Interpretations of the Reformation

by Matthew Barrett June 6, 2023

Editor’s Note: Taken from The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by Matthew Barrett. Copyright 2023 by Zondervan Academic. Used by permission of Zondervan. The book is now available for purchase anywhere books are sold.

Over the last century, the Reformation’s self-confessed identity (catholicity) has not always been appreciated or understood with accuracy. Consider several reasons why.

Lamenting the Reformation as Schism and the Seed of Secularism: The Secularization Narrative

Interpreted as a deviation from the church catholic and its view of God and the world, the Reformation has been labeled the birth mother of all that is schismatic and sectarian on one hand and all that is modern and secular on the other hand. Such an approach takes on many different shades.

First, some historians focus mostly on schism and blame the intrinsic divisiveness of the Reformation on various factors. For example, the Reformers taught the priesthood of believers, a doctrine that decreased the gap between clergy and laity. When coupled with the belief in sola scriptura, each Christian became his own arbitrator, deciding for himself what the Bible really said. This is Protestantism’s dangerous idea, and it was not only revolutionary but also inspired revolution itself. Its effects were ravaging: ecclesiastical and political authorities were questioned, which at times led to rebellion and revolution.20

For others, the Reformation’s schismatic nature stemmed from a posture of criticism that precluded catholicity from the start. Even the label Protestantism reveals a fixation with protest that is destructive for Christianity, past, present, and future. The Reformation, therefore, was tragic because it did not unite but divided Christendom.21 Depending on how sympathetic this interpretation is toward Protestantism, it may even label the Reformers as schismatics.

Blaming the Reformation for schism may be an ongoing, contemporary maneuver, but it is also as old as the Reformation itself. In the sixteenth century, Rome blamed the Reformers for schism in the church, and once the Council of Trent concluded, this accusation became formal, setting the trajectory for the centuries ahead. This interpretation—the Reformation as a schismatic sect—has been recapitulated by Roman Catholics since.22

Second, if some interpreters blame schism on the Reformation, others hold the Reformers accountable for an unwitting secularism.23 The two interpretations are not unrelated. To hold the Reformers responsible for secularism, one must first decide that the Reformers were in some sense revolutionaries—religious revolutionaries but perhaps even political revolutionaries. The method of interpretation is not all that different either: the Reformers created this revolution by heralding the primacy of Scripture, which then gave every individual and every society the right to decide for themselves what they believed. The Reformers could not agree with each other, and the history of Protestantism since has followed suit with one denominational split after another. Hermeneutical plural- ism has resulted in religious pluralism, as everyone claims to possess the only true interpretation of the text, and anyone can claim an exclusive legitimate application of Scripture to church and society. Sola scriptura is dangerous because it rebels against the authority of the church for the sake of the individual’s rights. That, in turn, is a recipe for secularism, in which everyone becomes his own authority. Granted, the Reformers did not intend to create a secularist revolution. Yet as soon as they turned to the individual’s interpretation of the Bible, they elevated a subjectivism that could only lead to modernity and the triumph of the self over received ecclesiastical beliefs.

Such an interpretation depends on a reading of the late medieval era as well. On one hand, this interpretation observes a true shift that started with Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century but culminated with the via moderna (mod- ern way), as represented by William of Ockham in the fourteenth century and Gabriel Biel in the fifteenth century. The via moderna was a reaction against the via antiqua (old way), especially as it was embodied in Thomas Aquinas. As chapter 4 will explore, Thomas believed that the Creator and the creature can be properly related to one another by an analogy of being.24 The incomprehensible God is infinite and eternal, while the creature is finite and temporal. He is pure actuality itself, while the creature is defined by a passive potency—God is being, but the creature is becoming. Therefore, predication must occur within the parameters of likeness.25 For instance, the creature may possess love in his heart, but however pure that love may be, it only images the love of God. For unlike the creature’s love, God’s love is an infinite love, an eternal love, an immutable love, and a most holy love. Analogical predication assumes a Creator-creature paradigm of participation. Since God is simple (without parts), all that is in God is God. As Thomas said, “There is nothing in God that is not the divine being itself, which is not the case with other things.”26 God does not depend on another being for his being, but he is life in and of himself (aseity). Therefore, this self-sufficient God is the source of the creature’s being and happiness. In him the creature lives and moves and has his being, as Paul told the Athenians, quoting their own Greek poets in Acts 17:28.27 Participation, in other words, depends on the analogy of being.

  1. Whether or not they are lamenting the Reformation as schism, some frame the Reformation as schism, or a break to start a new church: e.g., Ryrie, Protestants; McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea; and McGrath, Historical Theology, 125.
  2. Leithart, The End of Protestantism. Vanhoozer responds to Leithart’s interpretation of the Reformation with the following correction: “However, contra Leithart, the fundamental gesture of Protestantism is not negative but The Reformers did not view themselves as schismatics, nor were they. To protest is to testify for something, namely, the integrity of the gospel, and, as we will see, this includes the church’s cath- olicity. It also includes prophetic protest (the negative gesture) whenever and wherever the truth of the gospel is at risk. Unity alone (sola unitats) is not enough unless the unity in question is a unitas of veritas (truth).” Vanhoozer then offers his own interpretation, one far more in line with this book: “the only true Protestant—a biblical, Christ-centered Protestant, whose conscience is indeed captive to the gospel—is a catholic Protestant.” Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel, 15.
  3. E.g., Denifle, Luther et le Luthéranisme, ch. 4.
  4. Gregory, Unintended Reformation. For a more recent example of a scholar who sees himself carrying the baton of the Bred Gregory narrative, see Saak, Luther and the Reformation of the Later Middle Ages.
  5. “The forms of the things God has made do not measure up to a specific likeness of the divine power; for the things that God has made receive in a divided and particular way that which in Him is found in a simple and universal way.” Aquinas, SCG 32.2.
  6. Predication is the “act of affirming something of a subject” or “assigning something to a class” or “naming something as possessing some act or perfection or as belonging to some other act or perfection,” may be univocal, equivocal, or analogical. Analogical predication is “attributing a perfection to an object in a sense partially the same and partially different from the attribute of the same when applied to some other objections.” For both definitions, see Wuellner, Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy, s.v. “predication.”


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