Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Playing With Fire

What were the reformers thinking when they challenged the papacy? Did they want to destroy the church? No. They wanted to reform it. Can you reform something by attacking it's leaders so strongly and so personally? It isn't likely. But they did have some recent history that might have made them think it possible. I am referring to the scandal of multiple popes that occurred in the 14th century. There you had multiple factions attacking each other pretty strongly and they managed to get it all back together. It is likely that Luther and Calvin compared the crisis they were creating with that and felt God would just fix the problem.

It is a sin of presumption. If you think God saved you from a car crash once do you start driving even faster? You might. But the more prudent course would be to not push you luck. The church was very close to falling apart and didn't. So the reformers thought they could push it there again and get away with it. Even when the Council of Trent came and went without bringing protestants back into the fold many were still optimistic that the church would come back together.

We have gotten so used to splits we can see them coming a mile away. The church I was raised in split over women in office. Many predicted it 20 years before it happened. They could not prevent it without ceasing to be protestant but they could see it coming. The reformers could not see it coming. They had not experienced split after split like we have. To them it was unthinkable. To us it is not even remarkable.

I remember with the financial crisis people commented that the failure of certain institutions went straight from impossible to inevitable without passing through unlikely. I think the reformation was like that. It happens when someone is in denial. The next generation comes along and notices the split that could never happen has already happened.

The next generation tried to make the reformation work. They tried to treat heretics as heretics. That is as an evil to be removed from society. It led to wars. So many wars with so little resolution that Europe just could not continue fighting. But the decision to end the wars came at a price. It resulted in the devaluing of religion in general. If it was not worth fighting for it was not worth living for. People learned to forget about what they believed and focus on temporal matters.

I don't think Luther or Calvin ever dreamed their squabble with the pope would result in so many Europeans abandoning religion as the center of their life. But that is the way with sin. No drug addict ever set out to become a drug addict. People play with fire and are shocked when the house burns down. A simple idea like denying the authority of the pope and the bishops made Christianity so much weaker. People still can't see it.

1 comment:

  1. I think that's a great analysis, Randy. It reminds me strongly of the central them of Msgr. Ronald Knox's book Let Dons Delight-- each generation thinks, "I can reject doctrine and authority that doesn't suit me," and never considers that the next generation, lacking that authority, will slide even further down the slope.