31 October 2017

The Irony of the Reformation

Ever since, as an 18 year old college freshman, I first read Roland Bainton’s biography of Martin Luther (Here I Stand), I’ve been struck by the irony of how October 31, 1517 came to be. The standard tale, which is hardly disputed, is that Luther was exercised over the abuse of one of the holy sacraments; namely, the Sacrament of Penance (Private Confession). He was exercised, not because he thought that sacrament was illegitimately termed a sacrament, or that it imposed the clergy between God and the person. Luther never advocated the abolition of Private Confession. Rather, Luther was exercised because the sale of indulgences was pastorally destructive. In other words, it destroyed the pastoral means of curing the soul. And it did so by encouraging the average person to think that, with one piece of paper, he no longer needed to go to confession.

This abuse, this despising of the sacrament, which undermined the best of pastoral care—this is what caused Luther to re-examine Rome’s understanding of forgiveness. Justification was the theological term. But, as at least one Lutheran scholar has pointed out, the abstract notion of justification takes on concrete form when the penitent sinner, after confessing before a faithful witness, hears, outside of himself, God’s forgiveness by one authorized (ordained) to speak it.

What is ironic is that a protest against the despising of a sacrament very quickly morphed into a rebellion against most (if not all) of the sacraments, as well as against the very means that Christ set up to administer justification individually to the repentant sinner. It’s as if the patients, upon hearing that the medicine was being withheld, then determined—with all manner of support—to overturn the entire medical profession and, in fact, all medical science in order to establish their own self-serving cures.

Now, that might seem a bit harsh, but that’s not my intent. My intent is merely to point out, in stark terms, how awry went Luther’s academic propositions for (in his mind in 1517) well-meaning debate. And also this: to remind the reader that Luther’s initial concern—that Private Confession was threatened—led to a large group of Christians who continue the same vehement insistence as the indulgence-bearing hedonists that Luther wanted to heal. For both the by-gone indulgence wavers and today’s Protestants have in common the desire not merely to avoid, but to deride the precious and living-renewing Sacrament of Penance.