Critique of Ten Exaggerated Claims of the “Reformation”

Critique of Ten Exaggerated Claims of the “Reformation” November 1, 2017

Luther Eisenach Wartburg Castle Thuringia Germany

This is a reply to “10 Great Consequences of the Protestant Reformation” by Andrew Dragos (Seedbed, 10-9-17). I wrote it on 31 October 2017: the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Revolution.  Andrew’s words will be in blue.

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“Ecumenical Introduction”: Before all the disagreement I will express below, I’d like to actually begin on a positive, conciliatory note.  None of this honest disagreement with grand Protestant claims should be taken to mean that I somehow despise Protestants on a personal level. In fact I greatly admire and respect committed Protestants and feel a kinship with them as fellow believers in Christ that is closer than what I would feel to a nominal or theologically liberal Catholic. On this level of commitment or discipleship, many Protestants put many Catholics to shame. I’ve written papers about my respect for Lutherans and Reformed Protestants and about sincere gratefulness for what I learned in my evangelical Protestant background. I note all the positive things that Vatican II stated about Protestants, and how Protestants are our brethren, even according to Trent. I defend ecumenism and joint efforts again and again. I condemn anti-Protestantism.

I happily note many areas of agreement with Catholics in the teaching of both Luther and Calvin. And I defend Luther and Calvin against bad arguments or bum raps. I compiled an entire book of quotations from Luther with which Catholics would agree. I take note at the top of my mostly critical Martin Luther web page that I “admire him in certain ways. I like his passion and boldness and apparent sincerity and good intentions” and “have never maintained that Luther was ‘evil’ or essentially a ‘bad’ man.” But I do certainly profoundly disagree with him in many ways. I have had my book of John Wesley quotations published by the Protestant Beacon Hill Press. C. S. Lewis has been my favorite writer for forty years and for many years I maintained a very large web page about him.

I’ll get in trouble with some Catholics for writing this introduction, as supposedly “compromised” or “liberal” or “too soft” or “indifferentist.” So be it. It’s not true. The two things (apologetics and ecumenism) are not mutually exclusive. I defend Catholic teachings at every turn. I accept all of them, as the “fullness of Christianity,” as we say. 

Lastly, Protestants with whom I have debated or otherwise interacted with have borne witness to my ecumenical attitude, friendliness, and lack of hostility towards them: 

Dave Armstrong is a former Protestant Catholic who is in fact blessedly free of the kind of “any enemy of Protestantism is a friend of mine” coalition-building . . . he’s pro-Catholic (naturally) without being anti-Protestant. (“CPA”: Lutheran [LCMS] professor of history, 7-12-05)

Dave Armstrong writes me really nice letters when I ask questions. . . . Really, his notes to me are always first class and very respectful and helpful. . . . Dave Armstrong has continued to answer my questions in respectful and helpful ways. I thank the Lord for him. (The late Michael Spencer, an evangelical Protestant, aka “The Internet Monk”, on the Boar’s Head Tavern site, 27 and 29 September 2007)

You are a very friendly adversary who really does try to do all things with gentleness and respect. For this I praise God. (Nathan Rinne (Lutheran apologist [LCMS] )

Whether one agrees with Dave’s take on everything or not, everyone should take it quite seriously, because he presents his arguments formidably. (Lutheran Pastor Ken Howes [LCMS], 12-19-13)

I’m not trying to “puff myself up” at all; I’m merely noting that we can have a great deal of honest disagreement with each other (even profoundly so, as below), while not having distrust or personal suspicion or dislike, let alone demonizing one another and attributing bad faith or an evil motivation to each other. It too often happens on both sides, and I utterly condemn that. We remain brothers and sisters in Christ. I can truly rejoice in all of the many good things in Protestantism, while I severely criticize (without rancor or derision) what I think are errors within it. I can personally admire many things about a given Protestant while completely disagreeing with him in the usual areas. And I would hope for the same approach coming back to me as a Catholic.

I guess, to sum all this up, I would say that I can’t really “celebrate” the “[Protestant] Reformation” in the way that Protestants do, on this 500th anniversary (we simply don’t feel the same about it on a fundamental level, and it would be dishonest to say otherwise), but I definitely can and do celebrate the many specific truly Christian attributes and true beliefs held by many individual Protestants as sincere, committed, Spirit-filled disciples of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And I think that when someone like fellow Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin defends the notion of a joint “commemoration” of the “Reformation” (as opposed to a joint “celebration”) — and is trashed by anti-ecumenical reactionary Catholics for doing so — this is essentially what he means by that: rejoicing in the actual common ground that exists and not contending that Protestantism is an evil thing through and through, with no good in it at all.

I’m not celebrating all those “good things” that we have in common in this particular paper, but I have many times elsewhere, and so wanted to note that starting out, before embarking on criticisms, so folks will know what my overall “spirit” is. It’s like giving a strong criticism of an admired friend or spouse: one often starts out by noting many good things about the person, to provide a larger positive context to the well-intentioned constructive criticism.

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I commend Andrew for being candid about some of the shortcomings of early Protestantism:

Not all events during the Reformation are praiseworthy, nor were its leaders always models of Christian character. For example, a group of reformers, derisively called, “Anabaptists” were persecuted and martyred by their fellow reformers. The Thirty Years’ War was a bloody display of political conflict and exploitation under the guise of religion. Even antisemitism saw a renewed vibrancy during the Reformation. These matters must not be glossed over.

I also appreciate his initial disclaimer:

Granted, these are gross oversimplifications of complex historical-theological matters. A number of them are in fact contested.

1. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION RELOCATED SPIRITUAL AND THEOLOGICAL AUTHORITY TO SCRIPTURE.

. . . the Reformers were appealing to the revelation of God as the final arbiter of truth, against the claim of papal infallibility from Rome and the abuse of tradition insofar as it conflicted with biblical teaching. 

The problem is that the Bible itself doesn’t teach that it alone is the infallible authority (as sola Scriptura holds). In other words, it’s a self-defeating, internally contradictory point of view. Nor is the Catholic view one that holds Church or tradition as above, or superior to the Bible. We never denied that the Bible had a profound authority. Our view is that authority or the rule of faith is a combination of Bible-tradition-Church: what is known as the “three-legged stool.” We simply hold that there is a need for authoritative, “the buck stops here” interpretation of the unique inspired revelation of Scripture. In the biblical (and historic Catholic) view the inspired, infallible Bible is interpreted by an infallible, divinely guided Church, which in turn infallibly interprets and formulates the true doctrinal (apostolic) tradition.

Because Protestantism doesn’t allow that in its rule of faith, it keeps hopelessly dividing and can never resolve its doctrinal disputes. That’s not God’s will, who desired that the entire one true Church would be “one” in doctrine and belief. Protestantism has a lesser form of the same notion, by formulating authoritative creeds and confessions (e.g., the Lutheran Book of Concord). But they are only as good as one denomination. That’s the problem.

There are literally scores of biblical and logical arguments against sola Scriptura. I wrote an entire book consisting of a hundred of these, and in a second book I took on two of the most renowned historical defenders of the doctrine. Here are three of my favorite arguments, and ones I consider among the best:

Matthew 16:18-19 (RSV) And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. [19] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

There is such a thing in the Bible as “the Church” and it was established by Jesus Christ Himself, as His own Church. St. Peter and the other apostles (of whom bishops and priests are successors) were given the power to bind and loose: Jewish rabbinical terms for penance (binding) and forgiveness  extended by a representative of God (loosing). These decisions corresponded with the decrees or will of heaven itself (that is, God). Therefore, such power is indicative of a strong view of the authority of the Church. Another notable element in this passage is the concept of the “powers of death” not being able to prevail against the Church. This means that the Church (not just individual Christians, but the collective entity) will always emerge victorious in its spiritual and theological battles.

Acts 16:4 As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem.

St. Paul didn’t simply hand out Bibles. He also proclaimed an authoritative Church decision, made at the Jerusalem Council, which is described in Acts 15:1-30. The “apostles and elders” (15:6), representing the “whole church” (15:22) gathered, much as bishops in our time got together at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). The main question they dealt with was whether Gentile Christian converts were required to be circumcised and to observe the entire Jewish Law.

The Church in its council decided that it was not necessary, with the participants confidently proclaiming, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” The Holy Spirit guided the process (cf. Jn 16:13). St. Paul then went out and proclaimed what the council (himself included) had decided, to be observed as a binding decree. If that’s not infallible Church authority, it’s difficult to imagine what would be. If God approved of such Church-wide decisions in the early Church, why not also today? Why would that cease? It makes no sense to argue that it all went away and that we were left to fend for ourselves as mere individuals.

1 Timothy 3:15 . . . the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.

Truth is truth. It cannot be error, by its very essence and definition. Knowing what truth is, how can its own foundation or pillar or bulwark or ground, be something less than total truth (since truth itself contains no falsehoods, untruths, lies, or errors)? It cannot. It’s impossible, as a straightforward matter of both logic and plain observation. A stream cannot rise above its source.

Therefore, we must conclude that if the Church is the foundation of truth, the Church must be infallible, since truth is infallible, and the foundation cannot be less great and strong than that which is built upon it. Truth cannot be built upon any degree of error whatever because that would make the foundation weaker than the superstructure above it.

2. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION CHALLENGED HOW PERSONS GAINED RIGHT STANDING WITH GOD.

Every dimension of salvation depended exclusively on God’s grace. This was in contrast to the late medieval edifice of penitential deeds that could be performed in order to absolve a person from sin or shorten their time (or their deceased family members’ time!) spent in purgatory. This distortion of Christian teaching, popularly called salvation by works, culminated in jingles that could be heard on town streets intended to stir lay people to action: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” . . . A purgatory industry was set up to exchange monetary gifts for forgiveness.

This point alone is a treasure trove of several classic Protestant myth-whoppers. Briefly: Catholics do not deny grace alone at all. All salvation is by God’s grace through the blood of our Lord and Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ on the cross, for our sake. Any good thing we do must be preceded by and enabled by God’s grace. Trent teaches this very strongly. Thus, we do not teach salvation by works (the heresy of Pelagianism), though we’ve been falsely accused of it for 500 years. We teach that faith without works is dead, just as St. James does, and also St. Paul.

There are various treasured myths about Johann Tetzel and indulgences as well. He got a few things wrong, but there are also lies told about him. I wrote an article about the topic, published in The Catholic Herald. Indulgences themselves have a straightforward biblical basis. The famous saying attributed to him has not been proven as a matter of solid historiography. But this doesn’t stop Protestants from repeating the reputed saying ad infinitum. He was in part raising money to build St. Peter’s in Rome. But we never hear about how Protestants simply stole thousands of Catholic churches. That saved them from a lot of labor and having to raise money, didn’t it? Luther breezily justified the immoral theft by stating, “If they are not the church but the devil’s whore that has not remained faithful to Christ, then it is irrefutably and thoroughly established that they should not possess church property.”

Why must Protestants so often have to lie about Catholics in order to try to magnify themselves? This shouldn’t be necessary at all.  If indeed, Protestantism is the superior, more biblical and true system, then this would be established in argument without having to create straw men and caricatures of those who honestly disagree.

3. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION MADE LITURGY AND CHURCH SERVICES ACCESSIBLE TO LAY PEOPLE.

For centuries worship was performed exclusively in Latin across Western Europe, in spite of its knowledge being limited to clergy and cultural elites. Some clergy themselves knew the language poorly, and thus recited the mass inaccurately and rather flippantly.

This criticism has some amount of validity; however, the central point of the Mass was Holy Communion, and the participants usually knew what was taking place; they could also learn the various chants for the standard portions of the Mass. Moreover, the homilies were widely preached in the vernacular, starting in the 12th century, and missals in the vernacular became more common in the later middle ages. As one who has attended many Latin Masses in my 27 years as a Catholic, I can attest that the homilies were in English, and we had a program or book with the English translations of every part of the Mass. As soon as vernacular missals became available, anyone who could read could know what was being said. As literacy spread, that became more widely the case.

Besides, if indeed Protestants were teaching a great deal of false doctrine (as we believe), it is hardly an improvement for the masses to hear false doctrine in their own language. What good is that? In other words, the more important consideration was whether true doctrine was taught, more so than a vernacular liturgy. People usually pay the most attention to preaching, anyway. It’s still like that today, and Catholic homilies were mostly in the vernacular for four centuries prior to the “Reformation.”

Furthermore, while the Eucharistic bread was given to everyone present, the wine was limited to the clergy, as it was considered to be worthy of more reverence than the bread. 

Catholics believe that the whole Body of Christ is present in both the consecrated host and consecrated cup. Because of hygienic reasons, it was decided to stop most public consumption of the chalice. I have defended the idea of one element only from the Bible. Again, we would say that the much more important thing was receiving the actual Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion rather than not doing so in a Protestant service that offered the cup, because the Protestants no longer believed in the Real Presence, or did (as with Lutherans and many Anglicans) but didn’t actually possess it due to lack of proper ordination. Thus, the key is to determine what the true biblical teaching is, and where one can receive the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

4. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION EXPOSED PROFOUND CORRUPTION IN CHURCH LEADERSHIP.

Yes, there was lots of sin in Catholic leadership in those days; no question. But of course, there was scarcely any improvement, and often an even worse state of affairs among Protestants, and (importantly) this was freely admitted by men like Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon. One of the so-called “reformers”: Zwingli, was quite the playboy and lady’s man. Melanchthon was constantly in tears, over the sins and divisions and tragedies of the “Reformation.” One can only get so much mileage out of the “sin argument.” Martin Luther also constantly complained about his own followers, and stated outright: “The manner of life is as evil among us as among the Papists; wherefore we strive not with them by reason of the manner of life, but for and about the doctrine.” He described his Lutherans as “ingrates” who deserved only God’s “wrath” and his hometown of Wittenberg (remember the famous 95 theses on the door, etc.?) as “Sodom” and filled with “filth”.

The year before he died (1545), he wrote: “I am tired of this city and do not wish to return.” That’s after 28 years of “reform” in his own town, where the whole thing started. Not very glorious, is it? Luther says, “See how foolishly the people everywhere behave towards the Gospel, so that I scarcely know whether I ought to continue preaching or not.” And he says, “There is now nowhere such an amount of earnestness under the Gospel, as was formerly seen among Monks and Priests.” In a 1533 sermon (First Sunday of Advent: Matthew 21:1-9), he lamented: “the people are now more dissolute, avaricious, unmerciful, impure and wicked than previously under the papacy.” These statements can be multiplied in great abundance.

5. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION AFFIRMED THE IMMEDIACY OF GOD’S PRESENCE THROUGH THE MEDIATION OF CHRIST.

For centuries lay people were taught that the holiness of Christ made him unapproachable. Between Jesus and everyday people, therefore, must stand a host of other mediators, including intercessory saints and priests. This led to several unhealthy practices, including penitential pilgrimages, the use of relics as talisman, and the cult of saints. 

Again, what is to be determined is the biblical view of all these things. We can’t just accept the premise (“there can be no intermediary practices or saints between a man and God”) for no reason other than that Protestant man-made tradition (devised 15 centuries after Christ) holds it. The Bible clearly provides an explicit basis for relics. Therefore, Catholics believe it, and have every reason to. It’s the same Bible that Protestants claim is their sole authority.  But they don’t follow it in the many cases where their own tradition denies it and claims something contrary to it.

It’s the same Bible that commands us to get an elder of the Church to pray for us if we are sick (not to go straight to God only): “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him” (Jas 5:14). Two verses later, we are taught: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.” The example of the prophet Elijah was given, who could stop the rain for three-and-a-half years and cause it to start again. Thus, we find a very holy person to pray for us, rather than go right to God, because their prayers have more power. That’s virtually the whole doctrine of communion of saints right there.

All of a sudden, we have intermediaries between us and God: the very thing that the article insinuates is a bad thing. The Apostle Paul refers to “the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you” (Eph 3:2). So now he is  a “mini-mediator” between us and God, too? Why can’t we get the grace straight from God? The Bible doesn’t present that as the only way, or always necessarily the best way. Penance, and the invocation, intercession, and veneration of saints and angels are also all quite biblical. The saints in heaven are more alive than we are, as Jesus and Paul teach, and so they help us, because they are perfected in charity. If we have to choose (on a given issue) between the Bible and the novelties of Protestant man-made tradition, Catholics choose the Bible.

6. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION AFFORDED WOMEN LEADERSHIP AND INFLUENCE IN THE CHURCH.

The Anabaptist tradition, also known as the Radical Reformation, emphasized the role and calling of the Holy Spirit on the life of the believer, and therefore welcomed women as ministers, including in preaching roles. . . . While the majority of the Protestant Reformation continued to limit women’s leadership, some streams laid the groundwork for gift-based rather than gender-based roles.

The Bible and Catholicism teach that the genders are different; not unequal. God intended different roles for them. Catholicism takes a back seat to no one in this respect. We regard Mary the mother of Jesus as the highest creature of all. We have many women saints. We have four female Doctors of the Church, which means people who have these qualities:

1) holiness that is truly outstanding, even among saints;

2) depth of doctrinal insight; and

3) an extensive body of writings which the church can recom­mend as an expression of the authentic and life-giving Catholic Tradition.

The four are: Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Therese of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen. All of these women occupy teaching roles in the Catholic Church far higher than a mere female pastor among Protestants. There is no woman in the Protestant world who has remotely the stature or influence of a St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) or Dorothy Day or St. Edith Stein, or Mother Angelica. It’s immediately absurd to even suggest such a thing.

7. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION MADE THE BIBLE ACCESSIBLE TO LAY PEOPLE.

Until the Reformation, the only Bible readily available to the Western church was the Latin Vulgate. . . . That began to change when Wycliffe translated the Bible into the vernacular in the 15th century. Following his example, Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German.

This is a massive, spectacularly incorrect myth (in bald terms, a big fat lie). I’ve written about it quite a bit, so I need not take too much space here. Between 1466 (i.e., shortly after Gutenberg’s movable-type printing press arose in 1440) and 1517 fourteen translations of the Bible were published in High German, and five in Low German. Between 1450 and 1520 there were also ten French translations, and Bibles in Belgian, Bohemian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Russian. 25 Italian versions (with express Church sanction) appeared before 1500. See:

Were Vernacular Bibles Unknown Before Luther?

Catholic Church: Historic “Enemy” of the Bible?

Did Luther Rescue the Bible in German from Utter Obscurity? (National Catholic Register)

8. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION HELPED PROPEL THE SPREAD OF LITERACY ACROSS THE CONTINENT.

The Protestant Reformation helped propel the spread of literacy, since one of its primary emphases was personal piety based on the appropriation of Scripture. Furthermore, Protestants made use of catechisms for children, which encouraged reading. In Germany, literacy rates ranged between only 5-30% before the Reformation (source). That rate quickly rose thereafter, since Protestants were “people of the book.” 

To make the “Reformation” a primary cause of this is greatly exaggerated. I agree that it played a role, but not more so than technological advances like the printing press, growing literacy rates in large part because of it, and more advanced educational opportunities. Literacy was not markedly different in Protestant countries, compared to Catholic. The literacy rates in England: the quintessential Protestant country which executed multiple hundreds of folks for simply being Catholics and outlawed Catholicism till 1829, does not suggest this at all. According to an article on the topic:

[L]iteracy rates in England grew from 30 percent of about 4 million people in 1641 to 47 percent of roughly 4.7 million in 1696. As wars, depressions and disease riddled 18th century Europe, the pace of literacy growth slowed but continued upwards, reaching 62 percent among the English population of roughly 8 million by 1800.

That’s about 265 years since the English “Reformation” and still not even two-thirds of the English public could read.

According to an article that provides extensive historical data about literacy in Europe, the “Reformation” doesn’t seem to have been a key or decisive factor. For example, literacy in Catholic France between 1475 and 1500 grew from 6% to 10.5%, whereas in Germany it grew from 9-12%: both trends before Protestantism ever began (I would say, due to the printing press). In 1550, after 33 years of Protestantism, the rate in France was higher than in Germany (19 to 16%). In 1600 and 1650 they were just a percentage point or two apart. Then Germany pulls ahead a bit: usually 5-10 points higher, from 1650 till about 1860, when France pulls ahead slightly, all the way till our time. But Germany was still roughly half-Catholic (it never went totally Lutheran), so these statistics in no way support a marked superiority of literacy in Protestant countries.

Most nations, of whatever religion, trended significantly upward in literacy after 1750, and this can hardly be attributed to Protestantism. It’s simply not a decisive factor. The Netherlands was also, historically, a mixed Catholic-Protestant country.  In 1947 it was 44% Protestant and 39% Catholic. It had an 85% literacy rate in 1750, compared to 54% in Protestant England, 48% in Protestant Sweden and 38% in Germany. I would say that this argument is an irrelevancy; a non-starter: clearly inconclusive towards one side or the other based on historical data. Several other factors seem to have far more of a causal effect (economics probably being a major one).

9. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION RECONFIGURED THE CHURCH-STATE RELATIONSHIP AWAY FROM CHRISTENDOM.

In 1534, English Parliament passed the English Act of Supremacy, which made King Henry VIII head of the English church. On the surface this solidified the church-state relationship. In reality, it broke England’s ties to Rome as a religious-political power and moved to secularize the state. Once Protestant princes throughout Germany broke with Rome (and the Holy Roman Empire), they also felt empowered to carve their own paths to power, independent of religious authorities. One of these paths was the Parliament system, which came to legitimize rulers. 

How this is seen as some sort of advance is a mystery to me. In reality, it led to 1) secularization, which is not a good thing from any Christian perspective, and/or 2) (as alluded to) too much secular governmental power (often, virtually, caesaropapism, which had been a huge problem in Eastern Christianity and Orthodoxy for centuries). In their rush to “diss” the papacy , Luther, Calvin, and Henry VIII substituted far more dictatorial autocracies. In England, this resulted in a bloodbath, with an estimated 80% of the country forced to accept Protestantism against their will, under penalty of treason and horrible torture and death if they did not. Even Shakespeare had to hide his Catholicism.

There were at least 430 Catholic martyrs under Butcher Henry, from 1534-1544. “Bloody Queen Bess” (Elizabeth) continued the trend, with at least 312 known Catholic martyrs, from 1558-1603. There were also 444 Irish martyrs who were slaughtered by English Protestants between 1565-1713. Luther started out as a champion of freedom of religion and expression, and quickly gave that up after the massive Peasants’ Revolt of 1525-1526 (of which he arguably was a significant causative factor, through regrettable violent rhetoric). He became virtually a state absolutist after that and after 1530 advocated the death penalty for “heretics” like the Anabaptists. But even he is on record decrying the princes who replaced the bishops on Germany. Luther wrote about princes in 1523:

You must know that from the beginning of the world a wise prince is a rara avis, and still more so a pious prince; they are generally the greatest fools or the worst rascals on earth therefore, as regards them we may always look out for the worst and expect little good from them . . .

Yet this was his choice as a class to replace Catholic bishops. One could see where that would lead. His best friend and successor Philip Melanchthon complained (as early as 1530) quite a bit about the princes who had taken over for the Catholic bishops in Germany, and actually wished that the bishops would return. He wrote to a friend on 31 August 1530:

Oh, would that I could, not indeed fortify the domination, but restore the administration of the bishops. For I see what manner of church we shall have when the ecclesiastical body has been disorganized. I see that afterwards there will arise a much more intolerable tyranny [of the princes] than there ever was before.

If the insinuation is that parliamentary government is a result of Protestantism, this is untrue. The article on its history in Wikipedia notes precursors in the democracies of ancient Greece and Rome, and other early quasi-parliaments. In Anglo-Saxon England, from the 7th to 11th centuries, there was an institution called the  Witenaġemot (“meeting of wise men”):

The Witenagemot was an assembly of the ruling class whose primary function was to advise the king and whose membership was composed of the most important noblemen in England, both ecclesiastic and secular. The institution is thought to represent an aristocratic development of the ancient Germanic general assemblies, or folkmoots. In England, by the 7th century, these ancient folkmoots had developed into convocations of the land’s most powerful and important people, including ealdormen, thegns, and senior clergy, to discuss matters of both national and local significance.

The overview article also notes:

The Cortes of León from year 1188 was a parliamentary body in the medieval Kingdom of León. According to the UNESCO Memory of the World Programme, it is the oldest documentary manifestation of the European parliamentary system. . . .

In England, Simon de Montfort is remembered as one of the fathers of representative government for holding two famous parliaments. The first, in 1258, stripped the King of unlimited authority and the second, in 1265, included ordinary citizens from the towns.

Once again, then, we see no vast improvement in the state of affairs in Protestant countries, as a result of this renewed caesaropapism, and much misery. Whatever good was in it, already had been developed centuries before Protestantism was ever dreamt of and long before Luther was even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

10. THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION CAUSED THE ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH TO INITIATE ITS OWN REFORM.

Referred to as the Counter-Reformation, those inside the traditional structures of the church responded to the Protestant movement by attempting to reform itself. There were many pious groups who identified with Rome yet nonetheless knew something was wrong with the life of the church. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was one such reactionary meeting, and other efforts to correct abuses, clarify Catholic doctrine, renew the spirituality of its societies, properly train its priests, beautify its liturgy and art, and spread the Christian faith were all attempts to re-order the church to be true to itself and to God. New religious orders such as the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) were founded to help carry these out.

There is a bit of truth to this; however, the Church had continually developed and reformed itself in its ecumenical councils, all the way back to Nicaea in 325. The historical pattern shows that it almost certainly would have done so again, roughly when it did at Trent (perhaps a little later), whether or not the Protestant Revolt had occurred, because it had gone through several recurring cycles of decadence and decline, followed by spiritual revival and reform. “Bad centuries” were inevitably followed by much better ones (which gives me much hope for this 21st century).

Of course, Protestants call our internal reform, the “Counter-Reformation” because they define historical terms according to their own frame of reference (the atheists and secularists later did the same thing with their term, “Enlightenment” and pejorative use of “dark ages” and ludicrous attribution of all ills of that period to the Church). Protestants claim the real reformation of the universal Church, whereas ours is merely a “reaction” or “counter” to theirs. We’re simply tagging along; trying to get into the big leagues. We call it the “Catholic Reformation.”

Yet — if we are to talk of “reform” — what have the Protestants ever been able to accomplish in their gatherings and synods (few though they may be)? Not much at all. They fought amongst themselves at the Marburg Colloquy of 1529 (Luther vs. Zwingli as regards the Eucharist), and with themselves and Catholics at the Diet of Augsburg (1530), and the Diet of Regensburg (1541) and Colloquy of Poissy (1561). They accomplished little or nothing, while the Council of Trent brought about real and lasting reform and spawned vigorous new movements (as even the article I am critiquing acknowledges) and massive evangelism of the new world, among other things (while Protestants showed little interest in world evangelism).

Then at length, the Protestants offered the world the spectacle of the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), in which Calvinists anathematized the Arminians (a vast majority of today‘s Protestants) who dared to disagree with their extreme and false doctrines. This was no Kumbaya / “isn’t it great that we’re all one big happy family and not Catholics?!” lovefest among fellow Protestants who had honest disagreements, to be amiably worked out over ale or rum, with chicken legs, by a warm fire.

No; the Arminians were denounced in no uncertain terms, just as they had denounced the errors of Calvinists, with implications on both sides that the others were seriously deficient Christians, if at all (which extreme acrimony had always been the case among Protestants right from the beginning). And as usual, Protestantism had no way to resolve the dispute except mutual denunciations and further separation and division, which is no resolution at all.

Thus, claiming that Catholic reform at Trent was because of Protestantism (when we were having councils just about every century anyway), and given the fact that Protestants had this sordid, unfortunate history of never solving their own doctrinal chaos and disagreement, with nary a successful pan-Protestant synod of any size to be pointed to as successful, is a bit of a stretch, to put it mildly. Meanwhile, we continue to have councils — as we have for now 1700 years — in which we reform and renew ourselves (Vatican II being the most recent).

***

Photo credit: Wartburg Castle (11th-14th c.) in Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany: where Luther clandestinely lived and translated the New Testament into German from Greek (May 1521 to March 1522). [Max Pixel / CC0 Public Domain]

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