Stupid Things You Learned About the Reformation

As we approach the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, we will hear more and more about the movement that has so shaped the Western world since Luther pounded his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. And so we should. But we should do so from a solid foundation.

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James Payton gives us just that in his excellent Getting the Reformation Wrong, which got my Setting-the-Record-Straight Award for 2011. The book corrects some stupid things people believe (he is much more diplomatic than I am, calling them “common misunderstandings”) about the Reformation. Here’s just a few:

Stupid Thing #1: The Reformation popped spontaneously out of Luther’s personal spiritual struggle. Certainly Luther had profound, intensely personal, sudden insights. But these seeds found immensely fertile soil in the Western church because the two preceding centuries had been full of famine, plague and wars that made people wonder if God was judging them. In addition, the hierarchy of the church (particularly the papacy) went through massive crises of credibility and corruption. For two hundred years the church called futilely for “reform in the head and the members.” Without all that turmoil, Luther’s insights might have gone unnoticed.

Stupid Thing #2: The human-centered Renaissance was the enemy of the God-centered Reformation. This myth was largely set in place by Jacob Burckhardt in the mid-nineteenth century. It flourished because people misunderstood the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian term umasita to mean “humanist” in a nineteenth-century way—that is, relying on human reason alone. It actually meant “one who taught the humanities”—the liberal arts (grammar, poetry, rhetoric and history)—in contrast to scholastics who emphasized logic, dialectic and metaphysics. Such teachers of the humanities promoted the great writings of the ancient church and, especially in northern Europe, supported the Reformation.

Stupid Thing #3: The principle of justification by faith alone means works are irrelevant. Putting faith and works together has been a problem for many Christians since the Reformation. If we are saved by faith, how can we seriously call people to obedience without falling into legalism? Some think works just aren’t part of the equation of what it means to be a Christian. But the Reformers themselves were very clear about how faith and works went together. We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. Obedience, faithfulness and good works always accompany saving faith. They don’t save. But they are always there. They are not optional. They come not out of compulsion but out of loving gratitude.

Stupid Thing #4: Sola Scriptura means Scripture is our only authority. For the Reformers, the creeds and writings of the early church fathers were much to be revered. In fact, Luther, Calvin and others lodged strong criticism against church leaders because they were not being true to the writings of the early church while the Reformers, in contrast, were. Nonetheless, the Reformers were united that Scripture was the supreme authority. It judged other authorities, including the creeds and the early church where necessary. “It stood alone as the only unquestioned authority” (p. 156).

These are just a few of the myths busted in this excellent (yes, IVP) book. For my money, it’s definitely a must read before 2017.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.