If You’re Going to Condemn the Reformation, Do It Like a Man

If You’re Going to Condemn the Reformation, Do It Like a Man October 31, 2016

“Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game”

-C. S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters”

So many of the popular critiques of the Reformation these days are weaselly and disingenuous. They presuppose that the Reformers were either wrong to take the stands theLuther_Burning_Papal_docsy did, or that their protest was over unimportant issues. But they never bother arguing for these positions. Rather, they just assume Protestant distinctives are false and move straight to denouncing them as “divisive,” or “schismatic.”

This is a bit like the Pharisees denouncing the infant Christian Church for tearing the Jewish world asunder. And the correct response echoes Gamaliel’s response to his fellows in Acts 5: What does it matter that Martin Luther’s movement causes division, if justification really is by faith alone? If this Reformation is from God, you can do nothing to stop it!

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, let me explain. Around Reformation Day, non-Protestants start complaining that Protestant distinctives (i.e., Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, etc.) divide Christendom. Nevermind that this presupposes a Protestant ecclesiology (that those outside the Roman Catholic Church are, in fact, part of Christ’s Body). The important thing is that it assumes Rome is basically right in identifying Protestant distinctives as errors.

Therein hides the weasel. Whenever someone says, “Sola Fide is a divisive doctrine, so you Protestants should give it up and come home,” they’re ignoring (or, perhaps, intentionally evading) the main issue. If Scripture teaches us one thing, it’s that God cares very little whether a given doctrine is divisive. Mostly, He cares whether it’s true. If Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity and the Truth incarnate, attracted primarily fishermen, and could not persuade more than two or three of the religious leaders to follow His teaching, we should hardly expect fallible humans to do better, even with truth entirely on their side. Yet this argument assumes we should.

Let me illustrate this by way of analogy. If the entire world was arguing that God is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and a group of “protesters” were kicked out of the institutional church for upholding the Trinity, would anti-Protestants ask these folks, “Why are you holding on to your divisive distinction between essence and persons?” Would they ask when this factious Trinitarian protest will end so Christendom can resume its sweet, organizational unity?

I should hope not. But that’s how anti-Protestants sound to Protestants when they make this sort of comment. Only by assuming that Rome was right and the Reformers wrong about the core issues of the Reformation can the argument from “unity” have any real force. Truth trumps unity. Every time.

Let me state this principle more boldly, still: No one should ever give up a doctrine they firmly believe simply because it divides people. To do so is to deny that doctrine or even propositional truth matter in the first place! Like Uncle Screwtape, those who urge us to abandon the Reformation because it is “divisive” are effectively whispering in our ears, “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.”

The only reasons a person should ever give up a divisive doctrine are a.) he becomes convinced that it is false, or b.) he becomes convinced that it’s a matter of secondary importance, i.e., not worth dividing the church over.

As long as neither of these criteria are fulfilled, he must remain steadfast on that doctrine. Anything less is the basest kind of cowardice and servility.

Still, someone may ask, isn’t disunity itself a sign of false doctrine? Can’t we condemn or at least criticize Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide on the basis that they have caused myriad fractures in the body of Christ?No. This still presupposes Rome’s position in order to argue for it. Which claimed “truth” of the Reformation, we might ask this critic, divides the church? Sola Fide? Sola Scriptura? Why these? Why not their Roman Catholic counterparts?

In order to argue that the Protestant gloss on justification or authority is divisive and therefore likely wrong, the critic must first assume that it was the Protestant doctrine, and not the Roman analog, which was an innovation. But even if one views the Reformation as a winnowing of pre-existing streams of thought on justification and authority, Rome undeniably chose one stream over and against the Reformers, thus fundamentally changing its position from one of latitude to narrowness. Even if one grants that the Tridentine doctrine of justification was not fundamentally new, it still represents a narrowing of the spectrum of allowable doctrines so as to exclude Protestants.

Only by assuming that Rome was fundamentally right on these questions and church history, and that the Reformers were unscrupulous innovators, can you paint Protestant distinctives as somehow more divisive than those of Rome.

These kind of weaselly, disingenuous arguments against Protestantism need to end. The question of whether a doctrine is divisive or not is entirely pointless. We should all drop the subterfuge and just debate whether or not these doctrines are true. That’s ultimately all that matters. Surely even the staunchest traditional Catholics will admit that if the Protestants were, in fact, right on justification, it was an issue worth dividing the church over. If the Protestants were and are right about justification, it doesn’t matter that our doctrine is divisive. We have the truth.

Image: H. Schile, Wikimedia Commons

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