Martin Luther has a complex legacy. Many laud him as a historical and theological hero—the German reformer who drove a nail through the heart of works-based righteousness. Others lambast him as a derisive, ego-driven anti-Semite. Still others champion Luther as the humanist’s humanist, a 21st-century man liberating personal freedom and reason from the cold clutches of the dogmatic Catholic Church.
This is the kind of stuff that happens after half a millennium, when the tug-of-war between hagiographic fact-or-fiction is won and lost by a slew of different card-carrying demographics: Nazis, evangelical Southern Baptists, liberal historians, and so on. But after reading two delightful works of intellectual history (Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers and Michael Reeves’s The Unquenchable Flame), it’s clear Luther and his fellow Protestant reformers changed the course of church history.
How so? Let me name four ways.
1. It disarmed the ecclesial meritocracy that suppressed the common man.
“Do, or be damned”—that was the calling card of the Roman Catholic Church, willing to anathematize any antinomians who said otherwise. The 16th-century church service, before the Reformation took hold, was a mindless chore, a political requirement to accrue whatever grace dripped from priestly faucets. The Mass trickled out in Latin, unintelligible murmurs to most. And the Eucharist was a one-man show, wherein the priest would engage in a confusing act of metaphysical hijinks, transubstantiating bread to flesh and wine to blood for the supposed edification of all.
Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and others after them saw a problem. They believed justification is a one-time, unassailable verdict predicated on nothing more than the triune God’s election of a person. The reformers pointed to the Christian’s “alien righteousness,” attained fully through faith in Christ’s finished work at Calvary. This understanding upended the Catholic Church and its notions of “progressive,” drip-drip-drip justification.
Luther’s fully fleshed-out soteriology was still to come, and only after an intense study of Scripture. In other words, sola scriptura predicated sola fide; this is crucial to understanding the thrust of Reformation theology.
Zwingli came to similar convictions, without any direct influence, he said, from Luther’s writings. On January 1, 1519, Zwingli, still a Roman Catholic priest, did away with the traditional Latin lectionary and began expository sermons through the New Testament in his native tongue.
By 1525, he’d finished the entire New Testament and then moved on to exposit the Old. In the interim, Zwingli dissociated himself from the Catholic Church, decried papal and conciliar authority, and had the Mass abolished in Zurich, making it the world’s first magisterial Protestant state. Concurrently, Luther translated the Bible into German for his people and had published the Old Testament by 1534. All this in the name of getting the very Word of God to people in a way they could not only understand, but respond to.
These actions changed the face of the European church, paving the way for Protestantism as we know it. No longer were churchgoers passive recipients. Now they were free to be active participants, both intellectually and otherwise. Before, church was a top-down endeavor, but these breakthroughs opened the door to widespread ecclesiological shifts.
2. It reclaimed a biblical idea of the pastorate.
The Reformation also reclaimed the biblical picture of what a “pastor” or “priest” is supposed to be. The days of unintelligibly going through the motions had passed. In its place stood pastors who were not mediatorial, but were tasked with riveting their people’s hearts and minds on Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between holy God and sinful man.
Post-Reformation, faithful pastors no longer try to impart grace or effect salvation in any way. They merely lift eyes to the cross and all the heavenly blessings therein. They’re no longer fountainheads of grace, but arrows pointing us to the inexhaustible riches that God’s people have in Christ.
Here, however, we find a two-edged sword, one that cuts in a positive direction but also leaves an individual without a mediator before God. If the priest won’t mediate for us, who will? The Reformation highlighted that every Christian’s circumstance is indeed dire; previously, this may have been obfuscated by pious and sacramental charades, but now it stands in plain sight. One begins to resonate with Luther’s perpetual soul-wrenching doubt.
3. It restored the sacraments to the people—and began untethering church from state.
How did this shift play out? It most obviously changed the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Paedobaptism was an unquestioned staple of the Catholic Church. But it was also a theological conviction held by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—along with basically all their contemporaries. With considerable disagreements everywhere else, why the similarity at this point?
Answers to these questions have countless layers. But given that not all reformers held to paedobaptism—Menno Simons and the Anabaptists, for example—one must venture a guess.
Here’s a possible reason: Luther, Calvin, and the rest simply couldn’t envision a church independent from the state. The religious-political roots ran too deep, so much that Luther referred to the church as the “right hand of God” and the state as “the left hand of God.” Though Simons and the separatist Anabaptists pushed the buck too far in pursuing baptism apart from the church, they’re closer to how credobaptists today understand the ordinance. So, though the Reformation didn’t jumpstart a universal acceptance of believer’s baptism, it provided the future framework for it.
4. It paved the way for cooperation that upheld unity amid theological diversity.
Throughout the Reformation, little caused as much disagreement as the Lord’s Supper. Though the reformers departed from Rome, they also departed from one another.
For example, Luther vehemently decried transubstantiation as a kind of metaphysical mysticism but argued for a theological halfway house called “consubstantiation,” which relied on an Aristotelian model of “forms” and “accidents.” According to Luther, during the Eucharist the forms of the body and blood of Christ join “in, with, and under” the accidents of the bread and the wine.
Calvin thought the views of both Luther and Rome were metaphysically untenable. He affirmed what’s called a “spiritual presence” where, during the Lord’s Supper, Christ is present, but only spiritually.
Zwingli took it a step further, arguing for a “memorialist” view where, in eating the bread and drinking the cup, God’s people simply proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until he returns while reaping the benefits of his presence.
Zwingli’s departure, Luther snorted, was sacrilege. To deny the bodily presence of Christ in his Supper is to deny his omnipresence. This disagreement came to a head in October 1529 when Luther and Zwingli met, at the behest of Phillip of Hesse, to attempt a pan-Protestant alliance against the pope and his pressing military force. To no surprise, the two couldn’t ignore their difference on this point, and no alliance was born.
In retrospect, such theological quibbling seems myopic. With all that was at stake, couldn’t these two Protestant figureheads forego the theological minutiae and establish some sort of co-belligerency? Unfortunately, not.
Nonetheless, the Reformation’s reframing of the Lord’s Supper had overwhelmingly positive results. Though full agreement rarely came, one truth remained unalterably clear: the Eucharist does not confer grace; that’s exclusively the purview of Christ and his cross.
The same should be said about the other biblical sacrament, baptism. With Simons and the Anabaptists, the groundwork toward credobaptism had been established. Despite what the Catholic Church said, paedobaptism cannot confer grace and is not salvific. No one, by mere happenstance of birth, is wrought in spiritual privilege.
At the same time, neither is one born in under-privilege because the Reformation made it startlingly clear: Golgotha’s ground is level. And the blood shed there is for Protestants and Catholics, anti-Semites and evangelical Southern Baptists, Germans and Frenchmen, liberal historians, and first-year seminarians—all unrighteous ones who need a Savior’s alien righteousness.