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.1 Before that we saw that, contrary to the assertion of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, the Reformation is not over.2 Indeed, in many places it has 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.

A conversation with the socially conservative evangelical

The socially conservative evangelicals do not have a doctrine of a twofold kingdom; nor do they typically distinguish between nature and grace or between the sacred and the secular. Thus the only way they can cooperate with Roman Catholics on social questions is to get them converted and baptized.3 They do not seem to care much about the sacraments any more so they are content just to get them converted and thus metaphorically baptized. They do not 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 we going to do about. . . ?”

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

The case for our conscientious mainliner is a little more complicated.

A conversation with the ecumenically-minded mainliner

Unlike our evangelical friend, our ecumenically-minded mainliner (Rev. Feelgood) received an education in church history at an Ivy League divinity school and is a little more cognizant of the problems of overcoming the Reformation; but he is also a member of the local country club and plays in a regular foursome with Father Mike Sheridan S. J., chaplain to the fire department and to the local Jesuit University athletic department.

*Thwack, ping!*
Rev. Feelgood: “Nice shot Mike. Well hit.”
Father Mike: “You know we’re planning our annual ecumenical service. Aren’t you on the planning committee?”
RF: “No, I rotated off. My term is up. May I participate anyway? It’s such a wonderful way to express the underlying unity of the church.”
FM: “Sure and begorrah you may. We would be happy to have you. After all, I think we all know that the Reformation was just a big misunderstanding anyway. Did you hear what his Holiness said about justification recently?4 It almost sounded like Luther.”
RF: “That’s great. Just have your assistant call my secretary and I’ll be there with bells on. Yes, I did see those remarks. I’m so thankful for the Holy Father’s openness toward us. I’m not sure that the Reformation was a misunderstanding. After all, Luther was a trained theologian. He knew the tradition. He may not have known Thomas well but he knew Lombard. I think there’s another way to explain how we’ve been able to move closer together. Hold on. Let me tee off.”
*After RF dribbled his drive down the fairway, they climbed into the luxury golf cart and the conversation continued.*
RF: “You see, the harsh language used in the sixteenth century by Trent, Luther, and Calvin reflected their religious consciousness of God as a stern judge. They couldn’t really speak any other way. Things have changed, however. Our religious consciousness has changed. In the nineteenth century we learned that God is love. After Schleiermacher and Hermann we know now that religious speech simply expresses our experience of divine dependance. We’re not trapped by the old ways of speaking and thinking about the faith. That’s why those old anathemas don’t apply any more, because they’ve been superseded by a new, more mature consciousness of the divine. After all, we have Barth and you have Küng, Schillebeeckx, Rahner and Vatican II. It’s too bad that Ratzinger, er, I mean the Holy Father, moved to the right the way he did, but the new openness is most encouraging. I’m sure that the consultations at the World Council will produce much fruit. By the way, you’re welcome at Holy Communion with us any time Mike.”
FM: “Well, whatever brings back our rebellious brethren to Holy Mother and for all the saints and angels I’m all for it. I’m also for birdying this hole.”

Where Earnest Evangelical was simply ignorant of church history (his seminary covered everything from the Fathers to the Second Great Awakening in two short courses), Rev. Feelgood has found a more sophisticated way around the problem. Neither Cardinal Cassidy nor Father Mike have moved. They are loyal to holy Mother. They know that the magisterium has spoken and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is crystal clear. Thus they stand pat (O’ Brien).

Neither the evangelical nor the mainliner is so bound by any confession. Earnest does not have a confession since he is in the “Bible Church” tradition; and no one in Rev. Feelgood’s communion really pays attention to the Confession of 1967 anymore. After all, times have changed. That document represented the religious consciousness of the time, but Ed Dowey and the fellows were still poisoned by Barth’s antipathy for Rome. After John Paul II, we do not feel the same way. In addition to the two dozen programs already operating at St. John’s By-the-Sea, they have just added an ecumenical service and an emergent group at a nearby warehouse. The main thing is to facilitate the existential encounter with the Word and the feeling of divine dependence. It really does not matter how it comes about.

Though they look quite different, at bottom, both the mainliner and the evangelical have done the same thing. For his sophistication, Rev. Feelgood’s approach is just as radically subjective as the Earnest Evangelical’s approach. The latter is sweatier, more enthusiastic, less polished, more ignorant, more crass, and “bottom-line” oriented. What took Rev. Feelgood and the World Council three decades to do, EE was able to manage in just a few minutes. No wonder the EE’s of this world swept the field in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. It is much more pragmatically American. Rev. Feelgood is more patrician and European in style. Both EE and RF have resolved the Reformation crisis, not by facing the problems of objective, real, history, but by taking a subjective turn.

For both, the faith is not what it was in the first century, and certainly not what it was in the sixteenth century. Rather, the faith is what it is in us, what we experience now. Nunc super tunc. For RF and EE, our experience transcends the old disagreements, even if in different ways. Thus, Chuck Colson lived not by bread alone, but by every new word that came from the Holy Father—and he read those words against the background of what he “knew” to be true: that, despite whatever formal (rhetorical) theological differences may remain (though he did not see many), the real, underlying reality behind the rhetoric is that there is an actual, spiritual and even theological communion through personal experience of the risen Christ.

Was the Reformation a big misunderstanding? No. Not if actual, objective history still means anything. Is it possible to do away with history? Sure. Both RF and EE have done it in their own ways. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1989. Look at the footnotes. Noll and Nystrom are simply wrong.5

The Reformation is not over; and no, it is not over, not because angry, disaffected Reformed warrior children still need a cause, a reason to get out of bed. It would be a great relief if the Reformation were over (and Rome repented of her condemnation of the gospel!). The problem is that, for some of us, texts still mean what their authors intended. For some of us, objective reality still exists. It is not merely the product of my subjective experience. Traffic lights still work, and remarkably, the subjectivists have not found a way to experience red lights as green.

The Reformation is not over because the fundamental questions remain: What is the principle, unique authority for the Christian faith and life, and how are we right with God? Rome confesses one answer to those questions and confessional Protestants (as distinct from EE and RF) confess another. The two answers are irreconcilable.

The Reformation is not over, not by a long shot.6


  1. RSC, “The Pope a Protestant?
  2. RSC, “Is the Reformation Over?
  3. For more on the twofold kingdom, see RSC, “Resources On The Twofold Kingdom.” For more on the distinction between nature and grace, see RSC, “Resources On The Nature/Grace And Sacred/Secular Distinctions.”
  4. RSC, “The Pope a Protestant?
  5. RSC, “Is the Reformation Over?
  6. Shane Lems notes that the dialogue above is mirrored at Daniel Wallace, “51% Protestant,” Parchment and Pen (blog), February 1, 2009. I have had conversations with and heard accounts by prominent evangelicals which form the basis for the imaginary dialogue presented. It is not so imaginary, as much as the names of the earnest evangelicals have been withheld.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on the Heidelblog in 2009.


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  • 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.

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  1. Highly xlnt article, and I fully agree! I AM still learning, as we all should be. Thank you yet again, Dr. Clark, for yet another xlnt article of Truth✝️📖

  2. I was told by a retired college professor that a group of Jewish rabbi’s he met with blame the Reformation for much of the antisemitism that exists nowadays. Now, I am aware of some of the nasty things Luther said about the Jews, but to blame the Reformers at large for antisemitism is a pretty big stretch. Yet, I am also aware of many evangelicals who agree with their position.

    • The story is widely held. It is also lazy and oversimplified.

      Luther did write some despicable things. When he first became a protestant, he was very excited about the prospect of a mass conversion of the Jews. He was optimistic about a lot of things. He also thought, early on, that, after a few years, we might not even need the visible church anymore. He also had, early on, doubts about the book of James.

      He mature to beyond some of these things, but, as he aged, he became increasingly frustrated with the lack of response by European Jews, to the gospel.

      So, his later, often vicious, language about the Jews is part of his legacy.

      What the story doesn’t include is that antisemitism had been growing and had become widespread across Europe by the 16th century. In the 13th century Rome ruled that Jews had to stay off the street during holy week.

      In the 20th century people regularly drew straight lines from Luther to Hitler.

      One of the few people to do careful work on this was Heiko Oberman.

    • Thanks. Looks like Oberman wrote several books about Luther and the Reformation. Which one would you recommend for further reading on this matter? “The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation”?

  3. Confessional Reformed Theology presents the doctrinal Testimony of Jesus as stated in all Scripture. Distinguishing the battles and how to relate to the combatants with ‘the Truth’ of Scripture requires Grace and the objective knowledge of Christ’s dominion over this sea of confusion.

    I am grateful for the questions you raise and the opportunity to think through effective responses, for our own sake.


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