So I don’t want to come across like a fastidious person or anything, but there were a couple of things recently that I thought were kind of in poor taste. (“Just a couple? Where do you live, man?”)
I mean a couple of things regarding Reformation 500, the half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation yesterday, and I am talking about a couple things from the Protestant side. I am not talking about all the funny Wittenberg door memes, or the general horsing around that characterizes robust theological debate. (“No, I am not fixing the door. I am fixing your theology.”) So it is not that I think we have to be all sanctimonious about Reformation history. I mean, it is not like we are talking about the signing of the Declaration of Independence or anything.
Special note to a select cadre of my readers. That was a joke.
But here’s the thing. Russell Moore tweeted out this picture, presenting himself as the bridge between Luther and Pope Francis. This is wrong on any number of levels, but I want to focus on just one of them.
And the day before yesterday, in a similar vein, Peter Leithart published this article at Fox News, an article describing how Luther’s Reformation had failed.
Now Moore’s tweet was a joke with a serious point in the subtext, while Leithart’s article was an abstract of the central point he was arguing in his book The End of Protestantism. That means that my objection to both is not as judgy in Moore’s case, but it is still the same basic objection.
Now even assuming that both gentlemen were correct in what they were urging — which I actually do not grant, but bear with me — this struck me as the equivalent of taking the occasion of your mother’s 75th birthday to raise a toast to all her many deficiencies. Even if you were right about those deficiencies, especially if you were right about them, it just seems like a cold thing to do. It sort of dampens the enthusiasm of the party, and then guests start leaving early, muttering jeepers. And then, there you are with yet another awkward family moment.
In short, honor your mother, so that your life may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
And now just another brief word on the merits. There are any number of ways to make the substantive point that Peter wanted to make without that disrespect—the Reformation continues, the incomplete Reformation, semper reformanda, the unfinished work of the Reformation, etc. Future catholicity is set before us in the New Testament (Eph. 4:12-13), and anyone who kicks at that is kicking against God’s revealed purposes for the history of the church. Peter and I agree on the eventual reunion of all believers. It is just that Peter thinks it should have happened by now, and my best guess is that we are looking at another couple thousand years, right on schedule. In the meantime, I want us to speak more respectfully about our mom.
I think Peter Leithart’s mistake here is a category mistake. It is a mistake borne of impatience, which is an odd mistake for a postmillennialist to fall into. What does it mean to say that a historical event like the Reformation “failed” at anything? How is success to be measured, and how much time do we have? So this is a football game—what quarter are we in?
At the end of history, a hundred years before the Eschaton say, would it make sense to say that the Industrial Revolution failed? Or that the discovery of America failed? Or that the Bronze Age was a total wash?
And turning to matters of a more spiritual nature, and taking it down to the level of individuals, what then? After all, Peter’s title said that it was Luther’s Reformation that failed. Did Paul’s second missionary journey fail? Did Polycarp’s martyrdom fail? Was Latimer whistling in the dark with all that bluster about his candle never going out? No, because that is not how the work of the kingdom proceeds. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The Lord who remembers every cup of cold water given in His name will not tally up one of the greatest works of His Spirit in history as a FAIL. The Father and Son did not say to the Spirit anything like, “Nice try.”
That said, when we are pronouncing on the meaning of history, which is inescapable, we still need to recall that it is quite a tricky thing. We need to remember that God often deals from the bottom of the deck. A string of quotations may help us remember this as we gather up our things and prepare to leave this blog post. Herbert Schlossberg once said, “The Bible can be interpreted as a string of God’s triumphs disguised as disasters.” And here is Chesterton: “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” And Charles Williams says somewhere that the altar is sometimes built in one place so that the fire may fall in another.