Roots of the Reformation: What it Means for Today. Dr. Anders says he's a former Calvinist and Protestant historian. The argument he ultimately puts forth appears to be as follows:
1. In all periods of history, the church has been plagued with corruption. Corruption was not the cause of the Reformation.
2. The Roman church wants corruption responded to. The Roman Church is actually responsible for creating the expectation that corruption should be rooted out and the the church should be reformed.
3. Throughout her history, the Roman church worked towards responding to corruption, this before Luther and the Reformers.
4. The Protestant Reformers "stepped into a gap that would not have existed had the Catholic Church not been working for centuries to root out corruption and raise the level of lay spirituality."
5. Those involved in the Reformation had "a personal or a political agenda" and "exploited the popular mentality and disseminated propaganda that caused centuries of bloodshed and suffering." They were not responding to corruption.
6. One other possible argument Dr. Anders makes is that the Reformers sought to create a perfect church. Any such attempt though will result in "hypocrisy or tyranny." I say this is a possible argument because I was not entirely sure it was being inferred from his final paragraph.
Dr. Anders basic argument boils down to saying it was not corruption in the church that provoked the Reformation. The Reformers were not reformers but were simply disseminating propaganda against the true church. One of the roots of the Reformation therefore is the Roman church. The Roman church "created the expectation that things should be better," not Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or Knox. Whatever their motivations were, the Reformers weren't motivated to reform due to church corruption.
Before responding to this argument, let me describe two of the good things about this blog entry. First, Dr. Anders blatantly admits that the defenders of Rome don't understand the cause of the Reformation:
If you ask most people why there was a Protestant Reformation they answer, “Because of corruption in the Church.” That’s the common view. They might blame the indulgence controversy or Papal involvement in politics. If they’re Protestants, they probably claim the Church was doctrinally corrupt. Even Catholics give this answer. (I know. I just polled a roomful of Catholics on the question.) For centuries, in fact, this was the standard line for Catholic historians: if only the Church had done a better job, there would have been no Protestant Reformation. There is one small problem with the corruption thesis, however. It’s just not true.
While the defenders of Rome claim doctrinal certainty and unity, when it comes to interpreting history, particularly the Reformation, that's a different story. I agree fundamentally with Dr. Anders that the defenders of Rome are by and large ignorant of the Reformation at best. I would go further and say at worst many rely on out-dated historical information and are often too stubborn to go beyond the likes of Grisar, Denifle, or O'Hare. Ironically, it was actually one of their own historians that helped popularize the corruption theory, Jospeh Lortz. Now, Dr. Anders is saying this notion that corruption was the root of the Reformation is "just not true," and as we'll see, in its place, he'd rather believe the view of someone who thought religion was fundamentally dangerous and to be avoided as an old way of thinking.
Second, another good point raised by Dr. Anders is that the Roman church has been plagued by corruption for the entirety of her existence: "...corruption in the Church didn’t make the 16th century any different from every other century." He says also, "...It is good to know that the Church has always had corruption, has always fought corruption, and has never made 'absence of corruption' a mark of the true Church. Jesus told us to expect corruption in the Church until the end of time. (Matthew 13:24-30)." This is a helpful point to use in demonstrating a typical double standard put forth by many of Rome's defenders. There are those that argue Luther regretted the Reformation because it made people worse. They typically argue the Reformation was a failure and was morally bankrupt. It didn't produce good fruit, nor were its results any better than those of the corrupt church Luther and the Reformers fought against. Luther knew this, and admitted it. He died despondent over the mess he created. Heretics never lead good lives, nor produce good fruit. Since Rome is the true church and the Reformation was a failure, we as separated brethren must reunite with her. Trent cleaned up the situation as well, so what are Protestants waiting for? It's only by being in the true church that someone can attain true holiness. Here Anders dissolves the idea for Roman Catholics that true religion will lead to spiritual success and religious tranquility. No: the enemy is always sowing weeds among the wheat. If Rome can claim that she exists as the true church of God despite failure and sin, Protestants can do likewise.
As to his argument: It isn't really an argument based on factual data. It's an argument based on a presupposition that only those approved by Rome (at some point) are the actual reformers of the church. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc. were "People with a personal or a political agenda exploited the popular mentality and disseminated propaganda that caused centuries of bloodshed and suffering." Only Rome can respond to the corruption of Rome. To respond in kind to this argument one need simply assert that those who attempt to promulgate Romanism and want to see the elimination of sola fide, sola gratia, or sola scriptura are disseminating anti-biblical propaganda against the true church. Further, during her history have not the forces of Rome been responsible for political agendas, propaganda, bloodshed and suffering? Certainly she has, so it's a double standard to claim the Reformation exhibited this devious behavior and is therefore not ordained by God, whereas the Roman church exhibits this behavior and is ordained by God, able to ferret out corruption.
Despite an official historical pronouncement from Rome on the cause of the Reformation, Anders asserts, "The real cause of the Reformation was not Church corruption (moral, doctrinal, or otherwise) but how people felt about it." This does not alleviate the fact that at the time of the Reformation there was rampant moral and doctrinal church corruption. Why is it not the case that God brought forth the Protestant Reformers to combat it? Why is what the Reformers did simply "a political agenda exploited the popular mentality and disseminated propaganda that caused centuries of bloodshed and suffering"? Dr. Anders doesn't say. Rather, he expands his position by saying:
There were many, many factors leading to the Reformation: economic and political changes, demography and societal attitudes, technology (printing), intellectual developments (scholasticism and the renaissance), religious sentiment, and the contributions of colorful personalities. It is impossible to point out one cause of the Reformation. These all came together at a critical moment in western history. “Corruption,” as such, was not the cause of the Reformation.
So, according to Dr. Anders there were large categories of economics, politics, demographics, social issues, technology, etc... one might as well just say all spheres of human existence were factors leading to the Reformation, with the exception of one: corruption in the Roman church. On what basis does one decide that virtually all spheres of human social existence were factors leading to the Reformation except one? One what basis does one decide that an ill-working institution that has her tentacles wrapped around every sphere of social existence wasn't a factor leading to the Reformation? The basis appears to be that put forth by a French secular historian:
The Protestant Reformers merely stepped into a gap that would not have existed had the Catholic Church not been working for centuries to root out corruption and raise the level of lay spirituality. This is not simply my private theory. Lucien Febvre made the argument in 1929 in his famous essay, “Une question mal posée.” Today, this is the consensus view among historians. A good book on the subject is Steven Ozment’s, The Age of Reform: 1250-1550.
I happen to have Ozment's book, and he does in indeed discuss the theories of Lucien Febvre. Ozment states, "Lucien Febvre scoffed at the very notion that church abuses, regardless of their magnitude, could explain a religious revolution." He goes on to say, "The medieval church failed, he believed, precisely in those matters that touched the heart" (p. 211). Ozment himself though goes on to argue that to understand the Reformation, one should consider not only Febvre's conclusion, but to link that with the position argued by Roman Catholic historian Jospeh Lortz (corruption did ignite the Reformation). Ozment then goes on for multiple pages in describing the corruption present at the time. In another less-technical work, Ozment gives a basic overview of the different theories as to what caused the Reformation: Protestants, The Birth of a Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1991). He documents six basic (and sometimes contradictory) theories as to the impetus of the Reformation. While Febvre's view is popular today, it is hardly the only player in the continuing debate as to the cause of the Reformation.
What was the cause of the Reformation? Certainly Dr. Anders is correct that there were "many, many factors." Arguing though that every social aspect of human existence was a factor save the ill-working institution that was involved with virtually every social aspect of human existence appears to me to be nothing more than a scholarly parlor trick.
One final set of criticisms of Dr. Anders article can be found in a comment below his entry on the Called to Communion website. I have no idea who this person is. While I think he missed the fundamental argument being put forth by Dr. Anders, he did ask a good related question based on the idea that Rome is the historical vehicle to combat her own corruption:
David Anders, How should someone react to corruption in the Church? From reading other material on this website, it seems that when someone commits themselves to the Roman Catholic Church, they are subjecting their whole person to the Teaching Magesterium as their God-appointed Shepherds in the faith. So how can an individual even “know”, in any degree above the level of opinion, that corruption is actually taking place? Much less begin to know how to properly react to it.
Gentlemen such as Michael Liccione, Ray Stamper, and Bryan Cross, unless I have misunderstood them, have taught that when one comes into the Catholic Interpretive Paradigm (not to say every faithful Catholic does this, or must do this), they are giving an assent of faith that is supernatural in character, and then far exceeds the limits of human reason. Thus, “Whatever the Church says, Christ says” and “Whatever the Church does, Christ does”. Under this principle, one sees that Christ is working above and behind the whole ecclesial program. Any seceding or doubt that occurs in the heart is quickly repented of, because of the higher order of knowledge that is working behind the visible structure of the Catholic Church, and one must trust and commit themselves to this higher order. Therefore, how can one even know beyond his/her own opinion that there is corruption in the Church?
I think of a scene that is in the old movie Martin Luther (from the early 1900’s) where there is a local friend of Fr. Luther who is walking around drunk who is walking around with a paper with the official stamp of the Pope’s approval that one had been given a plenary indulgence. The drunk says “I payed good money for it”. I think of when some days I ago I was looking old photos and documents of my family’s history and I found an official authoritative document concerning how the faithful are to pray for a member of our family who had died. From what my family tells me, this individual lived and died outside of communion with the Catholic Church, and died in the middle of the day when he was fighting Chickens in Puerto Rico. Aside from our being able to know the depths of the human heart, one questions how the Church had the authority to simply write it off as if he was in purgatory, and that all should pray for his soul.
When these things occur, how does the faithful Catholic, holding to the Catholic Interpretive Paradigm (as above described), know when to identify something as “corruption” or whether he is in sin for even thinking that he had the right to have such a suspicion. And if it is the case that an individual must not identify anything as corruption, for in so doing one raises his himself up against the Church, then how does one “react” to what appears like “corruption” by anything other than submission and obedience?
Another example would be Exsurge Domine (1520), which is a famous bull promulgated by Pope Leo X against Dr. Martin Luther. This Bull comes from the Pope himself, he is acting as Pastor of all the faithful (“In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor”….and “We forbid each and everyone of the faithful”), invoking his Apostolic Authority (“Rise Peter, and fulfill this pastoral office divinely entrusted to you as mentioned above. In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor..”), to an issue related to faith and morals (“We can under no circumstances tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion and injury to orthodox faith…”) , in which the following is stated:
“….we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these errors… 33) That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit”
Dr. Luther is well-known to have decried the Church -approved practice of burning heretics at the stake. And here, it would appear very clearly, in an ex-Cathedra statement, the Church says that Dr. Luther’s position is “against the Holy Spirit”. The whole document is said to have been dealing with the faith and morals of the Church.
In Canon 3 of the 4th Lateran Council of 1215, we read:
“We excommunicate and anathemative every heresy that raises against the holy, orthodox, and Catholic faith which we have above explained, condemning all heretics under whatever names they may be known…Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the Faithful (faith/morals/church membership), so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church….If [a ruler] refuses to comply let the matter be made known to the supreme pontiff, they he may declare the ruler’s vassals absolved from their allegiance and may offer the territory to be ruled by lay Catholics, who on the extermination of the heretics may possess it without hindrance, and preserve it in the purity of faith…>Catholics who have girded themselves with the cross for the extermination of the heretics, shall enjoy the indulgences and privileges granted to those who go in defense of the Holy Land”.
Now, how would anyone who was Catholic at the time be able to respond to such an Ecumenical decree as corruption (for no doubt today Catholics believe this is corruptible) with anything but obedience and submission. I mean, he is told, for the sake of his soul, that is is bound to obey such decrees, and that if he does so, he does so to his eternal ruin.
Now, before we begin by distinguishing what is “infallible” and what is “not infallible”, I would like to keep this consonant with Dr. David Anders original post. Despite the fact that today some Catholics will argue that these teachings of the past are dead and buried in the ground of fallible teaching, it still does not answer how one was to react to these teachings, which, for the modern Roman Catholic is totally corruptible. To say that one would not be held accountable because the Church was speaking with her authority, and the laymen is bound to subject himself to the Church, is to put the eternal law of God under the living Voice of the Church, however shape or form that it comes. The authority of the Church did not come with any flexibility, and if you disobeyed the Church, you were to be considered, by all as well as yourself, not in communion with Christ.
So this all goes back to the question of how is one to react to corruption in the Church. For this does not bear upon just the window of history wherein the European Reformation took place, but also for today and forevermore. For just as the Church has revised things, calling one thing binding in one place and not binding in another, in the past, presumably, it can do so in the future. And for all we know, we are living in a time wherein there is teaching and practice, that will be later seen as unacceptable by the very same Church.
This is not to deny that one must be able to see the hand of God in history. The limits of our understanding in what God does is clearly testified by the Scriptures “My ways are above your ways, my thoughts are above your thoughts”. And we also know that Salvation and Redemptive history was not always “ideal” (Abraham’s fornication w/ Hagar, the sins of the 12 sons, Joseph’s betrayal into Egyptian slavery, etc,etc,etc), but that God is moving his plan through it anyhow.
But when there is an exercise of Ecclesiastical authority which binds the conscience, and the conditions and qualifications for such authority to be binding or not binding are different throughout the ages, how is one to really “react” properly when the Church acts in ways, that, in heinsight, we now know to be, in fact, false??