October 31, 2017, the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation has generated a plethora of books about Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Some of these books portray Luther as the great champion of Christian freedom; others present him as the arch heretic who led the rebellion against the Catholic Church that not only caused a massive rupture in Christendom but planted the seeds of the eventual secularization of the West. Speaking from the Catholic perspective, Gerhard Cardinal Muller, former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said in a recent book entitled The Cardinal Muller Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, “Strictly speaking, we Catholics do not have any reason to celebrate October 31, 1517, the date that is considered to be the beginning of the Reformation that led to the rupture in western Christianity. If we are convinced that revelation has been preserved, in its entirety and unchanged, through Scripture and tradition in the doctrine of the faith, in the sacraments, in the hierarchic constitution of the Church by divine right, founded on the sacrament of holy orders, we cannot accept that there are sufficient reasons to separate from the Church.” In order to better understand Luther and the Protestant Reformation and the momentous effect this event has had on the course of Western history right down to the present age, I will recommend a number of recent and classic books on the subject.
Joseph Pearce, the doyen of Catholic biographers, has authored highly acclaimed biographies of G.K.Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S.Lewis, and many others. In his most recent book, Heroes of the Catholic Reformation: Saints Who Renewed the Church, Pearce has written a beautiful and inspiring work about the great saints of the Catholic Counter Reformation. He begins his book by clarifying the term “Reformation”: “One of the biggest mistakes that a student of history can make is to confuse the so-called English ‘Reformation’ with its namesake on the continent. Whereas the Protestant Reformation in Europe was animated by the genuine theological differences that separated those who followed Luther or Calvin from those who accepted the apostolic and ecclesial authority of Catholicism, the so-called ‘Reformation’ in England was animated solely by the political ambitions and lustful appetites of the king.” The central thesis of Pearce’s book is that the Protestant Reformation is a misnomer, for it was not a reform but a revolution that rejected the authority of the Church, promulgated many false doctrines, and caused a massive division among Christians. The true reform of the Church, contends Pearce, had already begun before Luther’s rebellion and continued in response to the Protestant Revolt. The book consists of short biographies of many of the major and some of the minor heroes and heroines of this historic period. There are portraits of the English martyrs Thomas More, John Fisher, Edmund Campion, Robert Southwell, and Margaret Clitherow. There are illuminating essays on the remarkable priest St. Philip Neri, the outstanding bishop Charles Borromeo and the wise and saintly Pope St. Pius V. And there are splendid portraits of the three of the most important Spanish Counter Reformation saints: St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, the two great Carmelite reformers and mystics. At a time when the Catholic Church desperately needed strong witnesses to the faith, God called forth these amazing men and women, true models of holiness, to renew and reform the Church.
|John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila|
A unique historical survey that I would enthusiastically recommend is Benjamin Wiker’s The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know. The author begins his book by announcing that after five hundred years the Reformation is coming to an end because Christians today are forced to focus on what unites us in light of the growing persecution of all Christians by the militantly secular culture of the West and the anti-Christian culture of Islam. The purpose of this enlightening book is to help the reader understand those historical factors that led to the Protestant Reformation: factors such as the temporal rule of the papal states and the papal corruption that ensued. Other events included the weakening of the papacy when popes abandoned Rome and lived at Avignon in southern France from 1305 to 1377. That was followed by the approximately 40 year Western Schism when three cardinals all claimed to be the legitimate pope. Wiker highlights the “bad popes”, especially that particular brand of corruption associated with the Renaissance. He sets the ecclesial crisis within several historical movements of the day. There were the political leaders who were greatly enriched by the looting of Catholic monasteries and convents. There was the impact of the Islamic threat in Europe, the rise of atheism in the Renaissance, the important role played by the printing press, and the devastating effect of the Thirty Years War. It is Wiker’s intention that a deeper understanding of the historical background will allow us to see those old foes of Christianity in a contemporary light. Western secularism and radical Islam are still here.
Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society is edited by historian John C. Rao. This work is a collection of essays from a group of international scholars. It surveys the damage caused by Luther and his revolt on every aspect of civilization: politics, economics, education, and society in general. Unlike Wiker’s book which is an attempt to find common ground between Catholics and Protestants, these essays are without exception polemical, explaining (and quite accurately) just how devastating the heretical views of Luther were in their destructive impact on the Church and society. Of the twelve essays in this book the three most impressive are: Thomas Stark’s :"Man as a Victim of a Divine Tyrant: Luther’s Theology of a Self-Contradicting God”; John C.Rao’s “A Necessary Reform, Depraved From Birth”; and Msgr. Ignacio Barreiro- Carambula’s “Negative Liberty, Protestantism, and the War on Nature."
Here is the historian Rao on the intertwined defects of Luther's anthropology and ecclesiology. “From the total depravity of men Luther deduced the necessity of viewing the church not as the visible Body of Christ, hierarchically organized , with a teaching and sacramental life guided by the clergy in aid of people seeking sanctity. The church, for him, was only a simple collection of baptized individuals ...who had to place all of their hope in an extrinsic and unmerited justification, offered from the pure will and grace of God, without the participation of men, who remained sinners even in Heaven itself. As a result, the international Mystical Body of Christ, with its cycle of penances, indulgences, and good works, became for him an enormous hoax of the devil.”
For philosopher Thomas Stark, it is Luther's confusion about sin, agency, and human nature that divorces him from the Christian tradition. "What, then, is the very foundation of Luther’s thought? The whole theology of Martin Luther centers on sin and the possibility of justification of the sinner before God. However, an analysis of Luther’s concept of sin leads to the recognition that Luther—in contrast to the entire ecclesial teaching of tradition—does not base sin on an abuse of human freedom, because Luther denies freedom of the human will as such. The denial of human freedom is at the very heart of Luther’s anthropology....The second pillar of Luther’s anthropology, one that complements the complete denial of the freedom of the will: the doctrine of the total corruption of human nature. Luther sees a ‘deep crookedness and depravity and wickedness in our nature: yes, it is in itself a wounded nature, completely leavened by malice.’ The real reason for the corruption and wickedness of human nature is , according to Luther, however, not founded upon the original sin of Adam. Rather, the root cause for the depravity and sinfulness of man for Luther is the physical nature of man. In his anthropology Luther identifies the physical nature of man totally with that aspect of human corporeality that allows man to be inclined to sin, which St.Paul calls “the flesh” and which Luther calls ‘the most unsubstantial’ and ‘least valuable part’ of man.”
To mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a new English translation of Paul Hacker’s seminal work, (originally published in German in 1966) Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion has recently been reprinted with a Preface by Joseph Ratzinger. Hacker, a world renowned scholar, especially in the disciplines of philology and linguistics, and a professor at both the University of Bonn and the University of Munster, was raised Lutheran but after an intense immersion in the writings of Martin Luther and an equally intense study of the Church Fathers entered into full communion with the Catholic Church in 1962. Hacker’s book on Luther’s theological concept of faith remains one of the most scholarly critiques of Luther’s errant view of faith ever written and a very important contribution to true ecumenism. The twin pillars of the Protestant Reformation were “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone) and “Sola Fide” (Faith Alone). Ironically, neither of these two pillars are biblical, but rather anti-biblical. Hacker’s emphasis is on the second pillar. And in a very carefully researched work Hacker demonstrates convincingly that Luther’s understanding of faith was a distortion of Scripture and, in effect, the foundational idea that started a new religion and launched a great split in the religion of western Christendom. Not only did Luther in his German translation of the New Testament add the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, a word not in the original Greek, but he invented his own concept of faith: what Hacker calls “reflexive faith”. Hacker explains the traditional Catholic view of faith: “Pure Christian faith is an act of obedient self-donation. The believer surrenders himself to the transcendent God in the assent of adoration. The more his faith becomes mature through loving cooperation with God’s grace, the less is it possible for him to turn his attention back to himself within the act of faith.” But, says Hacker, Luther’s “reflexive faith, on the other hand...is directed to the Divine Person of Christ, but it is intended to recoil on the believer’s ego in order to evoke in him a consciousness of consolation and salvation.” It is not difficult to see in Luther’s new concept of faith the origins of subjective Christianity: each person will decide for himself what Christianity means. The over 40,000 Protestant denominations today should not be a surprise given the distorted view of faith espoused by Luther 500 years ago.
Perhaps the single most impressive new book on Luther and the Reformation to appear this year is Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Gregory, a professor of European History at the University of Notre Dame, is one of today’s finest historians on the period of the Reformation and Counter Reformation and the author of what is, I think, the single best book on this period: his magisterial 2012 work, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. In this new work, Professor Gregory’s principal thesis is that while Luther did not originally intend to start a revolution that is what he caused and that the Reformation still matters greatly if we are to understand the modern world. To quote Gregory, ”Regardless of our religious views, the Reformation remains important because we can’t understand secular and religious ideas and institutions today without it. What happened five centuries ago affects us today. If we want to know why the early twenty-first century is the way it is—and how it got this way—we need to understand the Reformation and its impact. The Reformation ended the Middle Ages and made the modern world—but not in any simple or straightforward way.” As Gregory makes clear, Luther, as well as Calvin and the other Reformers, would be horrified by the long-term consequences of the Reformation he set in motion 500 hundred years ago. Though unintended, the reform he started quickly morphed into an all out revolt against the papacy and the Catholic Church. The long term consequence of the Reformation was to transform Europe from a continent where religion was the center of life to the situation today where public life has been all but totally secularized and religion has been relegated to each individual’s private world view. How and why this secularization took place since and because of the Reformation is the central theme of Gregory’s new work. If I could recommend just one new book on Luther and the Reformation it would be Gregory’s. His scholarship is comprehensive, his research is meticulous, and he writes with great lucidity and verve.
In addition to these newer books, I would also encourage reading or rereading some of the classics on this important historical period. They include Hilaire Belloc’s two books: How the Reformation Happened and Characters of the Reformation; Fr. Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism; and Erik Erikson’s famous psychoanalytic study Young Man Luther. All of these works are engaging and enlightening and provide a deeper and richer understanding of the Reformation and its consequences.