The Reformation: Why was it tragic?

This is the third of a three part series. Click here to read part one. Click here to read part two.

The What and the Why Behind the Reformation

The late church historian Jaroslav Pelikan said that the Reformation is helpfully understood as a “tragic necessity.” What was the Reformation and why was it necessary? In answering those two questions the magisterial Reformers play the role of hero, rescuing the church from the oppressive grip of the Roman Catholic Church, which had become corrupt with the practice of simony, selling indulgences, the sacerdotal system, and keeping the Bible out of the common language of the people. This is why we are Protestant. This is our inheritance and this is what we should celebrate.

The Loss of Biblical Authority

Yet, what is often left unsaid is that the Reformation turned the Bible into a contested book.[1] Different Protestant groups emerged. The church was splintered. Unity was fractured. The church was divided. The Bible became a contested thing among various groups, from Roman Catholics to Lutherans, from the Reformed to the Anabaptists, and seemingly countless others. As the different groups argued about Scripture, the Bible’s wider cultural authority waned. Disagreement on how to interpret the Bible was a standing invitation for skeptics and atheists. After all, if Christ can’t be divided (1 Cor. 1:13), but the church is internally divided, then maybe there is no Christ at all. It is precisely because Scripture gradually lost its position as culture’s highest authority—especially after The Enlightenment—that David Wells can say that the world now lives with a “crisis of authority” in which any remaining authority has been relocated to the self. The church is not unblemished from these developments.

The Self Becomes god

The church has been tutored by the doctrine of secular culture, especially the doctrine of individualism.[2] Robert Bellah calls it expressive individualism. David Wells calls it “the bloated sense of human capacity.”[3] We live in an age of choices, consumer choices superficially considered, but also religious choices. With the burden of individualism—choices—everyone is expected to realize their humanity apart from outside influences conforming or lording over them. It is worth pointing out that in the matrix of “free” consumer choices, it often goes unrecognized by the consumer that, for example, wearing all black, with black lipstick and black fingernail polish, is conformity to the corporate strategy of skateboard sellers and tattoo businesses. Nevertheless, the dogma of expressive individualism assumes that if an outside authority—like God—dictates a person’s humanity, then they are no longer human. It is a world where the “major remaining value is choice itself.”[4] In the secular scheme, to be authentic, to be authentically human, one’s unfettered libertarian choices must function as the primary value. Libertarian choices provide authenticity for what it means to be human.[5] The implication is displayed in the Star Wars movie series where the characters are often encouraged to trust their own feelings. If libertarian freedom is the supreme human value, then the feelings that arise from within must be followed. It is a failure to see that self-autonomy is not freedom, but a different kind of captivity, namely, slavery to self.

The Scriptures Alone

None of this implies that the Reformation created more problems than it solved. But, as we are careful to observe that the Reformation was necessary, we must also be careful to observe that it was tragic. Anyone who has ever lamented the existence of countless denominations feels the tragedy of division among the people of God. But it was a tragic necessity. Necessary because the Roman Catholic Church had perverted the Gospel of saving grace found in Jesus Christ. Tragic because the unintended consequence of rescuing the Gospel was turning the Bible into a contested book, which, in the view of the broader culture, lowered God down from the tower of authority. This, in turn, transferred authority inward to the self.

Humans are narrative beings. We collect stories to explain meaningfulness. One of the stories that Christians need to have is the story of the Reformation, the story of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ was recovered, and how the Word of God was set free from Rome. As we draw a line from the Reformation to the twenty-first century, we need to be reminded that we are a people designed to live under the authority of God as revealed in the Bible. We can’t forget that we are a people dependent upon God’s self-revelation. For Christians, authority is not derived from the deep places of the inner self, but from God, as he has revealed himself in a Book (sola Scriptura).

[1] Michael Legaspi, The Death of Scripture and the The Rise of Biblical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[2] Before we get carried away with describing the influence of individualism on the modern church, Christians must be unafraid to make careful distinctions. Individualism that walks into autonomy is headed for a collision course with the God of the universe. But individualism that emphasizes personal responsibility is virtuous. See Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books: Essays (New York: Picador, 2012), 90.  

[3] David. F. Wells, Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 52.

[4] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 69.

[5] In The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau says, “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” And “To renounce freedom is to renounce one’s humanity.”

Jason Cherry is a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.

Published by Jason Cherry

Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church in Huntsville, Alabama, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call and The Making of Evangelical Spirituality (Wipf and Stock).