Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the Pope’s horses and all the Pope’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
For good and ill, the era we know as the Reformation has hugely shaped us. It involved immense fragmentation: both a breaking down and a breaking open. Like Humpty Dumpty, that which went before had ‘a great fall’ and could not be put together again as it had been. Especially within Christian life, it has thus bequeathed so many features we simply take for granted. Some have lasting value. Others are much more questionable. This includes the very existence of different Christian traditions, in what, from the 19th century, we have termed denominations. This was not, of course, an intended outcome. Indeed, it would have seemed anathema to any Reformer, as well as to the Church of Rome. Yet it is part of our Reformation inheritance. So what do we make of this, for God’s continuing mission? What is worth keeping? How might we move on together?
This reflection is not a traditional potted history. Nor does it seek to draw us into comparisons of our different Christian traditions, never mind reassemble past dynamics and rhetoric. Instead, it outlines briefly both vital differences and also important similarities between that age and our own. In doing so, it identifies a number of negative features which often mar our churches and world. It also suggests a number of positive features which can heal and take us forward. Hopefully, in the contemporary spirit of ‘receptive ecumenism’, these may then provide a basis for assessing which Reformation gifts we will own together and which we will leave behind. What else, we might then ask, do we need for our journey onwards today?...
Varieties of Reformation
Let me begin with a few words about definitions. For we need to be careful, in talking about ‘Protestant’, ‘Reformed’, ‘Catholic’, humanist’, ‘evangelical’ and so forth, that we do not read later developments into these often overlapping expressions. Terms like ‘Calvinist’ were similarly complex and contested from the outset, whilst ‘Anglican’ is an anachronism. What, above all, do we mean by the word ‘Reformation’ itself? Linguistically, it refers to a shaping of something which is, or was, already in existence: in this case, the Christian Faith, which by 1517 was almost 1500 years old. Beyond that we need to be cautious. This is because, today, historians will not generally speak about ‘the Reformation’ as if it were a single, easily designated, phenomenon. That is why the term ‘Reformation era’ is being used For where and what do we highlight? We might agree, for example, to begin with Wittenberg in Germany and Luther’s particular theological, social and personal trajectories: though even then, we will quickly seek to look at antecedents, parallels and wider contributions to his reforming movement. What however is the respective place of other Reformers and other places; of different classes, trades, ages, genders and other societal sectors; and of resistance, reforms and other changes within continuing Catholic Christianity, which was itself highly contested? Where also does it begin and end? One the one hand there are important precedents in the late middle ages. On the other hand, it was not until 1648, with the Treaty of Westphalia, that religious ‘settlement’ was made, by different state choices of the various religious options on offer, after Europe had fought itself to a bloody standstill. Even then, in outlying areas like Britain and Ireland, religious civil wars had a little longer to run. It was, in the words of the title of the best single current introduction to the whole period, a ‘Long Reformation’. Most assuredly, it was an epic watershed in world, as well as Christian, history. Yet it is not capable of simple definition, which makes it both a continuing source of constraining myths and also a fertile resource for creative faith today. For we may also say:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All Luther’s horses and all Luther’s men (and women),
couldn’t put Humpty together again.
However, they, and others, left us fascinating fragments for our own lives and faith.
Let me then trace some of the differences between that era and our own. In doing so, let us note how ‘Reformation’, as a concept, is sometimes projected today as an answer to the so-called ‘problem’ of Islam. This sadly misunderstands the distinctive religious journeys of Islam and Christianity. It is also sometimes confuses Reformation with what we call the Enlightenment. For, in a sense, as a Toowoomba Iraqi Muslim leader said in a recent community peace gathering, the awful reality is that Islam is in some ways actually in the throes of a ‘reformation’ today. Replace the contemporary horrors of Iraq and Syria with those of 16th and 17th century Europe and what do we find? There are hugely more sophisticated weapons but also similar horrible internal religious divisions, potent mixtures of patriarchal power and heightened spiritual rhetoric, fear and emotion, and terrible tracks of blood, death and refugees; all of which create lasting impact far afield. It is not pretty Nor was it in Christian Europe 500 years ago. Yet the Christian, and overall, situation today is radically distinct.
In so many ways, at least in ‘developed’ economies, we live in a very different world, don’t we? To borrow Thomas Hobbes’ well-known phrase, most people’s lives were formerly ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’, plagued (literally) with death and apprehensions of sin and hell. In pre-Reformation England for example, average life expectancy has been reckoned as 38 years, with 30% of children dying before the age of 10. Literacy rates were very low. Around 90% of people worked in agriculture and a small modern city like Toowoomba would have seemed like an extraordinary cacophonous alien megalopolis. Disease was rife, medicine often little more than barbaric, and threats of violence and destruction often imminent. Indeed, still looming over Reformation beginnings was what is often now known as the Black Death, one of the most devastating pandemics in history. Sweeping through Europe in the mid-14th century, it destroyed somewhere between a third and a half of the population, contributing to a powerful series of social, economic and cultural crises. Religiously and psychologically, this fed concerns about mortality, sin, guilt and survival, reflected in mainstream Reformation theologies of all kinds. Life-giving modern themes such as well-being would have appeared as outlandish as the electricity.
It was also a very circumscribed and restrictive world. Columbus may have famously reached the so-called ‘New World’ in 1492, and Copernicus and Galileo presented their revolutionary theories in this era. In doing so, they and others, literally and metaphorically, helped create new maps and conceptions of time, place, history and culture. Yet our ancestors’ assumptions were very far from our own. Much of our Australian inheritance may still be Eurocentric, but our conceptions and use of wider geography, humanity, science, cosmology, medicine, and economics are profoundly changed. We are once again a deeply visual, rather than textual, age, but with ever accelerating speeds, technology and interconnectivity, which would have appeared incomprehensible to our forebears. They saw portents, often apocalyptic, in nature, but knew nothing of ecology nor our contemporary environmental challenges. Above all, they would be baffled by our hyper-individualism, post-modern secularism and our truly extraordinary emphasis on diversity as a good rather than an evil.
Kyrie eleison: five major negatives of the Reformation era
What then did the Reformation era give us? There are many negatives we need to be honest about. Indeed, if we are to remember Reformation beginnings, we would do well to begin with lament: kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy) is after all a foundational Christian prayer. What therefore might we name as Reformation elements we might give away?
Many Protestants have traditionally identified a series of ‘solae’, or ‘only’ features, as key elements. Five became fashionable, and are, respectively, ‘sola scriptura’ (by scripture alone), ‘sola fide’ (by faith alone), ‘sola gratia’ (by grace alone), ‘sola Christus’ (by Christ alone), and ‘soli Deo Gloria’ (glory to God alone). Each are of course worth deep reflection today, although Catholics, Orthodox and many other Christians, including Anglicans, have always wanted at least to qualify and/or add to them. For the moment, let me however suggest five other, definitely negative, Reformation elements, each of which, in various ways, inhibit our lives and the reception of the Christian Faith by others today. These are, in summary: violence, intolerance, moralism, politics, and pessimism.
Firstly, the Reformation era has bequeathed an association of violence with religion. Of course, historically, this was not novel. At least since Christianity’s adoption by the Roman Emperor Constantine, violence in the name of faith has been used to justify war, persecute actual and alleged heretics, and inflict or permit other abuses of various kinds. Yet the Reformation era was particularly incendiary. We have touched on war within and between nations. We should certainly add the widespread use of torture and gruesome executions. Catholic terrorists, like the would-be bomber of Parliament, Guido Fawkes, are still remembered every 5 November on Bonfire Night in Britain and martyrs memorials dot European cities. Not for nothing, apart from the Bible, was Foxe’s Book of Martyrs the best selling book, for many years in England. Elsewhere, horrors like the St Batholomew’s Massacre of 1572 in France, or the massacres of Irish Catholics in Drogheda and Wexford, left lasting legacies. No wonder Australians have been typically suspicious of religion. Such violent characteristics also extended to the language of communication. For much of Reformation religious discourse is so full of extreme and inflammatory denunciation that it can make Donald Trump’s political outbursts seem like models of political correctness. In assessing the worth of such thinking, a major difference for Christians today is thus the ecumenical spirit in which we, mostly, conduct our relationships. Admittedly we can sometimes be so blinded by the main Reformation protaganists that we can miss the efforts to engage in dialogue by more eirenic figures like Melanchthon, Bucer and Cardinal Contarini. Yet even important scholars like Erasmus were full of caustic and dismissive wit.
Secondly, we might also leave intolerance behind. Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists and others may have shattered the single pattern of authorised Christian Faith across Europe, but they were keen to enforce their own ideas and structures as the only way of being Christian. This assuredly applied to the Church of England too, despite later Anglican wishful thinking. Only some Anabaptists and other ‘radical Reformers’ were exceptions. Unity essentially involved compulsion. Fear of Islam was also potent, not surprisingly as the Ottoman Empire was notably at the gates of Vienna in 1529 and 1683, and only effectively repulsed in the Mediterranean by its defeat by the Holy Catholic League at the battle of Lepanto in 1571, arguably the most significant naval conflict in history. Less understandable in hindsight was repression of the Jews, helped by virulently anti-Semitic writings. In some of the worst of his more intemperate language, in his book ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’, published in 1543, Luther thus spoke of the Jews as a ‘base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.’ They were, he alleged, full of the ‘devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine.’ In line with others in his day, and with worrying anticipations of later Nazi rhetoric, he argued that Jewish synagogues and schools be set on fire, prayer books destroyed, property and money confiscated. The Jews should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. We are at fault in not slaying such "poisonous envenomed worms" he wrote. The Reformation era was a powerful watershed in ecclesiological, cultural and political change. It was clearly however less adventurous in recasting thought, as Galileo and others also found to their cost.
Thirdly therefore, for all the emphasis on grace and justification by faith, such intolerance too easily turned efforts to create godly community into moralism. This took several forms, and was promoted not only by the puritan movement as it emerged, but also by church and state leaders acting hand-in-hand to impose moral and religious discipline on their people. Calvin’s Geneva was far from the theocratic, Taliban-like, state it has sometimes been painted. Yet, in addition to welcome new standards of education, health and social welfare, its Reformed discipline infamously brought a high degree of intrusion and policing into individual and family lives. Protestant radicals also destroyed much that was beautiful and artistic in pre-Reformation church and society. Catholic churches and societies fared better in that respect, yet they too were highly suspicious and censorious of minorities, including many mystics, and they were also destructive of many traditional popular customs. Meanwhile, overall, the times were no great blessing for women. There were some remarkable female figures and achievements. Yet, as has one scholar put it tellingly, the Protestant Reformation issued in ‘the death of two Marys’: both the piety surrounding the Virgin Mary and also the possibilities, within religious orders, to sit at feet of Jesus like Mary the sister of Martha. In both Catholic and Protestant worlds, the drive for moral order tended to reinforce patriarchal power, and confine women as domestic creatures of the early modern family. Fear and punishment of witchcraft was also at its height with tragic results.
Fourthly, the main leaders of the Reformation era did little to shift Christian politics. There were new patterns of church-state relationship. Yet if the Constantinian and medieval idea of a single Christendom was no more, each rising nation state sought to create its own pattern of Christendom within itelf. The Gospel was still allied with the powerful and the rich and, with the exception of radical Reformers such as Thomas Muenzer and the Anabaptists, rebellions of the poor brought little support from across the Church. Luther himself was thus certainly critical of the treatment of the poor, but, in the interest of order, sided with the rich and powerful in the Peasant Wars of the 1520s: writing powerfully, as he put it, ‘Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of the Peasants’. Meanwhile, in Catholic Europe, this was an age of rising despotism, above all in counter-Reformation Spain, and, later, in France. Such a spirit, aided by the need for more robust structures to counter Protestantism, thus enhanced papal authority. The Protestant Reformation hence indirectly contributed to the rise of a more rigorous and dictatorial papal authoritarianism, excluding various other fruitful late medieval, conciliar, and other Catholic options.
Fifthly, as a strong negative aspect, the Reformation era also handed on a pessimism about humanity which sits uneasily in the contemporary world, especially in the West. We enter contested theological territory at this point. However, it is fair to say that Reformation theology and spirituality were greatly focused on mortality, the Fall, sin, death and guilt, to the detriment of other aspects of Christian Faith. In recent times, theological and liturgical reformers across the mainline churches have helped us reclaim important life-giving themes of God in Creation, the life and work of the Holy Spirit, natality, new creation, healing, and hope for this world as well as the next. Yet perhaps the ghost of excessive Reformation bleakness still lurks in some church corners?
Why bother with the Reformation era? The need to look forward with wisdom
Why then bother with the Reformation era? What is it fit for, other than providing Tudor English costume dramas from the BBC? Do people generally find it helpful, other than as a useful category for some who want Islam to be like them? Even in churches it is often not understood or taken for granted. In Australia indeed, much of what was left of Reformation dynamism was strangled at the modern nation’s birth, as we divided up schools and land on fixed denominational bases. We also brought in what one Aboriginal Anglican priest has called the ‘dried bread’ of European faith and structures. Those divisions and food no longer serve our society very well, if ever they did, so why would we want to look at them again? There are reasons, as will now be suggested, but we need to take seriously that critique.
As we mark Luther’s break with Rome in 1517, it will not do for us simply to venerate chosen aspects of the Reformation era, still less fail to lament its shortcomings. For the truth is:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
(and) All the ecumenical horses
and all the ecumenical men and women,
will not put Humpty together again.
If we are to move forward in God’s mission, we must do more much more than look back, even selectively. We must look around to where God is in our present contexts and forward to where God is calling. In doing so, what is valuable about the Reformation era will then become clearer. For whilst it was quite different, we also have a good deal in common and there are key inspirations to find.
Ours is also a time of massive upheaval. We too face huge changes, not least sesimic shifts in communications and technology. For if the Reformation era was profoundly affected by the invention of printing and the rise of the written word and book culture, we are in a new visual and digital age which has immense consequences for the medium and message of faith. We too live in an age of political and economic uncertainty. New trade and industry and accompanying developments in poverty and power created change in early capitalist Europe. Today we face similar testing times as late capitalism undergoes its own reconstruction. We too experience rising fears, perhaps not of Black Death, but certainly of ecological crisis, as well as renewed anxiety about Islam. There is similarly a widespread quest for identity in our own age, with rising nationalism, identity politics, and antipathy to minorities in many places. There are also again great stresses on international frameworks, with assaults on cosmopolitan attitudes. Indeed, in the UK, English politicians have once more led a break away from continental connectivity. Public dialogue is also becoming more polarised and bigoted and the likelihood of violent conflict is increasing. Meanwhile, institutional, intellectual and spriritual questioning is widespread. Inherited chuch structures are creaking and the shape of the future is uncertain.
Drawing strength for our struggles: five major positive features of the Reformation era
What then might we draw from the Reformation era to assist us in our own struggles? Let me suggest five positive things to balance the five negative elements outlined earlier: namely freedom, conscience, re-visioning, inculturation, and hope.
Firstly, freedom, and the vitality of God, is the ringing Reformation cry. Despite the violence and divisiveness which accompanied it, the message of God’s gracious freedom was hugely attractive, and it remains so. As Luther put it, in his famous third treatise of 1520, ‘On the Freedom of a Christian’: ‘A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.’ It is in Christ that freedom is above all given, received and shared with others. How this freedom is to be exercised is of course challenging. Different approaches give rise to varied expressions. Unlike our forebears, we may greet this diversity more positively. Yet, even when we struggle to see how to hold this together, freedom remains a powerful and engaging rallying call for the Church and a continued gift to our world. Will we grasp it?
Secondly, across the spectrum of Reformation life and thought, there is the power of conscience. It was present in Luther’s stand for the truth which could so easily have cost him his life, as it had earlier reformers like Jan Hus. It was present too in Catholic witness to truth and resistance to questionable authority, as with Thomas More and Cardinal Fisher, who, aware of a higher call, refused to bow the knee to secular dynastic demands. It was present in the courage in death of high profile martyrs such as the English episcopal trio, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer, and the great bible scholar William Tyndale; and in so many other ‘lesser’ folk, who were persecuted, tortured, and hideously destroyed. Some of those figures may not have always recognised the conscience of others. Free thought was certainly hard won. Yet they provide inspiration for our own witness to conscience today. Do we, like Martin Luther and Thomas More, ultimately choose a theology of the cross, or a theology of glory?
Thirdly, re-visioning is a striking and vital Reformation characteristic which we require. Prompted by the ‘new learning’ of the time, and the call to ‘return to the sources’ of Christian Faith, the great Reformation figures typically gave themselves, mind, heart and soul, to re-discovering the Gospel for their own day. In doing so, in Catholic, Protestant, and other quarters, scripture, tradition and life came alive in new ways, or at least with new life in old pathways. Faith shifted, becoming more inward, subjective and chosen, rather than outward, objective and given. Being a Christian was reconfigured. It was not enough simply to be baptised into a particular community or culture. It required a more conscious allegiance and formation. The Reformation era is thus fundamentally a profound impetus to deeper reflection on scripture, tradition and life. In this, renewal of various kinds was found. As we mark Reformation beginnings, are we then also willing to do the hard intellectual, moral and spiritual yards so that we may be renewed?
For, fourthly, the upshot of grasping God’s freedom, of exercising conscience and re-visioning Faith from its foundations, is inculturation, that is grounding the Gospel more effectively in particular contexts. In the face of growing national and cultural identities, the great Reformers provided accessible language and structures, offering liturgy and scripture in native tongues. The Church of Rome struggled with this, yet it also found ways to meet changing needs, countering effectively with new forms of evangelisation in many places. Indeed, whilst Protestant and Reformed religion had little time or energy for the world beyond Europe, the Catholic Reformation was remarkable for the efforts made, not least by the Jesuits, to share the eternal Gospel in the literal and metaphorical clothes of very distant cultures. Tragically however this also came with colonialisation, the effects of which we still experience today. Protestant and Reformed religion also hugely affirmed the value of ordinary, secular, life, addressing actual and propagandised religious corruption. Yet Catholics too, from a different standpoint, increasingly addressed ecclesiastical deficiencies, particularly with the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century, and they affirmed faith as part of the whole of life, particularly through new religious orders no longer based on traditional monastic enclosure. New models of spiritual and secular community were thus nurtured, including dynamic political and eccelesiological forms, not least in the best of Calvinism, among Anabaptists, and in Jesuit and other contemplative activism. Indeed, across the board there was an explosion of educational and organisational achievements, all seeking to address the challenges and opportunities of the time. Can we say the same today?
Fifthly, finally, and not least, the Reformation era offered hope. Notwithstanding the underlying cultural and theological pessimism noted earlier, our forebears were convinced of God’s grace and assurance. They expressed this in various ways. For Luther, God was ‘ein feste Burg’: a strong castle, like the Wartburg into which he had taken refuge from condemnation. For Calvin, God’s sovereignty was the essential basis of his life and work. As a result, he and similar Reformers could offer consolation to others. Indeed, Calvin’s main motto was ‘post tenebras lux: after darkness, light. Ignatius of Loyola, for his part, imparted imagination and discipline through his ‘Spiritual Exercises’, sharing the power of his own conversion with and through others. If sometimes Reformation life was threatening, there was therefore hope, as John of the Cross put it, even in the ‘dark night of the soul’. As the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches has recently said, there is similarly today hope for Europe, and all the world, but it comes with repentance, turning again to the love and strength of God.
Who is Christ for us today? What will we keep?
To conclude: the Reformation era was very different from ours and its legacy is mixed. Yet it was an age of great upheaval like our own. We should not seek merely to repeat what it has given us, but we can draw from it. There are certainly vital words worth keeping: including the cross, scripture, evangelical (the word Reformers preferred for themselves rather than ‘Protestant’), catholic (in the sense of universal and embracing), humanism, contemplation, action, repentance, forgiveness and grace. What would you choose? Every generation needs to confess Christ in its particular circumstances: this was the central religious concern of people as varied as Luther, Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, and Angela Merici. They had different answers, yet that same aim. So what does Jesus mean to us today? Are we, as various parts of Christ’s One Body, too bound up with the world? Or are we free, true to our conscience whatever the cost, re-visioning, helping faith live afresh in the culture we inhabit, and bearing the Christian hope? For Humpty Dumpty can never be put together again and the Reformation era can be read simply as a story of past fragmentation, a breaking down without a breaking open. We could indeed try desperately to keep alive the ghost and memories of Christendom and its divided children. Alternatively however, like our forebears, we might again ask each other questions common to us all: who is Jesus for us today? what is it to be a Christian? what is freedom? what does conscience require? and what will we do in response to the God who speaks afresh in Bible, Tradition, and Reason? Christian Faith is always re-forming or it is simply dying. So what is worth keeping, and what will we add?
Address originally given to Toowoomba Churches Together gathering, 28.10.16
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.