Note: This was a Reformation Day address that I gave twice: once at a 2003 Reformation Day conference hosted by Community Presbyterian Church (PCA), Louisville, Ky., and again at a 2004 Reformation Day service hosted by Illiana Presbytery in Waterloo, Ill. A shortened version of it will appear in chap. 9 of On Being Presbyterian.
My question this evening that I would like to explore with you is, “What if the Reformation never happened?” To understand why this question is attractive, you have to understand historians. We are not like engineers, who would say, “Well, this is a silly question. Of course, the Reformation happened; not much point in thinking about it not happening since it did. Let’s get on with something truly productive!” Historians, or those with a natural bent toward thinking about history, love what are called “counterfactuals.” A counterfactual is literally something that is contrary to fact; but for a historian, it is the opportunity to wonder, speculate, and dream. We get to play Monday Morning Quarterback on the span and sweep of history, by asking, “What if?” Indeed, an book published in 2000 was devoted to the topic, entitled Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals. What if Constantine does not have his famous “In this sign, conquer” dream? What if Jonathan Edwards had survived his small pox inoculation? What if Great Britain changed their mind on the whole problem of representation and admitted colonial members of parliament in the 1760s? What if Stonewall Jackson had let someone else reconnoiter the lines at Chancellorsville? What if Germany had invaded Great Britain in 1940? What if the Reformation had never happened?
Asking the question is not as far fetched as it may seem for many of you. In a 2003 essay in the journal Church History, Duke University professor Hans Hillerbrand took up the question, “Was there a Reformation in the sixteenth century?” Recent scholarship has argued that the periods directly preceding and succeeding the Reformation period of 1500 to 1550 were “more powerful, effecting more lasting change, and entailing more profound social significance.” The result has been that “the Reformation as an event of exciting discontinuity and innovation lost its credibility.” Instead, contemporary scholars have proposed a model that suggests viewing the Reformation as “part of a broader societal development that, beginning with the fourteenth century, modified and changed the medieval synthesis.”
While there is something undoubtedly true about this thesis—for all would admit that Reformation theologians and leaders did operate within the sphere of medieval intellectual thought forms and political arrangements—this thesis ultimately minimizes the basic understanding that Protestants have cherished about the Reformation for almost five hundred years, namely, that during the period we call the Reformation, a significant group of men and women came to the discovery, or perhaps better recovery, of the Gospel of free justification, which had been generally lost in the medieval church and culture. This group protested (hence, became Protestants) the movement of the Catholic church away from the Gospel as contained in Scripture, eventually breaking away from that church to form new church connections that sought to honor the principle of Scripture alone in the development of church polity, worship, doctrine, and ethics. And these Protestants were able to claim the allegiance of a significant number of cities, towns, and eventually states and countries, which joined in the process of reforming church and state in differing degrees in line with sola Scriptura.
Perhaps, then, one way of demonstrating the genuine significance of the Reformation event is to pose the question we have already suggested: what if the Reformation never happened? What would the church and the people’s religious practices have looked like? What would have characterized society and its culture? What would the future have held for those countries that did embrace the Reformation and those countries not yet born? I would suggest several things.
1. The Roman Catholic Church would have secularized completely and become largely irrelevant to European politics and culture by the seventeenth century.
Many folks “know” that the Roman Catholic Church was corrupt when Martin Luther nailed his famous theses to the Wittenburg Church door. But many are probably unaware how pervasive the corruption was and how unstable the church had become. After the papacy of Innocent III (1198-1216), the rule of Rome suffered serious setbacks. Eventually, in 1378, rival popes were set up, one in Rome (Urban VI) and the other in Avignon, France (Clement VII); these rival popes divided the Catholic nations, with England and its allies supporting Urban and France and its supporters following Clement. The divided papacy was the result of political pressures and patronage from the French king and Italian lords; money and power were at the base. Attempts at resolving the division through the conciliar movement only created more confusion. The Council of Pisa, in 1409, declared both Urban and Clement to be heretical, deposed them, and elected a third pope, Alexander V. Thus, approximately one hundred years before Martin Luther, the Corpus Christendom was a divided body, a three-headed monster, which demanded address.
Eventually, the church did rectify the political problem that it had created. Ironically, it was able to do so by virtue of some “forerunners of the Reformation” alerting them of the danger these divisions were causing among the populous. John Huss of Bohemia (what is now the Czech republic) and John Wyclif of England were both agitating for wide-ranging reforms in the church, including translating Scripture into the vernacular languages and returning communion in both kinds to the laity. In 1414, the Council of Constance was called to deal firmly with these rebel movements. Along the way, they also dealt with the rebel popes, reuniting the church under Martin V in 1417. But the discontent signaled by Huss and Wycliff continued to bubble under the surface of the church’s renewed calm exterior.
What made this so problematic for lay people was the rising level of spiritual anxiety that characterized the fifteenth century. Evidenced not only by the Hussite and Wycliff rebellions but also by the pervasive attachment to magic and primal religious forces, devout church people longed to believe. This spiritual anxiety was typified in the baptismal ritual of the fifteenth century, which were dominated by exorcisms of various types. As liturgical scholar Hughes Oliphant Old noted, “The whole [baptismal] service gave the impression of being a long series of exorcisms concluded by a baptism.” With this pervasive belief in devils, witches, and other oppositional forces, coupled together with the transforming political and economic culture at the beginning of the sixteenth century, lay people were looking to the church for answers. Yet due to its moral and political corruption, the church was unable to respond effectively to the challenge. To be sure, many laypeople continued on in their devotion to the rituals of the church, without worrying about the developing crisis in that body. Yet there was a growing anticlericalism and a developing sense among some about the church’s irrelevance.
All of these factors—ecclesiastical, political, and psychological--contributed to the rise of the Reformation as a powerful religious, political, and cultural movement. But if the Reformation never happened, it would be conceivable that this state of affairs would have continued. Of course, there would be continued attempts within the church to reform. However, as historian Euan Cameron has suggested, most of the avenues for reform had been attempted by 1500. Internal reform was limited by the sheer size and complexity of the church’s bureaucracy. As a result, it is entirely conceivable that without the Reformation, the church would have caved in on itself and rendered itself irrelevant.
Though it may have become irrelevant before the seventeenth century, certainly by that time, a corrupted church, unwilling to bear reform and unable to be reformed, would no longer have commanded the respect and attention of European society. The Enlightenment age, with its exaltation of reason over revelation and the “superstitions” of the age, would have ignored the church and its claims. In particular, the challenge of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and his Levithan, which argued for a thoroughgoing materialism and utilitarian political rule based on that reality with total allegiance given to the state, would have been unanswerable—for centuries, the church had pursued that same strategy as popes maximized their profits and pleasures under the banner of “might makes right.” Any protest lodged by the church against Enlightenment thought would have been met with a scoff and shrug. Without the Reformation, there would have been a thoroughly secular Europe by the end of the seventeenth century.