Reflections on a Year of Studying Reformation Contexts

I’ve come to the end of my year-long study on the history of the Protestant Reformation. I had started the year out with an ambitious goal of reading on the Reformation, broadly defined. What I soon realized, however, was that my subject was too large to really get my hands around in a year (perhaps ever?). In light of all my reading and studying, however, I have learned a few things. Here are some of my favorite insights from the year:

  1. There was a significant amount of detail that set the context for the birth of the Reformation. As I began my study I decided to start chronologically from the beginning. What were the issues that led to the development of the Reformation? What theological insights and discussions set the context for its birth? These questions drove me back into the late Middle Ages and I was blown away by how much content there was to study. The key discussions, figures, and debates of the preceding era played highly influential roles in the development of Luther’s thought and his own arguments. Without awareness of those elements we will always tend towards reductionist explanations of the Reformation.
  2. The Reformation was NOT a debate about tradition versus Scripture. This is the way that Protestants often frame the history of the Reformation, but it is a simplistic explanation. In fact, Luther often used tradition and history to prove his point. He believed that tradition, especially Augustine, has pointed to the supremacy of Scripture. Many of Luther’s arguments were first developed by those in the late Middle Ages, see Wycliffe and Bernard of Clairvaux for example. And the rediscovery of Augustine had fueled his theological study. The Reformation was not about tradition versus Scripture, but about the proper place for each.
  3. Luther’s Progression from Loyal Monk to Religious Rebel was Slow. This seems an obvious statement. After all, who makes such a dramatic shift quickly or with ease. Yet, it is common for pop-history to paint Luther as this contentious monk with a fully formed theology by 1517. The common depiction of Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the church door has him looking back over his shoulder as if to say, “Your move boys!” But the progression was much slower. Luther was a man in development. He was a man with questions and insecurities. He was a man with deep fears and it took a long time for him to come to a fully formed Protestant theology.
  4. Critique of the Papacy had a long history preceding Luther. Luther was not the first to question the role, rights, and jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authority. Many prior to him had raised question, argued about it, and written on the subject. While it is not true that people were looking for an excuse to reject the Pope, there were many who were frustrated with the church and uncertain about some of its theology. There was, then, fertile soil for the Reformation to take root.
  5. Luther most likely struggled with OCD. This was perhaps one of the most fascinating insights for me. Ian Osborn has done a masterful job of arguing this point drawing from both source and secondary material to make his case. Luther’s own insecurities and eccentricities are well-known and yet they parallel the symptoms of what we know today as obsessive-compulsive disorder. What is more fascinating, perhaps, is the way that God used Luther’s disordered habits to propel him into theological study and the birth of Protestantism!

There were many fascinating things that I read this year and found insightful, eye-opening, and clarifying. Reading from and about Thomas Aquinas was interesting. Reading some of Wycliffe’s contributions to the theological landscape of his time proved especially clarifying for understanding a pre-Reformation context. I also found reading about Duns Scotus and Ockham fascinating. My personal study of the 95 Theses was also insightful in demonstrating that I didn’t know what I thought I did about that document (there’s no justification by faith in it!). All in all this was a great study.

I have studies the Reformation off and on for years, spending a great deal of time focused on Luther in particular. This year, however, I enjoyed trying to put Luther into a more honest historical context. Studying the Reformation was challenging but rewarding, and while I didn’t go as deep as I would have liked, there was still a lot of insight and clarification gained.

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