Was the Reformation a Big Misunderstanding?

This topic has arisen before on the HB. Not long ago we discovered that, contrary to some suggestions, the Pope is, in fact, not a Protestant. Before that we saw that, contrary to the assertion of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, the Reformation is not over. Indeed, in many places it’s not even begun!

If the case is so clear, why then does the question keep coming up? The short answer is that people want the Reformation to go away. It gets in the way of the social programs of the social conservatives and the social liberals.

The socially conservative evangelicals don’t have a doctrine of two kingdoms so the only way they can cooperate with Roman Catholics on social questions is to get them converted and baptized. They don’t really care much about the sacraments any more so they’re content just to get them converted and thus metaphorically baptized. They don’t have time for a real, old-fashioned tent meeting any more (that takes too long!) so they hold a mini-revival right there:

Earnest Evangelical: “Cardinal Cassidy, have you been born again? Have you invited Jesus into your heart?”

Cassidy: “Faith now and begorrah! I was born again in 1976, the year of the evangelical!”

EE: “Wowie, that’s great! Do you love Jesus?”

CC: “Mary, Joseph, and You-Know-Whom, Sure I do!”

EE: “Do you have a quiet time?”

CC: “Well, we call it ‘canonical hours’ but sure. We’ve been having ‘quiet times’ since the rule of St. Basil was first written.

CC: “Wowie, well if you’re born again, if you have a quiet time, and if you love Jesus, you must be an evangelical and just don’t know it. I’ll bet we really agree, deep down, on justification.”

CC: “Sure we do. Every real Christian is a Roman Catholic in his heart. Vatican II said so. We believe in sanctification by grace and faith formed by love and so do you.

EE: “That’s good enough for me. We both love Jesus. We both have quiet times. We’re both born again. We both believe in grace and faith. I guess the Reformation really was a big mistake. Boy oh boy! That Luther, what a numbskull! Now that we have that out of the way, what are going to do about….?”

Now that Cassidy is ritually “clean,” EE can cooperate with him toward whatever social end they might have in view.

The case for our conscientious mainliner is a little more complicated. More on that tomorrow, Dv.


Shane Lems notes that the dialogue above is mirrored here.

I’ve had conversations with and heard accounts by prominent evangelicals which form the basis for the imaginary dialogue above. It’s not so imaginary as much as the names of the earnest evangelicals have been withheld.

Part 2

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. Hi Scott, the problem is not, of course, that the RCs have become Evangelical, its more that with the spread of post-modernism evangelicalism is ceasing to be anything but a conglomeration of vague feelings about Christ. Our knowledge of the bible is deplorable, and our knowledge of doctrine is virtually non-existent. The great mass of evangelicals aren’t really too far removed from the sensuality and superstition of the average medieval Roman Catholic, and it shouldn’t surprise us that we’re as money and power oriented and dependent upon passion plays, spectacles, and bogus miracles as the Roman Catholic church in that period.

    I tend to think that the only hope for the future is something like what God promised in Ezekiel 22:18-22.

  2. Unfortunately that dialogue is all-too-realistic in evangelicalism today. Alas, the “courage to be Protestant” is waning. And yet, who needs courage for a mere “misunderstanding.” Perhaps Wells’ next book (or Clark’s) should be titled “The Need to be Protestant”–must reading for our increasingly a-theological times.

  3. Some of them may not even think they are protestant anymore.

    I encountered a guy a couple months back who thought evangelicals weren’t protestant. When I asked him “how so?”, he replied that there wasn’t any need to protest Rome anymore. As though non-denom bible churches pop up spontaneously w/ no antecedents.

  4. Well, this is a country were a water diviner stuck his head in a hat, used some magic glasses, got a message from an angel, started his own religion, and led people half-way across the country!

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