500 years of the Reformation. What is there to celebrate?

Martin Luther's 95 theses began a process that carried millions of people out of communion with the successor of Peter (Photo: CNS)

Today is the day when 500 years ago Luther may or may not have nailed his 95 theses to the Church door in Wittenberg, thereby sparking the historical convulsion known as the Reformation. Some are celebrating, and the Guardian has published this editorial to mark the event.

The Guardian’s editorialising makes sad reading because it reminds us all that not only has theological understanding been marginalised in our public discourse, but so has historical understanding as well. Some of the things the Guardian says are just plain wrong; many of them arouse the “yes, but” response, and none of them advance any real reasoning for the claims they make. What a pity.

I am not going to go through the Guardian’s editorial sentence by sentence, because that would take too long, and we have all got better things to do. However, the following does leave me scratching my head: “The Reformation is more easily understood as a convulsion that was from the beginning horribly flawed, however great the benefits it brought.” The first part of the sentence I can agree with – but what are these benefits that the Reformation brought?

The usual list of benefits supposedly brought by Luther and his associates is one that varies, but things like modern capitalism and banking and the vernacular Scriptures usually feature. And yet all of these things predate the Reformation by some time. It is true that Holland in the 17th century is usually seen as the first truly enterprising capitalist state, one that was run by Calvinists too, but banking is something that originated in pre-Reformation and very Catholic Florence, under the Medici, who were not stimulated in any way by religious revolt. As for the great empires, these were not exclusively Protestant ether – consider Spain and Portugal, the first countries to go exploring. Prince Henry the Navigator predates the Reformation. Moreover, many of the technological advances at that time, in particular printing, had absolutely nothing to do with religion. Indeed printing’s invention came several decades before the Reformation. Caxton was long dead by the time anyone heard of Luther. As for the emergence of the nation-state, that too was happening before Luther came along, in both England under Edward IV and in Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella.

My not very historical guess is that most of the good things that happened would have happened anyway, without the Reformation, though Protestant fervour may well have acted as a spur to people like the Dutch. And of course we know that all the Elizabethan sea dogs like Sir Francis Drake were devoutly Protestant: that certainly would have sharpened their appetites to get the better of the Spanish. But was British greatness raised on a Protestant foundation? I doubt it.

The Reformation made a huge contribution in architecture and music. In the first, thanks to the demolition and desecration of numerous sacred buildings; in the second, because music was more or less the only ornamentation that Protestants allowed. Bach is wonderful, but that is not to say that he has the monopoly on beauty. There are lots of good Catholic composers as well. And the Reformation certainly made a huge contribution to theology, but sadly, not very many people seem to care about theology these days, as the Guardian notes. There are lots of twentieth century Lutherans who are major thinkers, such as Barth, Bultmann and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whom great attention should be paid.

The Reformation’s one lasting achievement was the breaking of Church unity in the West, and, to a much lesser extent, in the East. Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans will see this, the foundation of their confessions, as important. But from a Catholic perspective, nothing is more important than the unity of the Church. There is nothing that can outweigh the damage done by schism – not even all the works of Bach, or all the achievements of the Dutch Protestants. Disunity is a terrible wound, which is why ecumenism is now more important than ever. And, whatever else one can say about Luther, he certainly did not intend to found a new Church when he nailed those 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Ironically, I think he would be horrified by the splintering of Christianity today. And he would be right about that.