Almost from the moment Luther called for a debate on the practice of indulgences, the Reformation has been subject to two types of powerful and antithetical narratives. There are the triumphalists who see Luther as one of the truly great and good, and there are the catastrophists who see him as one of history’s great villains.
Each narrative tradition is broad, and each varies in the triumphs or tragedies it lays at Luther’s door. Some of the triumphalists see him as engaged in a faithful recovery of the gospel. Others see him as a staging post on the way to many modern goods, from religious freedom to modern science. No Luther, no Reformation, no Western freedom.
The catastrophists, too, have various narratives. Early attacks focused on Luther’s alleged sexual appetites and saw his libido as key to his actions: Luther shattered the church because he wanted to break with his vows of celibacy. That the English Reformation was triggered by the marital antics of England’s Henry VIII only adds more grist to that particular mill. Recently, the catastrophist narrative has become more sophisticated and formidable, seeing Luther and the Reformers as setting in motion the patterns of thought and behavior that have led to the moral and political chaos we now see all around us.
The latter approach has gained considerable traction over recent years, in part because of the impressive scholarly work of Brad Gregory in his book The Unintended Reformation. It also has undoubted appeal at a time when traditional Christians see the Western narrative as a whole as being in a state of flux. Christianity in all its forms is declining. Even in general terms, it is hard to argue that the West to which the Reformation helped to give birth is the absolute meaning of history, as it once appeared to be. China, Russia, India, and Islam all offer alternatives to Western modernity, and all would seem at this moment to be gaining in strength even as the models offered by Europe and North America are weakening.
Yet catastrophist and triumphalist narratives, however sophisticated and nuanced the idiom, always suffer from a basic error: They oversimplify. To portray Luther as shattering church authority is to miss a simple historical truth: Church authority was already in a state of collapse and confusion by Luther’s day. Medieval Catholicism was a mess. Luther was responding to chaos, not creating it. Yet to portray Luther as recovering the pure gospel is really no better. It ignores his obvious connections to later medieval theology and the fact that he tore Protestantism itself in two, paving the way for the chaotic fragmentation we have today. Modern Evangelicals might portray him as one of their own, but they would have been no more acceptable to him than were the Zwinglians and Anabaptists of his own day.
But it was not Reformation theology alone that reshaped the world in the sixteenth century. Many other factors—factors formally independent of Reformation theology—made the Reformation a reality. They also helped bring about the modern world, warts and all, and would have done so without Luther’s distinctive presence on the historical stage. Take literacy. As people learn to read and write, they become more politically aware. As literacy rates rise, a clash with established structures of authority—structures predicated on the illiteracy of the masses—is never far away. You can have your thirteenth-century papacy, but only on the condition that less that 5 percent of the population can read. That does not appeal to me in the slightest. I would rather run the risk of pervasive interpretive pluralism with its attendant chaos, and yet be able to read and write.
In fact, I would argue that the single greatest enabler of the modern world’s attitude to religion is not some sixteenth-century Reformer. A more recent man must take responsibility. Henry Ford, not Henry VIII, is the guilty man. The Reformation may have familiarized the world with the concept of religious choice, but that choice became a reality for most people only with the advent of cheap and easy means of private transportation. It was the arrival of the internal combustion engine, and then the mass-produced automobile, that really changed everything. It altered our relationship to time, to geographical space, and to our communities and all that is contained therein. It was the motor car that truly freed people from the constraints of having to worship within walking distance of their home. The motor car made churches into choices, competing for customers in the marketplace of Sunday recreations. It turned us all, Protestant and Catholic alike, into consumerist Congregationalists.
On this 500th anniversary, Protestant triumphalists have no ground for comfort. The church is fragmented to such an extent that only the most radical Congregationalist can possibly see it as a good thing—and then only by perversely presenting the problem as the solution. But catastrophism is no more acceptable. It is a form of nostalgia, a kind of pre-Raphaelite aesthetic that sees the Middle Ages as a kind of Eden. Given the choice, I would rather live today, with analgesics, antibiotics, and easy access to education, than in the thirteenth—or indeed any earlier—century. But if we are truly to understand the problems the church faces in today’s world, and respond appropriately to them, we need to move beyond the blame game, and beyond seeing the matter in purely theological or ideological terms. It was the motor car, not Luther nor Calvin, that made the church just one more consumer choice. And therein lies the problem.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.