Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Letting Some of the Air Out of the Reformation Day Balloon

Note from CM: Here’s another post from Michael Spencer today on the Reformation, while I work on a piece for tomorrow that is timely — about the antisemitism in Europe during the Reformation, and Martin Luther’s complex and ultimately abhorrent perspective on the Jewish people.

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Tuesday with Michael Spencer
Letting Some of the Air Out of the Reformation Day Balloon (from 2007)

It’s fairly obvious that, at least among some Christians, “Reformation Day” is a new holiday to be celebrated with all the enthusiasm we once reserved for actual holidays. (Lutherans: Party on. You’ve earned it.) I’m waiting for the photos of the “Dress Like a Reformer” party at a reformed church near you.

I’ll admit to having donned the Luther costume and done the Reformation Day lecture for the students at our school on a number of occasions, and I don’t regret having done so. Most of what I said was true. Well….some of it.

In the past year, I’ve read a lot about the reformation and even more about Luther. I’m currently finishing off McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea– a popular history of Protestantism that’s right up to speed- and I’m almost done with Richard Marius’s Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, one of the most profitable biographies of Luther I’ve ever read and I read at least one every couple of years.

My reading on Luther and the Reformation has changed my mind about a lot of things. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but here’s the short list.

  • I no longer believe the Reformation, as it’s commonly described by Protestants, is the distinct event we’ve made it out to be.
  • I no longer believe Luther ever intended to slay the Catholic Church and establish the wonder of contemporary Protestantism.
  • I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.
  • I’m especially convinced that a lot of the typical “Luther story” is probably historically inaccurate. Not necessarily untrue, but plenty of mythology in the mix.
  • I am very sure that the humanist and Catholic contribution to the reform of Christianity has been considerably obscured in the creation of a Protestant mythology.
  • I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
  • I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
  • I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
  • I now believe that tradition is a very good word.
  • I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent. To act as if it was mostly a spiritual revival movement is naive.
  • I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.
  • I no longer believe the theology of the Reformers was the pinnacle of evangelicalism or is the standard by which Biblical truth itself is judged.
  • I can see huge omissions from the work of the reformers, such as a theology of cross-cultural missions and much more.
  • I believe it is embarrassing to turn the Reformers into icons. Calvin on a t-shirt should win an award for irony.
  • I am a Protestant and I always will be, but I no longer take the kind of juvenile pride in Protestantism I did in the past. Much is good, and much has not been good. We have no right to stand superior to any other Christians.
  • I want to understand how Catholic and EO Christians understand Protestantism, and I want to do so with a sense of humility.
  • I don’t believe in ecumenism at any cost, but I can no longer imagine being a Christian without a commitment to ecumenism on some level.
  • There are many sins associated with Protestantism that I need to admit and repent of.

Part of my Reformation Day will be spent contemplating what it means to say “One Lord; One Faith; One Baptism; One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.” Having a party celebrating the division of Christianity doesn’t really strike me as a something I want to do

15 thoughts on “Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Letting Some of the Air Out of the Reformation Day Balloon

  1. People need Old Stories of Mythic Heroes.
    And if they don’t have any, they’ll make them.

    When I was a kid, it was mythologized versions of historical figures — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln or Robert E Lee.

    Who have all been thoroughly deconstructed, leaving us with Justin Beiber, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, and Kim Kardashian.

    And (more healthy) all those Marvel Superheroes hitting the big screen, from Captain America to Black Panther.


  2. It’s a tacit admission that Christianity has lost cultural supremacy, and has to share its time slot with Hanukkah, which it always did, and now Diwali and sometimes Eid.

    I don’t have any problem wishing people a happy Diwali, or Hanukkah, or Chinese New Year, or whatever, but I don’t care for generic.


  3. “he’d make evil liberals say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays””

    for some reason, the feigned ‘offense’ some ‘christians’ take over folks using ‘Happy Holidays’ seems far more mean-spirited than it should . . . . . maybe because of the timing of the heightened mean-spiritedness or the complete lack of respect and empathy for those of another faith ?????

    why did these ‘christians’ have to make Christmas a time for this meanness?


  4. In the last days, I’ve heard and felt the catholic spirit speaking out of the mouths of members of The Tree of Life Congregation; their hearts are far more toward God than my own.


  5. “The level of Trumpolatry they were broadcasting was strange and surprising”

    Unfortunately, its neither strange nor surprising to those of us who have had long exposure to evangelical media. All he had to do was promise pro-life judges and say he’d make evil liberals say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and they’d forgive him anything.


  6. I thought all y’all were hyperventilating about Evangelicals and Trump, then I tuned in to a pretty standard-issue Christian radio station (non “positive hits”). The level of Trumpolatry they were broadcasting was strange and surprising, and this was a ‘responsible’ Evangelical station, not a TBN/Charisma derivative.

    Trump doesn’t bother me as much as he bothers y’all, I know, but still, this was wierd.


  7. And, if I may add to Luther’s Theses:

    The Reformation was a (probably) necessary evil.

    The Church (catholic) rediscovered Romans 6-8 and completely lost John 17.

    Personally, I want to hold on to both of those Scripture passages.


  8. … some of the evangelicals have sold out to some very heavy treatment of innocent people and that is not good for their souls, no.

    But they’ll have a Supreme Court that’ll repeal Roe v Wade, put Prayer back in Schools and the Sodomites and Fornicators back in their place! America will once more be CHRISTIAN(TM)!


  9. I’m big ‘C’ Catholic, but for some reason(s) I don’t fully understand, I feel connected to the Orthodox, to the Lutherans (I married one), to the Anglicans, and to the Jews (yes).

    I don’t feel compatible with strict literal fundamentalism or with heavily ‘patriarchal’ fundamentalist-evangelicals, no. For one thing, they seem far more controlling than pastoral, although likely that is how they do ‘pastoral’, but it seems harsh to me, what with all the judgment of ‘those other sinners’ and of many groups who are of different faiths, or ‘different’ in other ways from themselves. Too much ‘negativity’ in this group . . . they need the joy of the Gospel, but it gets drowned out by all the finger-pointing ‘hate speech’.

    I love some of the evangelicals I am familiar with although I don’t get their ‘trumpist’ leanings, no. I really have a problem with current ‘Republican’ values among many evangelical people because it doesn’t work for them, only for the politicians . . . . . some of the evangelicals have sold out to some very heavy treatment of innocent people and that is not good for their souls, no. But who am I to judge?

    I love the Quakers. Their contemplation, their reverential silences, their awesome SCHOOLS. They are better educators than we Catholics, in many respects (but we are good also).


  10. Wow. This post is such a honey pot for me. It’s hard to tell where to start.

    If you subtract Pentecostalism from Protestantism, which I would, Protestantism is quite nearly dead. Even in Asia, Africa and South America where Christianity in general is exploding. Presbyterianism is vigorous in Korea, and the Methodists are holding their own in the Chinese diaspora, but its hard to think of a place where classical Protestantism of either the Confessional or Anabaptist stripe shows any real sign of life.

    No “shamanism”. It’s more of an ideology than a religion.


  11. –> “I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.”

    Bingo! I’ve seen this played out with some friends several times.


  12. Ecumenism is a very serious concern. I always like a word that when you Wikipedia it, it says it’s a religious one. My favorite is inclusivism. Many people have crossed the Tiber for the very reason that is evident in Jesus’ prayer “that they may be one”. And God knows Catholicism with a big C has as many problems as others. Yet our faith is a catholic faith. Wesley said the catholic spirit gives cordial, hearty, fellowship to all whose hearts are toward God. Maybe you think that has too much latitude, but today it seems that people who might look toward Christianity have to consider that it does not have a catholic spirit. And a spirit of power relationships is widespread. And that is sad.


  13. On the topic of myths, Luther probably didn’t nail those theses on the door. The incident is first mentioned about 30 years later, and Luther himself never mentioned it.

    I grew up with the story and never questioned it, but when a few years ago I first saw the suggestion that it never happened, this carried the ring of truth. We love our origin stories. I run into this constantly in my early baseball research. Baseball was not invented by Abner Doubleday. Neither was it invented by Alexander Cartwright. These are myths. While we are at it, American football was not invented by Walter Camp. These myths provide satisfying, easily grasped stories. This gives them legs. That they aren’t true doesn’t change that.

    In the case of the Luther story, we have this vivid image of Luther forthrightly striding up to the church door, hammer in hand, giving us a single discrete event we can point to as where it all began. Whether or not it ever happened doesn’t have a chance of putting a dent into the story.


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