The Reformers didn’t intend to split the Western church or to create new churches. Every one of them believed that the Church was one and catholic. Debating Catholics, they insisted they were the true catholics.
How did a Reformation committed to the gospel, catholicity, and unity shatter the Western church and dismantle medieval Christendom?
The Roman Catholic Church was one of the main culprits. Luther complained that his arguments were never engaged. When he appeared before Catholic authorities, they demanded that he recant. Luther was excommunicated within a few years of the Ninety-Five Theses, without receiving a serious, much less a sympathetic, hearing. Many Catholic reformers were squeezed out or silenced.
Among the what-might-have-beens of the sixteenth century, this one is central: What if the Catholic Church had recognized Luther, as many Catholics do today, as a “witness to the gospel”? What if the Catholic hierarchy had listened?
Another part of the answer is theological. God makes and remakes the world by breaking it in pieces. He created the world by separating light and darkness, waters above and below, land and sea. He made Eve by splitting Adam in two.
Every prophet comes to Israel with a sword. Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Jesus: All of them gathered people who would hear Yahweh’s word, and aroused hostility from those who closed their ears. Splits happen. Whenever God renews his Church, we can expect division.
Yet this shouldn’t be an excuse for Reformation divisions or a cause of complacency. God divides in order to join together. Adam becomes Adam-and-Eve so that the two might become one flesh. Israel and Judah separated but were reunited centuries later. Jews and Gentiles, divided by circumcision, were knit together as a new humanity through Jesus’s circumcision on the cross.
God creates and recreates by division, but that doesn’t justify every division. Some divisions are necessary. Some are legitimate but temporary. Some mutilate the body of Christ.
After the Reformers were pushed out of the Catholic Church, they could have maintained a unified reform movement. They didn’t. A decade after Luther’s Theses, German Lutherans and Swiss Reformed were beginning to follow different paths, to say nothing of the “Radical Reformers.”
The story of the Reformation’s internal fragmentation is a complicated one, but we can isolate one central thread: At the Colloquy of Marburg (1529), Luther and Zwingli reached an impasse on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Each side was convinced that it was defending the true Reformation and that the opposing side had compromised or distorted the gospel. They maintained separate traditions in order to preserve the gospel’s purity.
Two factors loom large in the perpetuation of Protestant division. The first is rhetoric. Without its lively, entertaining, penetrating polemics, the Reformation would never have succeeded. As Peter Matheson argues, Reformation polemic was liberating, clarifying, and empowering. Polemic was a tool of the powerless against entrenched powers, and Luther was its master.
But the Reformers eventually aimed their rhetorical weapons at each other, creating stark polarities and treating every dispute as a war of light and darkness, truth and error.
Reformation polemic descended into propaganda, which bolstered the group identity of separated communions by demonizing other churches. Lutheran and Reformed would often have been better served by gentle answers.
A second factor was confession-writing and confessionalization. Confessions are among the glories of the Reformation. In brief compass and precise formulas, documents such as the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Confession summarize Christian teaching.
Confessions were supposed to unify divided Protestants. The Formula of Concord ended the war between Lutheran and Lutheran, and the Consensus Tigurinus unified Swiss Protestantism.
Yet, in one of the ironic twists of Reformation history, every confession kept divisions alive. By defining Lutheran doctrine over against Reformed tendencies within Lutheranism, the Formula of Concord drove the Philippists (followers of Philip Melanchthon) underground or into Reformed churches. Written over against, confessions became a primary tool for continuing separate traditions.
Confessionalization—teaching and enforcing a confession—deepened divisions. It wasn’t enough to write a confession. Pastors had to be taught the confession, and mechanisms had to be developed to ensure that pastors continued to teach confessional doctrine after they were ordained.
Even in the best of circumstances, when an opposing viewpoint was treated sympathetically, confessionalization encouraged a party spirit. And circumstances weren’t always best. Professors and pastors aren’t always fair with their opponents. More often than was necessary, wise, or charitable, they adopted the severe rhetoric of the Reformers. Every difference was an absolute difference.
Marburg tried to unify the Protestant movement. Once Luther and Zwingli parted ways, separate Lutheran and Reformed traditions were maintained intentionally. After 1550, few on either side made any effort to bridge the Lutheran-Reformed chasm.
Forcibly expelled from the Catholic Church, divided into separate traditions, the Reformation failed in its initial and over-arching aim—to reform the whole Western church according to the gospel and to re-Christianize the Christian civilization of Western Europe.
The Reformation will not succeed until the wounds of the Reformation and post-Reformation (not to mention the pre-Reformation) church are healed. Protestantism will not reach its end until the Reformation’s divisions end.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.