This is the second part of an essay I'm writing about the Reformation.
I broke it up into a few pieces, so we can simplify the debate that I'm sure will follow: Schism?
At the writing of the Disputation (95 Theses), Luther didn’t intend or desire to divide the church. Yes, he identified a number of issues where the Catholics had gone astray. And yes, he was often crude and hot-tempered in his criticisms of the pope. But even within the text of this important document he continued to affirm, not condemn, many important Catholic teachings. He defended papal supremacy (#5 and 6), the authority of canon law (#13 and 22), and the necessity of confession (with the aid of a priest) for remission of sins (#2 and 7). And perhaps most surprisingly, he affirmed the pope’s authority to grant (but not sell) indulgences (#41, 44, 47, 69, and others). Even ten years later, he continued to assert the Catholic belief that Mary remained a sinless virgin throughout her life. His heart’s desire was that the church might, well, reform; that she might change her erroneous ways.
When his pleas fell on deaf ears in Rome, he grew increasingly impatient. Frustrated, he established a new congregation in 1525 and experimented with new models for worship and church governance, composing two new catechisms and a German-language Mass. Priests from other parishes, even other countries, looked to him for guidance; yet he didn’t attempt to consolidate his authority over them. But did he actually see himself as setting up a competing denomination? That depends on who you ask, and how you interpret the answer. The other reformers of his era, such as the Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli, complained that Luther’s new way was barely distinguishable from the old.
One thing is certain: years after Luther’s death, a group of disaffected Catholics dusted off his books, crystallized them into a new type of canon, and (against his known explicit wishes) began to call themselves by his name.
As we have seen, the church of the 16th century was badly in need of reform. The existing leaders had shown themselves to be poor stewards of the Good News, and it was only a matter of time until the long-simmering discontent would boil over into the public square. Few honest students of church history would disagree with this estimation. But what would be the remedy?
# Two Steps Forward…
To be sure, many of us are happy to claim the Reformation-era teachers as our religious ancestors. They rejected a system under which the authority of God was seen as coming from the human leaders of the church, and clergymen claimed the authority to forgive sins. The power of religion was attributed to the many rituals, “holy