We have reached the traditional 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation–there is much to celebrate and lament. Roman Catholics, including the current Pope, admit that the Reformers were a catalyst behind much needed change. Protestants such as seminary professor Timothy George concede that the Reformation was a “tragic necessity.”
“The tragic side of the Reformation is obvious to those who care deeply about the unity of the church and who feel keenly the dys-evangelical impact of a fractured Christian community and its muted witness in our world today,” Mr. George writes. “All Christians repeat Jesus’s prayer for the unity of his church, and yet who can deny the open scandal of the followers of Jesus excluding one another from the Lord’s Table, all the while proclaiming ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'”
When we discuss the tragedy of the Protestant schism, it is important not to ignore the justifiable reasons that it occurred. In the early 16th century salvation was literally being commodotized through the selling of indulgences and the sacrilegious proliferation of (false) relics, simony infected all corners of the Roman Catholic Church, theologians inspired by the scholastics were teaching that exacts amounts of years could be wiped off Purgatory through certain penances, the dissemination of the Scriptures was intentionally limited, the Lord’s blood was withheld from the laity, and more of the sort. It was a time of profound darkness.
For those living at the time, reform within the Roman Catholic Church looked like it was nowhere in sight. Even those of us with the hindsight of history would at first glance agree with their assessment. Without Luther, the problems plaguing the Roman Catholic Church looked like they were unlikely to change any time soon. After all, the rather theologically tame Jan Hus was burned at the stake for making relatively modest criticisms of Rome (when compared to Luther or his contemporary Wycliffe).* What chance would a serious reformation within Roman Catholicism have within such an environment?
*For what it is worth, the Orthodox Church takes a high view of Hus today. “Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, died for the undistorted faith, for the pure faith of Christ—that is, for Orthodoxy,” said Metropolitan Christopher (Archbishop of Prague) in an interview. “Therefore we are completely justified in canonizing them as saints. This has already been confirmed by the Church of Cyprus and the Greek Church.”
Suffice it to say, Luther honestly assessed the situation and surmised that if he went silently into the night, the abuses would have continued. He decided to stand and fight. Luther’s refusal to submit, combined with the paradigm-shifting use of the printing press, led to the Protestant schism. Much was gained and much was lost. Being that God works all things for good, Luther’s biggest critics must concede that his intellectual movement in any event was tragically necessary.
But, is “urgent necessity” in of itself justification for his schism? Being that this is an Orthodox website, deriding a schism of a schism is little different than shooting a dead body in the head. It really does not accomplish anything. For this reason, I do not want to condemn Luther the man, or even the Reformation itself.
Rather, I want to tell a (very) short story about another man who lived during a time where it seemed like there was no hope for change. This is a story about a man we all know and love–Saint Athanasius:
The fourth century was a terrible time. Arianism, the fatal heresy that Christ is not really the uncreated God, appeared poised to overtake the entire Christian world. By all appearances Saint Athanasius was on the wrong side of history. Having attended the Council of Nicea as an assistant to the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, he personally witnessed what appeared to be the heresy’s death blow…But then it wasn’t.
Men very close to Rome’s first ever Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, convinced him that the doctrine of Nicea was not inconsistent with their own doctrinal views. Furthermore, they repeated a rumor that Athanasius was planning to withhold much needed grain shipments from Egypt to Constantinople. Convinced, the emperor consented to having Athanasius exiled from Egypt to Germany.
Constantine’s son, Constantius II, proved to be no better than his father. He banished Athanasius again. Looking for protection, Athanasius fled to Rome where Constatius’ brother (the aptly named Constans) agreed to protect him. After the brothers agreed to resolve the issue at Serdicia in a council, things went against the Arians and Constantius had his Bishops withdraw from Serdicia. Those Bishops then excommunicated Athanasius and Constantius II issued the death penalty.
Athanasius waited a couple years and military necessity led to Constantius relenting so that he could receive support from his brother. In triumph, Athanasius returned to Alexandria and resumed his post as Bishop, rightly teaching the word of God. This he did for the next ten years, until the wind hit the Arians’ sails once again.
Constantius, up to his old machinations, again pounced looking to destroy the Orthodox teaching of the consubstantial Trinity. His brother Constans was assassinated. Constantius II was now the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. He hatched a new scheme. This time he saw to it that Athanasius would have nowhere to escape.
Constantius pre-empted Athanasius by attaining the support of the Papal Legates in approving the pro-Arian Council of Arles. He then arrested Pope Liberius. Liberius was tortured into signing an Arianized creed (see Chapter 41) and he condemned Athanasius. A council was again convened, this time in Milan, where about 300 Bishops from the west likewise joined in a condemnation of Athanasius.
Arianism now no longer was a plague of the east. It had taken over the west. Athanasius could not escape to Rome, where formerly the support of a rival emperor and the city’s Bishop protected him. While a few notable Bishoprics (in Milan and Jerusalem) held out against the Arian onslaught, they were few and far between. It looked like there was no hope. It was Athanasius contra mundum.
With nowhere to run, he fled to the Egyptian desert. There Athanasius kept the faith. Instead of starting a new church movement to remedy the situation, he simply wrote a book defending himself against charges of cowardice and bravely ran away, trusting that in time God would vindicate him. Instead of writing with vitriol against those who betrayed him and enlisting the laity to form a popular rebellion against their apostate Bishops, he wrote in defense of Pope Liberius. So humble was this man, he asked that his readers be understanding of Liberius’ weakness due to his age and the cruelty of the tortures. We must remind ourselves, Liberius’ and later Milan’s condemnation effectively made Athanasius a dead man.
In a fashion typical of how God always acts in redemptive history, victory was snagged by the jaws of defeat in a nic of time. When all appeared lost, suddenly Constantius II died of an illness. He was not replaced by a devout, Orthodox emperor. Rather, he was succeeded by a man of the exact opposite persuasion. Julian the Apostate. An avowed pagan, he used the muscle of the state in varying attempts to crush Christianity in all corners of the Roman Empire.
It would seem that Christianity, after a few decades of toleration, was back in the shadows. Doomed. However, a glimmer of light could be perceived at the end of the tunnel. Ironically, it was now the Arians who were easy to liquidate. The Orthodox had become acquainted with hiding. Athanasius’ Arian replacement in Alexandria was executed. Athanasius then returned to Alexandria and rightly received back his Bishopric.
Like a medicine that kills the disease quicker than the patient, Julian the Apostate proved devastating to the pandemic of Arianism. By the grace of God, before he was able to irreversibly destroy the fortunes of all Christians throughout the empire, he was killed in battle. The result was a complete reversal–Arianism was shattered, never regaining the momentum it once had. In two decades time, the Eastern Church definitively settled Trintarian theology at the Council of Constantinople, only months after the issuing of the Edict of Thessalonica (which Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.) Orthodox Christianity had prevailed only a short time after it appeared bound to disappear of the face of the planet.
The moral of the story? Athansius was faithful to the Christian faith in more ways than simply teaching correct doctrine. He showed faith in God by running for the hills! He chose to run and risk death rather than start another church. He hoped for his own restoration, waiting for time and inertia to go his way. His patience was rewarded.
That is not to say that patience always has its reward, however. For every Athansius that “waits it out,” there’s a cooked goose like Jan Hus. God does not reward every faithful churchman with vindication in his own life. It is with this understanding we must sympathize with the Reformers. If Luther would have died “doing what was right,” his death would have seemingly been a waste.
However, this would have not been the case. No life, lived well but ended shortly, is a waste. The Church has always affirmed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The blood of martyrs is never wasted.
Sure, Luther may have been forgotten if he chose the path of Athanasius. He would have died on the run somewhere or even worse, have his executors catch up with him. Luther would be just another dissenter in the annals of history. He would not have been remembered as the hero of perhaps the most significant event in the last 500 years, the Protestant Reformation.
Reflecting upon all of this, I cannot help but feel that Luther is more of an antihero than a saint. Saint Athanasius is a testimony to how one man against all odds prevails by maintaining faithfulness to God. His refusal to compromise his ideals eventually had its reward and vindication.
The story of Luther is one of compromise and impatience. He proved to be more of the pragmatist–a man built in the modern mold who is not always limited by stuffy idealism, but embraces a more utilitarian approach. The end justifies the means. In less than two years from making his disagreement public, he was already advocating schism and enlisting allies to his cause. The sheer force of his personality led to him prevailing.
He is a reminder to us of how someone may begin with the right ideals, but then he employs questionable means to attain them. Luther was a man who decided not to stand against the world, but instead adapted to it. We may forgive him for being corrupted by the circumstances and people surrounding him. He did not play as dirty as his own enemies, after all. Nevertheless, instead of trusting in God to make things right, he put matters into his own hands and employed all intellectual and political means to attain to his ideals.
The result? He lived to see his church schism and planted the seeds of an anthropocentric triumphalism where we now all believe that a single man can shape the destiny of the world. Luther, as biographer Martin Marty pointed out, was the first true modern man. Being the first modern man made him our first modern hero against “evil.”
As a result, our heroes are no longer known for their extreme piety (like Francis of Assisi) or perseverance (like Athanasius). Rather, our heroes are true Ubermensch, supermen who with sheer force of will and brilliance make a lasting mark on the world. They are not passive, waiting upon God. They are men of action. Not surprisingly, these are the sort of behavioral traits that Western society now encourages. A truly great man grabs the world by the horns and makes his own destiny.
Hence, the Reformation is ultimately the story of how in one corner of Christendom, the religion of man prevailed. We have had 500 years of the Reformation to watch these seeds germinate. The Enlightenment, Existentialism, and ultimately Nihilism were the logical consequences of man taking the wheel. Sadly, Luther’s legacy will ultimately not be remembered by his good intentions, but the fruits of his actions. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether too many of us have bought into the underlying premise of the Reformation–the ability of individuals to play such a pivotal role in religion.