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Reformation

by the Reverend Dr John Bunyan

Next year—on 31st, October 2017—will be the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther putting forth his 95 Theses at Wittenberg—traditionally seen as the beginning of the Reformation and a further great schism in Christianity, this time in western Europe.

In fact, the 'Reformation' had many causes and it was a source of both bane and blessing. Many books have been written on the subject (see below). I also have recently compiled a small book Beauty and Truth: Reflections and 24 Songs for a Reasonable Reformation: 2017.

My book is intended to counter the old black and white 'Protestant' account of the Reformation—the kind that Mark Thompson presents in the Southern Cross (November issue), with its broad generalizations. That approach neglects modern historical studies—Protestant and Roman Catholic—in particular, modern Roman Catholic scholarship. I therefore include reflections upon the Reformation, acknowledging the great blessings it has brought, but noting also the great damage it has done. Evil results include, for example, deep and long-lasting divisions among Christians; decades of war and violence; in Europe, the expulsion of Jews, the gaoling or execution on both sides of those regarded as heretics; vandalising of churches and the destruction of wonderful art (despite opposition from many of the clergy and laity); the loss of cherished, familiar devotions and traditions, and the dissolution of monasteries, ending their contribution to civic life, education, and community care.

Much will be written of Protestant Reformation 'heroes'. However, I cannot help associating Calvin with the burning of Servetus, applauded by many other Protestant leaders; Zwingli with the drowning of anabaptists, and Cranmer with his sentencing simple Bible Christians (in his own court) to death by burning because they could not find the Trinity in the Scriptures. Of course, there were horrific actions by their opponents, especially in the reign of Queen Mary I. Earlier, Sir Thomas More, for all his piety, helped to hunt William Tyndale to death for distributing his Scripture translations. None, however, can equal Luther in attacks upon Jewish people and Judaism (except perhaps John Chrysostom who urged their killing). Many other 'saints', including Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose wrote appallingly of the Jews. Luther, however, called for the burning of Jewish synagogues and schools, the destruction of Jewish homes, the confiscation of prayer books and sacred writings, the seizing of valuables, and their expulsion from Christian lands. He sowed evil seeds that eventually helped bring forth the monstrous deeds of Nazis who happily quoted his writings. Some Lutheran churches have repudiated these views. Too many writers have played them down as has Mark Thompson (absurdly claiming Luther 'looks calm and eirenic' in comparison with John Knox).

Lutheran Churches, I think, could well mark the 1517 anniversary by replacing the name 'Lutheran', where used in their titles, with 'Evangelical' or 'Protestant'. It would be a good year for all of us, who claim to follow Jesus, to examine, with a great deal of repentance, the anti-Judaism in our own history (and in our hymns and preaching, and even in the New Testament). And to learn more of the historic 'Jewish rabbi' about whom such scholars as the late Geza Vermes and Joseph Neusner have taught us.

Fortunately, the Reformation had other leaders. In my book I refer to the eirenic Mennonites, 'Seekers', tolerant, liberal protestants such as Juan de Valdés and King John Sigismund, and 'evangelical rationalists'. There is also a list of 100 Christians who have contributed in varying ways to a reasonable, moderate, liberal reformation tradition from the 16th century to the present. They include the Roman Catholic Erasmus, reformer Sebastian Castellio, Quaker martyr, Mary Dyer (executed by the Boston Puritans), and radical 'Digger', Gerrard Winstanley.

Books recommended: Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Caros M.N. Eire (Yale, 2016). Diarmaid MacCulloch's earlier book The Reformation: A History (Penguin, 2005) and Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Reformation (Harper Collins, 2007). Other books are listed in Beauty and Truth : Reflections and 24 Songs for a Reasonable Reformation: 2017 ($12 plus $2 postage).