As the Protestant church celebrates the 500 year anniversary of the Reformation, we can’t help but analyze the consequences of this historic act. Martin Luther had no way of knowing the ripple effect his act of defiance toward the Catholic Church would have—not only in the Christian world but also in broader western culture.
For better or worse, Luther set into motion a move of individualism that would grow to shape the nature of western Christian thought and worship. When Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg, the western church (and consequently the worldwide church) would never be the same.
And it’s not just the church that has felt the impact of those hammer raps. One could easily argue that Luther’s act paved the way for successive revolutions large and small alike. Things from America’s break from the English monarchy to the church’s modern practice of reading Scripture outside the context of a faith community can potentially be traced back to Luther. In fact, a recent CNN article makes a case for ideas such as democracy and capitalism stemming from Luther’s boldness.
Effects of the Protestant Reformation
While we have Luther to thank for key tenets of our faith like Sola Scriptura and justification by faith alone, I can’t help but think about what we left behind. In our haste to pull away from corruption and misguided theology, did we leave behind some good things? I’d like to propose a bit of a reformation of the Reformation (or rather, what has grown out of the Reformation). As we remember the incredible gift given to us by Luther, can we also consider the need to continue to reform as we prepare to be Jesus’s pure and spotless bride?
An Emphasis on Literalism over Symbolism
Before Luther, Scripture had not been translated into the common language yet. To an uneducated population—very few of which could even read their mother tongue—Latin was quite the stretch. Which is why educated priests were commissioned to teach people the Scripture. This is also why (to this day) when you go to a Catholic service, you will see the stations of the cross, meant to teach people about the story of Jesus and the incredible sacrifice he made for us. You may also see stained glass windows with depictions of stories in Scripture. You will also likely sing hymns that are oriented around Scriptural truths or stories from the Bible. These traditions are all rooted in the task of teaching illiterate people the principles of Scripture.
Then there is the ceremony of mass, which is highly symbolic in and of itself. As Father Augustine Tran explains on the Catholic Exchange, even the appearance of the altar is steeped in meaning:
We begin with the altar, which represents the body of Christ. The white cloth that covers the altar is Christ’s burial garment. When the priest kisses the altar, he is kissing Christ faithfully in contradiction to the kiss of Judas. The altar is a very strong symbol of the meal aspect of the Mass, because the Mass is a sacrificial meal as the Last Supper was. But the altar also looks like a tomb because it holds the relic of a saint. The ancient Christians celebrated Mass over the tombs of the Saints and martyrs to unite themselves with them, to ask for their intercessions, that they too would be just as faithful as the Saints and martyrs had been. That tradition continues today by putting small relics of Saints into our altars.
From the order of the service to the repeated rituals utilized, every service is designed to remind the participant of the sacrifice Jesus made for him or her. The atmosphere created in this kind of service is highly contemplative.
However, in the Protestant tradition, there is not as much emphasis on symbolism. Instead, the highlight of the Protestant service is the sermon, a literal experience of Scripture compared to a symbolic one that seems to envelop the whole service and allows for reflection. Intentional or not, a traditional Protestant service is concerned more with the cognitive and literal understanding of the gospel and Scripture.
Perhaps this more literal service was a byproduct of the fact that the Protestant tradition grew up with increasing access to personal copies of the Bible in the common language. Whereas the Catholic church did not develop with this luxury, the Protestant church did.
The Emphasis on the Individual Versus the Community
Another unintended consequence of the Reformation is the emphasis on the individual and what he or she decides to be true. Of course, we can appreciate Luther “going rogue” to address the abuses of the Catholic church and its leaders. His was essentially a one-man revolution against the establishment, and we can appreciate why he did it—especially after trying to articulate his concerns in a more collaborative way.
However, one has to wonder how we would be worshipping today had the Catholic church chosen to address Luther’s concerns. Within the context of community, the Reformation potentially could have produced a healthier, more unified church with the richness of symbolic tradition and empowerment by the Scripture and the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
It could have been a beautiful mix of appropriate individualism to challenge preconceived notions—and thus discover deeper truth—and a community knitted together by good, symbolic tradition and healthy accountability.
One has to wonder if all our church splits and divisions can be linked back to a conviction we feel to leave if and when change isn’t happening the way we feel it should. But we must consider: Do we leave too soon?
There is also the temptation we constantly fight against to take Scripture out of its context and apply it as it wasn’t intended to be applied. Whereas a person from a Catholic tradition might be more inclined to bring questions about Scripture to a priest who has studied the context of the Scripture and theology, there is the prevalent belief among Protestants that one can understand the complexities of Scripture on one’s own. As Glenn Paauw and Paul Caminiti explain on the ChurchLeaders Podcast, the very structure of our modern print Bibles changes the way we understand Scripture. Indeed, even the practice of reading Scripture by one’s self, without the feedback of a group or community, can be problematic.
As we reflect on the inheritance we have, given by Luther, I hope we can use his example to inspire action. May we constantly ask ourselves: What needs reforming—both in my own life and in my faith tradition?