Did the Reformation Spawn A Million Churches?

Or Who's The Modernist Here?

shattered-piecesNote: This post first appeared 5 years ago. The links to the original posts at Emergent Village and Daily Scroll are gone. I searched for the original post on the EV sub-site on Patheos.com but did not find it. What I did find was illuminating. I’ve not paid much attention to the EV and apparently anybody who is anybody in the EV is moving on, quitting, or gone surfing. If you’re tempted to think that EV is a hip intellectual neighborhood to which you might like to move, think again. If you are thinking of moving to that neighborhood, there’s a chapter for you, “The Joy of Being Reformed” in Recovering the Reformed Confession. There’s also a chapter titled, “Whosever Will Be Saved: Emerging Church? Meet Christian Dogma,” in Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (available used on Amazon for $3.74).


That’s the old canard that the Emergent Village folks appear to be trotting out (HT: Daily Scroll). Honestly, I wonder where this lot went to school. I noted the strange historical story that EV folk tell themselves in my essay in Brian McLaren in Reforming or Conforming. Jonathan writes,

Put two people in a room with a Bible and conflict is inevitable. Put ten people in a room with a Bible and you might just have a riot. Until the Great Reformation there were essentially four major “denominations”


The source of the millions of churches we see today wasn’t Luther. It was arguably an unorthodox, rationalist Frenchman who died in the middle of the 17th century.

The quotation above assumes that the Reformation was a modern movement. It assumes a sort of autonomous individualism that was present during the 16th-century but that was repudiated by the Reformation. As a matter of history, Rene Descartes has a lot more to do with the proliferation of religious organizations claiming to be “churches” than Martin Luther. It was Decartes who made everyone his own ultimate authority. The sovereign autonomy of the individual is the source of sectarianism, not the Reformation.

The picture is even more complicated than that, however. The radical spirit of the sovereign individual was present well before Descartes. It was present in the Anabaptist movement. They were sectarians and regarded as such by all the Reformers and there can be little doubt that the chief animating spirit of the EV is not the Book of Common Prayer but the radical, mystical, rationalist Spirit of Münster. Thus it is ironic to see EV types lamenting the Reformation for producing a million churches when, in fact, they have imbibed deeply of the very spirit and source of the problem.

If we consider the magisterial, confessional Reformation on historical terms, there were, by 1530, two churches in the West: Protestant and Papist. By 1580, there was one significant division within confessional Protestantism:  Lutheran and Reformed and this division continued through the 17th century. There arose distinctions between a variety of polities in the 17th century, and these were on display at the Westminster Assembly, but there they were at the Westminster regarding each other as churches and crafting a common confession of faith.

What blew apart the relative unity and consensus of confessional Protestantism? The radical, individualist, rationalist-mystical, egalitarian spirit of the  Anabaptists was secularized in the Enlightenment and thence we have a million sects with every man his own pope and every preacher his own source of new revelation.

The story is even more complicated. The medieval Western (Roman) church was a tangle of internal tensions just waiting to burst apart. The Anabaptist movement did not drop out of the sky. Behind them lay groups such as the Cathars and behind them lay the Montanists, Novatianists, and the Donatists. We’ve always had sectarians in the church who had (and have) an over-realized eschatology. Even the old chiliasts, however, who expected an earthly millennium, understood that they had to wait for it but  not so the Anabaptists and not so the Enlightenment optimists. Life was getting better every way and every day. Human perfectibility. Universal fatherhood of God, universal brotherhood of man. They were going to bring in the utopia now.

One of the more shocking facets of the EV movement his how obliviously yet obviously and deeply indebted they are not only to the Anabaptists but also to the Enlightenment. For all their noise about being “postmodern,” it’s quite obvious to me that they are rather “most modern.” Their religious subjectivism is as modern as Schleiermacher and Romanticism. Their eclecticism is entirely modern. When they, as McLaren does, mashup Anglicanism with the Anabaptists they’re acting as autonomous, reality-creating, sovereign entities.

In contrast, confessional Protestants are not “creators.” We are mere creatures living in a world of divinely created givens, muddling through with a semi-realized eschatology, an epistemology that starts with divine authority, with divine revelation and which reads that revelation with the church. We begin with a ecclesiology that includes real, visible churches (sins and all) with real, visible sacraments, and real preached gospel of grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone. We sit on couches and drink coffee before and after our services but during our services we hear the gospel, sing psalms, and eat bread and drink wine with the church catholic.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2008

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