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Reformation Day and Schism Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sunday, October 31, is Reformation Day. It marks 493 years since Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the famous church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Augustinian monk set in motion a sequence of events that reverberated through Western Christendom and continues to mark and separate us today.

Since returning to the Catholic Church in late April 2007, I find Reformation Day has taken on a different meaning than when I stood on the other side of the Tiber. Nevertheless, even as a Protestant, my enthusiasm for October 31 never rose higher than modest appreciation for what I thought were Luther’s, and later Calvin’s, significant contributions in helping Western Christians to retrieve what had been lost. I say “modest appreciation,” since it always seemed to me rather unseemly to get too excited about schism and mutual charges of apostasy and heresy. It would be like celebrating the tenth anniversary of your divorce. You may think that the divorce was a good idea, but not because you think divorce itself is the proper end of a marriage.

Luther himself, though excommunicated, never saw his movement as anything more than a renewal movement within the Church. We, of course, know now that the movement he started had a life of its own, resulting in scores of different and often conflicting understandings of Scripture, sacrament, and Church, and each finding something in Christianity’s traditions to challenge. 

But in order to arrive at this present state of theological diversity and ecclesial fragmentation, you needed more Luthers, of which there has been an endless supply. His success made Luther a towering example to emulate. Combine that with an ever-diminishing memory of a unified Western Christianity, along with the spirit of the Enlightenment – which suggested that detachment from familial, ecclesial, and cultural traditions is the beginning of reason – and schism then becomes a sort of secular sacrament. Although Luther argued that justification is by “faith alone,” it is clear that he did not anticipate or support the modern idea that the Church is by “the faithful alone.”

  (Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner, 1870)

It is not surprising, then, why it is sometimes difficult for both Protestants and Catholics to think of ecclesial unity as the proper state of Christ’s Church. Because we are modern people, we tend to think of the Church as a collection of individual choosers, each with his own autonomy that may not legitimately be subject to something outside itself without good reason. That is, we assume that the burden of proving the necessity of ecclesial unity is not on the individual believer, but rather on the corporate entity that demands his allegiance. The Church, in that sense, becomes the enemy of faith, an unwelcome intruder into the believer’s pious solitude. For the modern mind, it would be like the commodity choosing the buyer, since religion, like sex and commerce, is just another act between consenting adults, which by implication makes the authority of creeds the doctrinal equivalent of annoying chaperones.

Ironically, this sort of mindset, which sees schism as proper and unity as unnatural, is one of the conceptual catalysts that helped lead me back to the Catholic Church. For I began to see that the whole idea of theology as something that is  mine to choose – like a pair of slacks that I can have tailored for my own specifications – was precisely the problem. As long as “Church” was something that was under me rather than me under it, I was doomed to a life of ecclesiastical promiscuity despite my best efforts to practice safe sects.

Once I had become convinced that Catholicism, and the Catholic doctrines that Protestants often reject (e.g., apostolic succession, infusion of grace, Eucharistic realism, and so forth), were legitimate understandings widely and uncontroversially held in the Christian world until the time of the Reformation, Catholicism became to me, for the first time since I was a youngster, a “live option,” as William James would have put it. But not only that, it was an option that I could not ignore, for it was both forced and momentous (to cite James again). That is, I had to make a decision – Protestantism or Catholicism – and I could not not choose. And whichever I chose, the decision would change the trajectory of my life. Thus, it was momentous.  I had to either walk into, or away from, the Confessional. There was not, and could not be, a third option. For this reason, it did not seem anymore that I was choosing a church; it seemed now that the Church was choosing me.

It was a book review by a Protestant professor, Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, that crystallized this for me:

Every year I tell my Reformation history class that Roman Catholicism is, at least in the West, the default position. Rome has a better claim to historical continuity and institutional unity than any Protestant denomination, let alone the strange hybrid that is evangelicalism; in the light of these facts, therefore, we need good, solid reasons for not being Catholic; not being a Catholic should, in others words, be a positive act of will and commitment, something we need to get out of bed determined to do each and every day. It would seem, however, that . . . many who call themselves evangelical really lack any good reason for such an act of will; and the obvious conclusion, therefore, should be that they do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church.

I knew then that the burden was on me, and not on the Church, to show why I should remain in schism with the Catholic Communion in which my parents baptized me. I could think of no incorrigible reason to continue as a Protestant. And then I knelt; I could do no other.    

Soli Deo Gloria

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He tells the story of his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic. He blogs at Return to Rome. 

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Comments (24)Add Comment
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written by Tim, October 29, 2010
Likewise! I joined...August 7th with whole family for similiar reasons.....couldn't be happier.
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written by Bangwell Putt, October 29, 2010
As Fr. Schall explains and Benedict noted at Regensburg, "The famous phrase, sola scriptura, ... sought a pure faith, one not encumbered by philosphy. ... For the Reformers, 'metaphysics appeared as a premise derived from another source, from which faith had to be liberated in order to become fully itself'. Metaphysics thus could not be a help in understanding what faith maintained about reality, including the reality of God. ... Kant took this idea to its logical extreme holding that "we needed to set thinking aside in order to make room for faith". The consequences of this proposition are with us today.
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written by James, October 29, 2010
Luther's fierce anti-Semitism is well chronicled although historians still argue about his influence on Nazi Germany. There is ample commentary, however, to support the notion that Luther played a major role in laying the groundwork for the resurgence of hatred toward Jews in the early 20th Century.

In his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer wrote:

"It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jews. Luther's advice was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler."

This analysis surely could be challenged but it is important to note that Luther drew much from Augustine and others in the early Church to formulate his theology.

Culling from the vituperation of many Church leaders who had gone before Luther, one can conclude that the seeds of anti-Semitism sprouted from the early Apostles in the First Century. Luther, then, used those roots to graft a new shoot that was to spread into apostasy, but nonetheless he used the original seedling for his purposes.

Certainly, anti-Semitism did not begin with Luther although he can be credited (blamed?) for the sharpening a blade that had been barely blunted by Aquinas, who wrote:

"The Jews should not be allowed to keep what they have obtained from others by usury; it were best that they were compelled to work so that they could earn their living instead of doing nothing but becoming avaricious."

Interestingly, Luther took his cues from Augustine, who was comparatively positive about the Jews. A paradoxical note to end on.
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written by Other Joe, October 29, 2010
Once a break with the "church" is undertaken by an individual relying on his or her understanding, there is nothing to prevent further fractioning off by other individuals - as history shows. The sad little irony/paradox at the center of Luther's project was the building up of a Protestant church. If scripture is the ultimate source authority, there is no need for a church. In that sense, his opinions on scriptural interpretation are equal to anyone else's. Ah ... so is relativism born into the world. Much human suffering has resulted from attempts to reform systems in order to "fix" human nature rather than reforming individuals. All modern utopiasts promise an end to "corruption" by systemic means rather than by focusing on behavior. Such gnostic self-righteousness smells faintly of the sin of pride. It has become the norm in politics.
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written by Billly Bean, October 29, 2010
Luther's "anti-semitism" was, in fact, a credal, and not a racial matter, as with the Nazis. So James's historical observation is not helpful. Darwin is the better historical reference for Hitler's inspiration. That being said, Beckwith's point is well taken: the historical church of Christ is, in fact, not "Protestant," but very much what we would call "Catholic/Orthodox."
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
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written by Mark K, October 30, 2010
Strange that the writer went back to the Catholic Church because it's, in his mind, the default church and because it has been historically stable. He desired what he thought was biblical unity so he went back to catholicism and walked that line. His conclusion seems well off base to me but I suppose that's the result of our disagreement on a very base level.

Where we are divided is, I don't think the true Bride of Christ has anything to do with denomination. While division is inherently against the nature of the Bride, the churches we know today are also against that same nature, attempting to define, in finite terms, an unfathomable God and hold the unrepentant in good standing before the Lord through deed, doctrine and sacrament all the while losing strength and focus. We'll find in every church both carnal Christians and true believers, something outside the biblical definition of the Church. The holy, spotless Bride of Christ is not represented by these divisions but rather by those who have been reconciled to God through His grace and have been transformed by the Holy Spirit. The body of believers is scattered in the pews and scattered across denominations. We don't find them alone by any means but no church, and unfortunately the Catholic Church is included, represents biblical unity. The remnant is what represents the Bride.

So, what he claims as a downfall, the picking and choosing of a suitable faith and searching out churches outside Catholicism, has nothing to do with division in the true Church.

He's right, I'm not about to choose my faith, my belief, like a pair of well fitting pants. I won't choose at all beyond the Word and the Spirit and that only by the grace of the Father. My fellowship remains a joyous part of this walk and where that happens is an association but I would never lay claim to a church. The very unity he desired in returning and claiming the Catholic Church is his chosen division.
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written by Charlotte, October 30, 2010
Mark K.: We agree that the Bride of Christ has nothing to do with denomination. The Catholic Church isn't a denomination.

Billy Bean:You shouldn't write off the influence of "Christian" anti-Judaism on Nazi ideology. Granted, the Nazis were anti-Christian, but they had a rich history of hateful "Christian" propaganda that they were happy to make use of.
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written by Billy Bean, October 30, 2010
Yes, Mark, but you see, even though the very concept of "denomination" is rooted in the sectarian tendencies of the first apostolic Christians (1 Cor, 1:10-16), this makes it no less sinful. There is, indeed, one Holy Catholic Apostolic Church, to which all who are being saved are in fact united. The Church is an objective thing, and one is either in it or not. That being said, there are some people who were once strongly united to the Church but are becoming more disunited to her every day, while there are others who are currently not a part of her, but are drawing closer to her every day. It seems to me that you see the Church as an invisible Ideal (or maybe even "Idea"), and not the continuous historical (and transcendent) Body of Christ. Indeed, the Body is no less historical, singular, and transcendent than the Head. The sheep are indeed scattered, but there is nonethess one Shepherd and one Sheepfold.
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written by Billy Bean, October 30, 2010
Charlotte: I did not write off the influence of "Christian" anti-Judaism with regard to the Nazis. They were quite capable of twisting and exploiting anything to advance the Third Reich. But twisted and perverted "Christianity" is NOT, in fact, Christianity, a fact which you implicitly acknowledge by your use of quotation marks.
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written by Charlotte, October 30, 2010
Billy Bean-Of course it wasn't real Christianity. My use of quotation marks was not meant to imply that, but to make it clear. Nevertheless, historically, there was plenty of anti-Jewish propaganda that did not need to be twisted to be rendered hateful. It was hateful on its own. Luther was part of that unfortunate heritage, and, sadly, he was not alone.
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written by John Hughes, October 30, 2010
Sorry, that the majority of these comments miss the mark and fail to address what Professor Beckwith has commented! I believe the latest count, is over 30,000 Protestant denominations. Congrats to Luther! I am sure, that which Christ had foreseen, was anyone, at anytime, creating their own denomination! We have become the creator! Whatever we think is right, is right! Let's all become our own "GURU"!

I no longer follow Luther, Calvin, or any other "Reformer"! As the supply of new "Reformers" are endless!

John 6:53 NIV(For the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists)

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."
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written by Michael McCleary, October 31, 2010
Reformation Sunday, for one in particular, is indeed a day to celebrate. For one this day revivals his other, almost lesser, victory, that of giving Eve the apple in the Garden.
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written by Oscar, October 31, 2010
What drove me from the Catholic church was the inability of Church teaching that would help me realize that a person is saved by faith in Christ's sacrifice. Oh, they DID reference the crucifixion and resurrection, but not in any saving way or, at least, some way that made sense.

When you add to that oversight the added on, and definitely NON scriptural, belief that Mary is a co-redemptress and did not suffer death, but was "assumed" into heaven, then you bolt the door behind anyone who might be inclined to "re-join" the so-called "only true church".

When they disavow those damnable heresies (originated by papal decree, NOT by scripture)then the door will be unbolted and allow entry to many who would call the Catholic church home.

By the way, Jesus NEVER promoted a one organization body of believers, just one flock overseen by the Good Shepherd.
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written by Rebecca, October 31, 2010
Thank you for writing this, Francis. I came into the Church in 2007 as well, and being raised hardcore Lutheran, I have many memories of celebrating Reformation Day at church. (sadly it usually resulted in a Catholic and pope bashing session)

Your statement that "whichever I chose, the decision would change the trajectory of my life" especially hit me because I was in the exact same situation. I knew that choosing to become Catholic would tear apart my family and lead to persecution, but knew that I couldn't live a pretend Protestant life. Thank you again for this article and keep up the good work! God bless+
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written by JeannieGuzman, October 31, 2010
Jesus taught, "My kingdom is within." That is the ONLY kingdom, which the Gates of Hell cannot come against, and it comprises members from all denominations, who know Christ as their Lord and Savior. The Catholic Church may claim Papal Succession, but that is questionable claim, based upon the simple facts of history, which have shown that Papal Succession is ONLY physical succession and not always spiritual succession. There have been some really slimy characters over the centuries, who were made Popes. It doesn't take a theologian to know that the Holy Spirit did not reside in men, the likes of Pope Leo X, who was sinfully extravagant and licentious. He threw the Vatican into near bankruptcy, and it was his abusive Sale of Indulgences, which most rankled Martin Luther. God is not mocked. For centuries the Catholic Church has covered up sins of Priest Pedophilia. Those sins are being exposed today. For centuries the Catholic Church persecuted the Jews, not only in the Inquisitions but in Pogroms in Eastern Europe and expulsions in Spain and Portugal in the 1500's. Now, intelligent, well-read people are beginning to question how the Holy Spirit was working in the Papacies of those Popes. The obvious answer is, "He wasn't!" The Vatican's sins are usually based upon arrogance and upon GREED. Now, in the newspapers, all around the world, we are seeing the 2nd Vatican Bank Scandal in less than 30 years, and we are seeing Jonathan Levy sue the Vatican for the Victims of the Holocaust for Her troves of Nazi Gold. Again, God is not mocked! Maybe "The Great Millstone" which St. John predicted in the Book of Revelation (18 chapter) is starting to fall upon that great, apostate Church, "built on 7 hills!" When it happens, the world will know, "God is NOT mocked," even by the Catholic Church.
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written by Billy Bean, October 31, 2010
Jeannie; Quit trying to be so subtle! Just come out with it and tell us what you REALLY think about the Catholic Church.
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written by Jim Woychuk, October 31, 2010
Wonder what recent Catholic thought is on the prohibition of Bible translations in the vernacular. I consider William Tyndale one of the most important heroes of English Christendom, yet he was strangled and burned for daring to teach the ploughboy the words of God.
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written by JamesTheLesser, November 01, 2010
Thank you Mr. Beckwith. I love learning what it is like living life as a protestant. As a cradle Catholic it's easy to imagine all kinds of hardships for the adult convert, but these thoughts are always "imaginings". My mother also is a convert, so I've always known and don't care who is offended with my belief that converts make better Catholics. Of course, my dad was not too fond of the saying!
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written by Katherine, November 01, 2010
"Grace" was entirely correct with her remarks on Luther and the 95 Theses. As a former Catholic (and my parents didn't disapprove of my leaving the church), I came to a realization on my own regarding the heresies within the Catholic Church; long before I came to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ as my savior and Lord. So many things didn't sit right, and I was a product of Catholic schools for most of my growing-up years, as were my siblings and parents. Mom and Dad even went to Catholic colleges.Reasons for waking up and leaving the church included: Teachings on the praying to saints, relics, and statues; no reading of the Bible at Catholic schools; praying the rosary; transubstantiation; the supposed infallibility of the Pope....and the list goes on.

The following, sent out by a Catholic friend, illustrates what was my final reason to leave the Catholic church forever. The final nail in the coffin that sealed my decision was the heretical view that you can pray for the dead.
An email received today about the church's "dead talk"--

Happy All Saints Day,
Just a reminder.From the 1st to the 8th of November if you visit a cemetery everyday and say a prayer for the souls in purgatory,they can receive a plenary Indulgence,and you can get 8 more Saints into Heaven.[Under the usual conditions [Confession,Mass.Communion and Prayers for the Pope within 8 days before or after] We have so many treasures in Our Church.
**To which I would say, "heresy of heresies!"

Every day for me is Reformation Day, and I'll be forever indebted to the men and women today who continue in the tradition to teach and preach reformed doctrine which is fully supported by the Holy Scriptures---much like Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Huss. Today we are blessed with Ligonier Ministries (RC Sproul), Revive Our Hearts (Nancy Leigh DeMoss), John MacArthur, John Piper, the professors at Westminster Seminaries---to name a few.

Sola Gloria!!!
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written by Sarah , November 07, 2010
I read the book review you linked at the end, and am completely taken aback by the author's clarity of thought and the admissions he makes regarding the poverty of the evangelical movement/ protestantism. It is the same set of admissions that led me to the Catholic Church (from confessional protestantism) because in my mind it left protestantism without a leg to stand on, and effectively removed any pedestal from which to judge the Catholic Church, leaving as the only option grateful submission.
Well, I am glad at least that it led you to face that momentous question and we couldn't be happier with the path you chose. Thank you for your thoughtful approach to the 'great divide,' always of interest to me. God bless you and your family.
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written by Javier , January 27, 2011
One of the finest articles Ive read. That quote from CArl Trueman is outstanding and refreshingly honest.
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written by Judi Beauford, March 22, 2011
I once heard a methodist minister say how proud he was of the 350 year history of his denomination, and then go on to disparage the "fly-by-night" type churches that just seem to spring up out of nowhere. I wasn't even Catholic then, and I had the uncomfortable thought that he was completely ignoring history. I sat in the pew that day thinking, "I bet I know several Catholics who would be willing to argue with him." I was never a Protestant who tried to argue that the Catholic church was not the "mother" ship, so to speak. And now, I have left my Protestant life-raft in favor of the protection of the "mother" ship, the Catholic Church. But I still remember that sermon of that Methodist minister, and I wonder how he could have just ignored 1600 years of history.
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written by Michael Bauman, October 27, 2013
The Reformation did not begin in 1517. Its roots go back far earlier, back to the time of the apostolic fathers, who, even in their day, moved from the gospel, as evidenced by Thomas Torrance in his book, The Doctrine of Grace in the Apostolic Fathers. A movement to the gospel is not schism. A movement away from a church that suppressed the gospel is not schism but recovery. Moving from the gospel is schism.

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