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What was tragic about the Lutheran Reformation?

October 31st, 2013
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blog post on the First Things web site some time ago was drawn to my attention by a couple colleagues as we were eating lunch the other day. A perceptive remark was made about it. The article, by a LCMS pastor, is rather typical of what the Roman Catholic journal, First Things, loves to publish: hand-wringing articles by Lutherans over the Reformation.

In the article, the pastor opines that the better color for Reformation Sunday would be a color of mourning, rather than a festive red. He laments the Reformation as a tragedy. He is correct, but for the wrong reason.

Must we lament our sin? Indeed. Must we lament our human pride? Yes! Is the Church always in need of Reformation? Absolutely. Is God, by His Most Holy Word and Sacraments constantly reforming you, me and the whole Christian Church on earth? Amen, Amen, may it ever be so! But, should we lament the fact of the Reformation? No, unless we wish to lament God’s gift of the Gospel, which came breaking through with great clarity once more at this time.

Ironically, though, the author of the article misses the actual tragedy of the Reformation; namely, that it was not wholly successful. The Roman Catholic Church, as such, was formed as a direct result of the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent. And at the Council of Trent the door was slammed shut on the very Gospel itself, the good news that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. What was at least an option before Trent, was pronounced to be a damning error.

This is the tragedy of the Reformation!


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Categories: Lutheranism
  1. November 15th, 2011 at 06:38 | #1

    You’ve nailed it, Pr McCain – the greatest tragedy of the Reformation was Rome’s rejection of it at Trent, which effectively anathematised the best part of patristic and medieval theology (even Jaroslav Pelikan conceded this).

    You’ve also reminded me why I seldom read ‘First Things’ :0)

  2. Vicar Rick VanBriggle
    November 15th, 2011 at 06:58 | #2

    “This is most certainly true.”

  3. Jack Keene
    November 15th, 2011 at 07:07 | #3

    I do agree as to the Gospel. Luther is indeed my angel, always bringing me back to the Cross. But Luther himself did say that Jesus prayer that we might be one in John 17 was no child’s play.
    There are true believers in the Roman Church as in many others, who believe the Gospel. Our Confession has always taught this. The rise of the the sects, the abandonment of the Creeds by many ‘protestants’, is indeed sad.
    To me the Reformation is more like a divorce because of adultery. Rome was unfaithful to the Gospel, Luther could not bear it. And while we rejoice in the wonder and awe of grace and mercy, there is still an undercurrent of sadness as the divisions in Christianity are sad and a poor witness to unbelievers.

    • November 15th, 2011 at 08:03 | #4

      Jack, you are wrong. It was not that Luther could not bear it. The Roman Church threw him out and formally condemned the Gospel.

  4. Jack Keene
    November 15th, 2011 at 08:11 | #5

    I never said the church did not throw him out. Nor did I say he initiated the divorce. Luther could not bear the Roman Church abandoning the Gospel. He took his stand and objected to spiritual adultery. That is true. A separation took place which is indeed sad. It is rather frustrating that interpretations are made on what I say instead of what I say being taken at face value. I wholeheartedly agree with your post. I was just saying it is sad that a split took place. And while we rejoice that the Gospel was set forth before us. We should equally mourn Rome abandoning the Gospel. And the confusion it presents to unbelievers.

  5. Bethany Kilcrease
    November 15th, 2011 at 08:19 | #6

    Amen. You are correct, Pastor McCain. I have a Roman Catholic colleague and I’m frequently having to explain to him that the “Lutheran” line seen in First Things isn’t the majority opinion.

  6. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    November 15th, 2011 at 08:32 | #7

    What could possibly be tragic about the proclamation of the Gospel, rescuing it from the many obscuring overgrowths of Rome? What? If I thought it were tragic, I’d go right back to Rome where I came from. There is nothing tragic whatever of “breaking” a union in an obscured Gospel.

    Pelikan had it wrong, dead wrong, and his view is dangerous in that it can be for others the springboard for heading, for those who did not start there, to Rome or the church of the other half of the Roman Empire as he did. Trent was not the tragedy of the Reformation. The tragedy had happened long before, and that is why there was a Reformation!

    Trent simply affirmed, in stronger language to address the issues of its time, what Rome has ALWAYS taught, which is why in the liturgy it revised it directed that no orders less than 200 years old be used, so as not to be contaminated with what it saw as recent heresies that corrupt what the apostolic truth of justification by faith is. That’s the tragedy, that what should have been the most obvious thing about the Church was the most obscure, as Luther put it — and put it before Trent, which hadn’t even happened yet.

    It is not necessary to maintain that Roman Catholicism per se was invented at Trent to maintain the truth of the Gospel as revealed in Scripture and accurately taught in Concordia. Could the Gospel be found in the RCC? Yes, just as it can now, but not because it was later shut off at Trent, but because of the power of the promise of Christ that it will not be prevailed against, hence one can emerge from it gasping and puking from its wretched overgrowth to once again make what should be the most obvious thing about the Church the most obvious thing about the Church.

    Which was exactly my experience too — here is what my Church, Trent and all, was stammering and stuttering, hemming and hawing, to say, laid out cleanly and clearly! Which is why it is no new church and no new Gospel at all.

  7. Roxanne Wodtli
    November 15th, 2011 at 08:52 | #8

    I agree with you that the Reformation was a tragedy but one that could not be stopped from happening. Luther and many previous reformers were willing to put their beliefs and lives at risk before a corrupt church.

  8. Michael Mohr
    November 15th, 2011 at 09:17 | #9

    “[S]hould we lament the fact of the Reformation? No, unless we wish to lament God’s gift of the Gospel…”
    I find it interesting that the referenced blog post begins with a quote that refers to the Cross as a time of failure. Talk about lamenting God’s gift of the Gospel!

    You have nailed it on the head with this post, Rev. McCain. As with all stories of triumph over tragedy, the tragedy is to be mourned and the triumph celebrated. It is not the triumph of Luther or Lutherans that we celebrate at Reformation, but of God and His Word. (The Reformation observances I cannot stand are the “rah-rah Luther, we’re better than ‘dem Cath’lics, neener, neener, neener” Reformation celebrations.)

  9. Dennis Peskey
    November 15th, 2011 at 10:30 | #10

    Perhaps a minor change in our terminology would be most beneficial. I suggest we abandon the term reformation and focus on a Lutheran Restoration instead. The Confessions themselves assert “we have not at all wished to create something new”; rather, the purpose was and remains to return to the Lord and his Word alone. In this light, the Church can embrace the Offertory in DSIII, “Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation and uphold me with Thy free spirit.” The great legacy Luther bequeathed to our Church was a return to the Lord, not to form a new church but to rediscover the joy of repentance and forgiveness in His Church.

  10. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    November 15th, 2011 at 12:55 | #11

    Rome and Lutherans (confessional ones, anyway) always talk right past each other on this matter. The problem, tragedy, is not that Rome does not teach justification by faith, but that it does — and seriously messes up what justification is, getting it all rolled in with sanctification.

    That is why in our eyes it does not teach and in fact condemns justification by faith, and in their eyes it does indeed teach justification by faith and affirms it against falsely incomplete understandings of justification.

  11. November 15th, 2011 at 14:23 | #12

    Well, divorce is always a tragedy. At the same time, its clear who was at fault in this divorce. – and we are blessed to come out of it with all the goods. Hopefully, Rome will come back to us, because we never left.


  12. November 15th, 2011 at 18:17 | #13

    What I couldn’t understand in that First Things post is the complaint that the liturgical colors for Reformation Day are red. That’s the color of martyrdom, the author rightly observed, so why use it for Reformation Day? The fact is, thousands of people were martyred for believing in the Reformation teachings. To just name some of the more well-known, Tyndale (for translating the Bible into English), Robert Barnes (an English student, like Tyndale, at Wittenberg), Thomas Cranmer (who put together “The Book of Common Prayer”), Hugh Latimer (the great preacher), and these were just a few of the English victims. Many others were burned at the stake in Germany. Throw in the Spanish Inquisition, whose original target was Lutheran sympathizers, and then the Thirty Years’ War (in which the entire city of Magdeburg–men, women, children– was put to the sword for its Lutheranism), and the number becomes enormous.

    • November 15th, 2011 at 18:20 | #14

      Dr. Veith, thanks, it is a shame that the young man who posted his remarks was so intent on grinding an axe that he entirely is blinded to reality.

  13. enoch
    November 15th, 2011 at 18:26 | #15

    ah, the spirit of political correctness and its constant apologizing to everyone for everything under the sun! recently, the amish apologized to the jews for the holocaust!!! wow, i didn’t know that nazis were amish?! i guess, if they can apologize for that, why we lutherans would not apologize for “continued unkindness toward our brothers and sisters of other theological traditions”… never mind that they wanted to burn luther at the stake, and not vice versa…

  14. Al Schmidt
    November 15th, 2011 at 21:22 | #16

    It always amazes me when I hear or read some Lutheran clergyman see the splinter in the eye of Lutheranism but not the beam in the eye of the Roman Church. We have all heard that the Roman church today (doctrinally speaking) is much more orthodox than it was in Luther’s time. Let’s not be too quick to believe this faulty cliche. Why not? Well, try and remember what Pope Pius XII decreed in 1854 when he announced Mary’s immaculate conception, which declared her free of original sin. Next came Pope Pius IX with his decree of Mary’s bodily assumption to heaven in 1950. Then in 1964 Pope Paul VI issued Lumen Gentium, which teaches unmitigated universalism, ignoring Luther’s biblical accent of Solus Christus. What would Luther said about these additional teachings had they been present in his time? I think we know the answer.

  15. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    November 15th, 2011 at 23:17 | #17

    Yeah well if I’m gonna apologise for the Reformation (by which I mean the Lutheran one) it’ll be an apology in the literal, classic sense — a defence.

  16. November 16th, 2011 at 09:13 | #18

    And let us not forget the extermination of the Huguenots in France, one of the first large scale systematic mass murders of our modern age. As many as 30,000 Protestants were killed on St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris alone.

    So, yes, red is a good color for Reformation Day.

  17. November 16th, 2011 at 10:47 | #19

    I agree with all of you.

    That said, I recently read the following on a “Come Home to Rome” kind-of-blog:

    “celebrating “Reformation Day” while remaining separated from the Catholic Church is a kind of performative contradiction, because it implies that separation, not reform, is the ultimate goal of the protest. Celebrating Reformation Day can be for that reason like celebrating a divorce, or more accurately, celebrating estrangement from our mother and from all our brothers and sisters who remain in her bosom, when in truth Christ calls us all to full communion and prays that we would be one.”

    I think we can agree with that – even as we, as I said, have “come out with the goods” in this divorce….

    • November 16th, 2011 at 10:57 | #20

      No, we can’t agree with those assertions, for the fail to take into account that Rome, as an institution, is the group that left the church catholic, not the other way around.

  18. November 16th, 2011 at 15:23 | #21

    First of all, I agree with Luther on his stand against the sale of indulgences and the immorality of some of the popes and their choices. However, I cannot but help feel very sad about a couple of things. I am studying the church fathers at this time. For the first 3 to 4 hundred years, these fathers inherited and taught the christian truths of the One, Holy ,Catholic and Apostolic church. This was before the bible was put together and most of their beliefs were passed down orally from the apostles. They had to fight against heresies almost immediately. They did everything to avoid tainting the Faith. They particiapted in the Eucharist as often as possible because they knew that it was the real body and blood of Jesus.They did everything they could do to avoid schisms. They respected and listened to their bishops.They beleived in what Jesus said in the gospels. They knew that they had literally become the Body of Christ present on this earth since Jesus had returned to the Father. They were now Jesus’s mouth, hands, legs, etc. They struggled through the first thousand years, oftentimes losing their lives to pagans. Then, after the first millenium, the eastern branch of Christianity and the western branch separated from each other tearing the Body of Christ in two. This split has never healed and I know that the Lord is not happy about it. Then 500 years later, another split occurs between the Pope and Luther. resulting in the massive fracturing of western christianity. This time the Body of Christ is broken in 2 pieces at first but eventually it ends up in over two thousands
    pieces (denominations) over the next 500 years.. I know full well that Luther did not intend for it to go that far. He had no desire for the murderous Peasants Revolt in Germany nor did he ever imagine that Protestantism would break up into so many disagreeing parts. But the fact is this….it did and the Body of Christ is in terrible shape. The belief in “scripture alone” without recognizing the imput of the early church fathers has resulted the multiple branches of christianity interpreting the bible by themselves often without a clue of historical
    apostolic christianity and traditions. Paul ended one of his epistles saying “remember what
    I taught you both in writing and what I personally told you.” Plus you will find in your bible the statement that if everything that Jesus said was written down, it would fill the whole world. Not all of traditional christianity is in the bible. An example of what I am saying is this……many fundamentalist denominations no longer believe that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Jesus. They also beleive that Catholics and Lutherans are not saved because we beleive in baptism instead of the personal “born again” experience. If they knew the writings of the church fathers, they would not persist with their ignorance and they would know that Baptism is being born again and the Eucharist is the “real” body and blood of Jesus. With so many main line Protestant denominations going over to the father of lies by ultra liberal theology, the remaining christians who consider themselves
    more traditionaly had better love each other and pull together into the Body of Christ again

    • November 16th, 2011 at 15:33 | #22

      Tim, you’ve got a fairly romanticized view of the first four centuries of the Church’s history, and you seem rather unwilling to understand precisely what the Reformation was about and the fact that the Roman Church chose to go its own way, not Luther nor the Reformers. We still hope and pray Rome returns back to the confession and truth of the Church Catholic.

  19. November 16th, 2011 at 16:08 | #23

    Pastor McCain,

    OK, I think I know what you are saying. I do believe that Rome left us, even though their separating themselves from us was clearly not our goal. The goal of reform was accomplished, even though something we had previously recognized as Church was left behind… (Luther himself acknowledged Rome to be His mother… the one who had given him birth… )

    In some ways then, this is a little ambiguous….

    Gerhard say, “still today in the very middle of Rome he gathers a church to Himself, a church that, though it has not yet been separated from the external fellowship of the Roman church, nevertheless does have an internal communion with the church catholic and in this respect is invisible.“ (139, On the Church)

    And yet he also does not hesitate to assert that all the invisible church is contained within the visible church and not vice-versa (113, On the Church).

    And also:

    “If the confession of true doctrine and the legitimate use of the Sacraments had been left free for us, perhaps we would not have departed from the external fellowship of the Roman church.” (context can be found here: http://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/babies-in-church-part-viii-judge-your-mother-o-child-the-tragic-necessity-of-the-reformation/)

    Really??? We would have remained united with someone who was clearly [?] not Church?

    The questions and ambiguity are unavoidable, I think (unless we avoid it : ) ). I know where the Church is (LCMS and those in fellowship with us), and can readily point out when someone is clearly out of bounds (Mormans, JW’s), but as for everyone else, even though I should point out where they go wrong, why must I insist that they are not Church? (given what Gerhard says above).

  20. Nils
    October 31st, 2012 at 13:25 | #24

    This is something my Roman Catholic friends don’t understand: as Lutherans, we hold that so long as someone puts Christ first in his heart, he will be saved. Catholics don’t get this–they believe that one must accept all their doctrines, including those which they themselves made, in order to be saved, including the praying of certain prayers. They have replaced the institutions of God with human institutions, and replaced Christ as their head. Would they would come back to true orthodoxy!

  21. Nils
    October 31st, 2012 at 13:27 | #25

    @Gene Veith
    Don’t forget Jan Hus, either. He was burned alive for what he held to be true (and was falsely accused, to boot).

  22. Nicholas
    November 2nd, 2013 at 21:19 | #26

    The author of that First Things post teaches at a Roman Catholic seminary: http://www.sscms.edu/admin.asp#

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