A friend and I have been corresponding, covering lots of different topics, but lately focusing on the Reformation. A question came up. Did the Reformation need to happen?
I don’t like that question (and I told my friend so), because “necessary” and “unnecessary” tend to distort our view of historical events. The Reformation happened, and for many good reasons, as well as some very bad ones. Luther was right about the abuses of indulgences, for example. And his essentially Augustinian insight into the primacy of grace was surely right as well. But were those and other reasons “enough”?
Enough for what? The Reformation isn’t a unified reality that can be either necessary or unnecessary. Certainly there were reasons enough to post the 95 theses, a public gesture akin to circulating a memo or writing a blog. And indeed they may have been reasons enough to reform aspects of worship and church practice. But enough to justify schism?
The Reformers knew, of course, that nothing justifies the division of the church, which is why they pinned the blame on Rome, as Rome did on them. It has to be so, for all agreed that it was necessary to deny that the church was divided—we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, not a divided one. This was achieved by denying that the other was legitimately church. But by my reading of the sixteenth century, this was a conclusion drawn from the reality of schism, not the reason why it occurred.
In the end, I don’t think we can answer the question of whether or not the Reformation schism was “necessary” or “justified.” In fact, I think these concerns deceive us about the real questions (better: help us maintain our self-deceptions). The Reformation is a done deal. The questions we should be asking are about our Christian vocations in the present. And for those of us who are formed by the Latin tradition that includes the legacy of the Reformation.
They’re not easy questions to answer. But I think we can, at least well enough to see what is necessary for you and me to do about the legacy of the Reformation. Should I remain loyal to the churches and confessions of the Reformation? Should I ignore or denounce that legacy? Should I draw upon it while in communion with the bishop of Rome? And so on in countless permutations.
It’s these sorts of questions—ones the concern what God wants us to do with the done deal of the history of his church—that we can answer with the force of a personal necessity.
Studying and thinking about the events of the sixteenth century can help. For that matter, the study of other periods of church history also sheds light on our ecclesial vocations. But they won’t provide the answer. That comes from a searching spiritual discernment that has as much to do with you and me as history and doctrine.