote a book entitle, “The Jews and Their Lies” should I ever be celebrated in Catholic circles…even if I was sincerely trying to do good?

  2. “If I started my own church and change some scripture for my own bible….”

    That’s exactly what the so-called Reformers did by eliminating the Deuterocanonicals and twisting around St. Paul’s words about being saved by grace through faith (Luther) and about predestination (Calvin). PS, Protestant means Protester. Does Christ want Protesters against His Body (the Church) or does He want loyal faithful servants?

  3. This is a part of the letter, my Bishop Steve Lowe sent out to all the clergy:-
    “Friday 27 October at 7.00pm
    An ecumenical service to commemorate the Reformation with themes of thanksgiving, repentance and commitment to common witness..” The aim is to express the gifts of the Reformation and ask forgiveness for the division perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions.”

    Whilst I have no problem praying for unity with our Lutheran brothers and sisters, to say that we will be celebrating the GIFTS of the Reformation (Deformation) almost made me puke. The only “gifts” were the destruction of Christendom, the wars and death, the butchering of Scripture and the Liturgy, and the way prepared for Freemasonry, Atheistic Enlightenment, the French Revolution,and the rise of Marxist Atheism.
    I am now having grave doubts, and suspicion of whatever comes out of the Vatican. We need to pray for Holy Mother Church, and recall Pope Leo XIII prayer to St. Michael.

  4. Science fiction sidelight: Kingsley Amis has written an alternative history, no Reformation: “The Alteration”. In this novel, the main character, a young boy with a beautiful voice, becomes a castrati. There has been no Reformation, Luther recanted and became Pope and all Europe is Catholic, only splinter churches in the Western Hemisphere. The picture Amis gives of a Europe that’s Catholic is not pretty–antiquated (technological progress in the Western Hemisphere where the Church no longer holds sway), and rife with politics. Which goes to show that prejudice against the Catholic Church is a fundamental technique for most writers.

  5. I thought it odd that the Lutheran hierarchy invited the pope to their big Reformation Celebration in Sweden. It didnt compute given that the Reformation was anything but and there is still animosity to the RC Church in some quarters. Or did Pope Francis invite himself? The latter sounds more plausible since he’s such a publicity hound. I’m always leery of people described as “Mr or Ms. X as “the first ever to be or do such and such”.

  6. Bob Kurland .”So why is the 500th anniversary of this being “celebrated” in our Church? ”

    This is the culmination of Vatican II, the goal of which was to make the world Catholic via accommodation (ecumenism). Instead the Church became largely Protestant (as should have been obvious from the beginning). To celebrate this transformation (devolution) Pope Francis is honoring Luther. However, good Catholics should be in mourning over what the Church has become especially with the current disgraceful Pope.

  7. I am not in mourning about the Pontiff joining in celebration over the Reformation. The “Reformation” reformed NOTHING. It was the hatching of a number of heresies. Usually heresies die out. The mainline Protestant churches are eroding membership. The same will happen to the Evangelicals/Fundamentalists/Pentacostals. Their belief system is as shallow as a puddle of rainwater on a sidewalk.

    Engaging them was a major error of Vatican II. Vatican II has become an ideology of its own and believers of an ideology will not come to grips with its failure no matter how much evidence of its failure exists.

    The Argentine Pontiff never lived in a country where Catholics were persecuted by the government or by other religious groups. While I have a good friend that is a (non-practicing) Lutheran, and his mother is a very good Christian – I even have a few Lutherans in my mother’s side of my family tree – Luther unleashed horrors upon Europe and humanity by his own obnoxious ego.

    The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once one of the most powerful nations on Earth. The Lutheran Swedes unleashed a surprise attack on Poland in the mid 17th century and sacked and nearly destroyed the nation before being driven out. Even today, Sweden still holds artifacts taken from Polish churches, libraries, castles and even graves, which the Swedes desecrated in the search for loot. Poland never fully recovered and the Lutheran Prussian Frederick, along with the ethnic Lutheran-raised German Catherine and the conspiring Hapsburg Maria Theresa, partitioned Poland off the map for 123 years.

    There was a piece on American Thinker about the “fruits” of the Reformation. Predictably, 99% of the comments were mind-numbingly stupid. Too many American Protestants refuse to recognize that Catholic France and Spain provided the muscle needed to defeat Great Britain in our War for Independence. It would have failed without them.

    Priotestantism…bah. We would be better off without it.

  8. It is noted that even non-religious people celebrate the Reformation, not because of any love for Luther et al, but because of opposition to Rome. It would matter little to these people if an order of druids had been established. If it was in opposition to the Catholic Church, it would receive their approval.

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