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Was the Reformation good for Christianity?


If you read my column regularly, you know my great desire for Christian unity. 

churchprotestantI have tremendous respect for our separated Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ.  And there has been exciting ecumenical progress made recently, and the rediscovery of much common ground.

We are not adversaries.  We are brothers and sisters in arms, linked in an epic battle against darkness.  It is from this vantage point that I want to discuss a very sticky topic: was the Reformation good for Christianity?

My answer?  It was an absolute tragedy! Why?

Martin Luther's initial reform efforts certainly did address some abuses in the Church.  But let's leave that for a moment and focus on something even more important.

In John 17:17-23, Jesus' final prayer is for the unity of his followers.  But the unity he prayed for was not some "we-all-love-Jesus-good-enough-let's-agree-to-disagree" unity.  Twice he prays for "perfect" unity, the same unity he has with the Father.

Jesus then adds an incredibly important point: by this perfect Christian unity, the world will come to "know that you [the Father] sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me."  This is the heart of evangelization — that God so loved the world that he sent his only son [cf John 3:16].  Jesus is saying that "perfect" Christian unity is the key to evangelizing the world!

But nothing in the history of Christianity has fractured that unity more than the Protestant Reformation.  Were some Catholics in Luther's time abusing the church's teachings, particularly in the area of indulgences and purgatory?  Absolutely.  But was the Church's doctrinal teaching in these areas wrong?  Absolutely not!

But eventually, Luther was no longer just opposing corrupt individuals in the Church.  He began to attack the Church's authority and doctrinal teaching itself, eventually rejecting both.  In the process, he introduced several new, problematic teachings as well.

His first doctrinal novelty would be Sola Scriptura — Latin for Bible Alone — the idea that we follow the Bible alone as the sole way of knowing God's truths, and that everything to be believed is in Scripture alone.  The authority of the Church and Oral or Sacred Tradition are both rejected.

But here is the stunner.  Sola Scriptura is not found in the Bible — it is unscriptural!  By its own definition, it refutes itself! Similarly, we can't even know which books belong in the Bible from Scripture alone.  It contains no Holy-Spirit inspired table of contents!

Additionally, the New Testament wasn't finished until 70 to 90 A.D.  We wouldn't even have the Bible in finalized form until the late 300's.  Furthermore, in the first 15 centuries of the Church, Bibles were hand written and prohibitively expensive, and most couldn't read.  The early Church was not a Bible Alone church, but a predominantly oral tradition church.  "Stand firm and hold to the traditions you were taught by us, whether by word of mouth or by letter", St Paul commands in 2 Thessalonians 2:15.

But here is the stunner. "Sola Scriptura" is not found in the Bible — it is unscriptural!

The other problem is that Sola Scriptura simply doesn't work! Its fruit has been the relentless fracturing of Christianity.  If there is one Holy Spirit, one Bible, and one set of unchangeable truths, how is it that we have so many seriously conflicting interpretations of Scripture, resulting in thousands of different denominations?  Luther himself lamented, "there are almost as many sects and beliefs as there are heads."

The second pillar of the Reformation is Sola Fide: Faith Alone.  Simply put, this doctrine holds that we are justified [made right with God] and saved by our faith alone, apart from good works.

But incredibly, the only place where the words "faith" and "alone' come together in all of Scripture is James 2:18-26, and it irrefutably denies Luther's teaching: "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... a man is justified by works and not by faith alone."

Jesus also answers our question unequivocally: "Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?"… "If you would enter life, keep the commandments" [Matt 19:16-17].  We must also keep the commandments — do good works — to have eternal life.  We are not saved by our faith alone!

The Catholic position holds that we are justified or saved by the grace of God alone — ironically, a statement most Protestants would agree with — through "faith working in love" [Gal 5:6].  The Church teaches that faith in Jesus and grace-inspired good works are both necessary for salvation, but both also flow from God's grace.

Catholic teaching also emphasizes that it is God that is working through us when we do these grace-inspired good works.  Philippians 2:12-13 shows this clearly: "God is the one who… works in you both to desire and to work."  And similarly, 1 Corinthians 12:4-6: "there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone."

But we also need to note that these "good works" are not the Old Covenant "works of the law" denounced in Romans and Galatians [and misinterpreted by Luther, who erroneously equated them with good works], but the good works praised in Romans 2:6-10: "God… will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life… through perseverance in good works."

Scripture clearly refutes Luther's novel doctrines.  If these two pillars of the Reformation crumble, what are we fighting about?  Certainly Luther stirred some needed reform into the Church.  But his "reformation" went too far when it split the Church.  Egotism and pride on both sides escalated this dispute to unimaginable levels.  It's time to put this all behind us.

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Graham Osborne.  "Was the Reformation good for Christianity?" The B.C. Catholic (2018).

Reprinted with permission of Graham Osborne.  

The Author

osborneGraham Osborne is a professional nature photographer and biologist. He has spent the last twenty years  studying Sacred Scripture and Church teaching and teaches Scripture and apologetics classes for the Archdiocese of Vancouver's Office of Catechetics' quarterly Institutes. He also teaches adult faith education courses and gives retreats and conferences at parishes around the Archdiocese. Graham makes his home in Chilliwack, B.C. with his wife and 3 children. His website is here.

Copyright © 2018 The B.C. Catholic
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