In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I think it’s important to revisit certain truths, not only doctrinal, but historical as well. I’ve written previously about the idea of the Reformation being over. That is, in the view of some, the level of agreement between former ecclesiastical foes is now so small that we can put the Reformation behind us and join together. That is a non-starter, in my view, not because I have anything against unity, but because there is still a chasm between the fundamental definition of salvation between Protestants and others. Salvation is doubtless the most important difference, but there are also other important doctrines such as the definition of the Church, the person and work of Christ, where there remain wide divergences between evangelicals and sacramental traditions.
But there is the historical as well. One sometimes hears that prior to the Reformation, though there were certainly problems in the Church, there wasn’t the kind of division that the Reformation brought. But that is not historically accurate. Long before the Reformation there were deep divisions in the Church, or perhaps it’s better to say, Churches.
A major fissure was caused by the “filioque” clause. If you’re not familiar with this issue, it came about due to the addition of a clause to the Nicene creed, to say that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the the father and the son (filioque). The decision to add that to the creed, (putatively at the Council of Toledo in 589) was made without consultation with other bishops, specifically those of the East. The Eastern churches greeted this as a heresy and a doctrinal innovation that could not stand. The issue festered for centuries, amid (truly!) Byzantine politics, with bishops and patriarchs trading anathemas back and forth. The added clause was formally accepted by Rome in 1014. Forty years later in 1054, the “Great Schism” officially came about. This pre-Reformation separation of East and West continues to the current day.
A couple of hundred years after that, the Western Church (aka Roman Catholic) had its own schism. This was due to nothing doctrinal, but all political. There came a time when there were three simultaneous popes. If the Church sets up a system where one man sits atop the org chart, then having three CEOs makes it difficult to know who’s in charge. That schism was officially ended at the Council of Constance in 1414-1418. But, notably, one of the decrees the Council published was this: “All persons of whatever rank or dignity, even a Pope, are bound to obey it in matters relating to faith and the end of the schism and the general reformation of the Church of God in head and members.” In other words, the Council issued a papal takedown, and demanded that pontiffs obey conciliar decrees as the highest law of the Church. The schism was formally healed, (and future popes more or less ignored the outcome) but the ideas of conciliarism never really went away. This, too, had nothing to do with the Reformation. One need only look to very recent history to see that all is not well in the Roman Catholic Church. There is consternation among many about the current pope and where he may be taking the Church.
These examples from history represent the fact that the roots of division may not be doctrinal at all, and are quite often political. Both underlying causes can (and have) resulted in division. In a sense, the Reformation can be seen as just one more example of the Church dividing itself, but with important differences. The doctrinal matters surrounding the Reformation put divisions based on political differences into their proper perspective. They were most often the result of pride and selfish ambition. The Reformers held the gospel itself in highest esteem, and that is why they spoke out as they did. What the previous divisions had in common was that they assumed that the highest authority was the Church itself. As some have said, they operated on the principle of sola ecclesia. The Reformation of course came about due to different principles; that the Church was subject to Scripture. The Word of God is over the people of God. This was needed reform in a Church that had lost its way. When a division such as the Reformation became inevitably necessary, we should remember that there are some things worth fighting for. Paul makes it fairly clear at the start of the Galatian epistle that the integrity of the gospel message is one of those things.
The next time someone shakes their head in dismay over the divisions the Reformation caused, remember too that it represents a great recovery of truth, and that legacy is still one worth standing up for.