Benjamin Wiker’s latest book The Reformation 500 Years Later is not a standard history of the Reformation but a reflection on certain issues and tendencies that either helped inspire and influence it or have subsequently been influenced by it. Surveying the Reformation five centuries after the fact, Wiker has sought to make his work of the utmost relevance to 21st-century readers by illustrating how certain tendencies at work then are still at work today.
Wiker writes in a spirit of reconciliation, noting that today Catholics and Protestants alike suffer persecution around the world at the hands of militant Islam and in the West at the hands of ‘the dominant decaying secularized culture’. Wiker states:
The world desperately needs the light of Jesus Christ in these ever-darker times. The fate of Christianity is the fate of the world. If that light should flicker out, there is no other. I offer this book in the hopes that it may, by the grace of God, help in some small way to rekindle the flame in this, the twenty-first century of Christianity, so that it may not be the last. The Reformation is ending, but Christianity must not.
What follows is a brisk, easy-to-read and fascinating history. Wiker chronicles the history of reform in the church prior to the Reformation. Scripture, especially St Paul’s epistles, shows there was no pristine early church but rather a church that struggled with heresy, corruption, and immorality among its members from the beginning, and was always engaged in the necessary work of reform.
Wiker argues that the Papal States were a major cause of the Reformation. Following the Donation of Pepin in the 8th century, the papacy came into possession of extensive lands. The pope was now a feudal lord and the papacy soon became a coveted prize for wealthy Italian families. Wiker does not flinch from describing the depravity of some truly terrible popes. In the 10th century, the papacy fell under the control of the Theophylacti family. The first of the popes under their influence was Sergius III (904-911) who ordered the murder of his two predecessor popes and subsequently had his illegitimate son elevated to the papal throne. The papacy of this era has been called the ‘pornocracy’. This corrupt period was decisively ended by the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor and the reforms of good and holy popes such as St Leo IX and St Gregory VII.
During the Renaissance there was another group of genuinely corrupt and immoral popes. This included Sixtus IV, who won the papacy through bribery and proceeded to fill the College of Cardinals with his relatives; Alexander VI, who fathered at least eight illegitimate children; and Julius II, the ‘Warrior Pope’ who led troops into battle and of whom it was said ‘there was nothing of the priest about him but the cassock, and he did not always wear that.’ A concern with secular rather than spiritual matters characterized the popes of the time. That this decadence was a major cause of Luther’s revolt is undoubtedly true and ‘there is no denying the righteousness of that anger that gave rise to the revolt’.
Yet there is also no denying that Martin Luther was a deeply flawed man. Wiker states that while Catholics need to admit that the bad popes really were bad, Protestants also need to realize that Luther was no saint. Caught in a thunderstorm and fearing for his life, the young Luther made a rash vow to become a monk, a vow he deeply regretted. Luther, suggests Wiker, had no real vocation to religious life and no order or monastery today would accept someone under such conditions. Luther’s dissatisfaction with his vocation and guilty conscience led him to believe he could never truly satisfy God through good works and, after reflection on St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, concluded that justification could be obtained solely by faith. The logical consequence of this belief was that the religious life to which he had previously devoted himself became pointless and he dispensed with all but two of the sacraments.
Excommunicated by the pope and censured by the emperor, Luther turned to the German princes for support, exploiting their nationalistic anti-Roman feelings. Luther’s doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ declared that baptism makes all men priests. This doctrine, Wiker tells us, ‘immediately leveled the playing field between the spiritual and temporal powers, popes and princes. Why should a prince, who was now a pope, obey a pope who was merely acting like a prince?’ As a result, Luther’s thinking greatly advanced the state takeover of the church in Germany and elsewhere and Luther himself encouraged this.
Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura, or ‘scripture alone,’ meant that each man had the power to interpret Scripture for himself. Inevitably this led to an explosion of sects many of whom believed Luther’s reforms had not gone far enough. Thus, Huldrych Zwingli dispensed with all sacraments, called all religious images idolatrous, and banned music in church; a wave of iconoclasm broke out with the widespread destruction of images, others questioned the need for baptism, while the Anabaptists denied the legitimacy of infant baptism and set about re-baptising adults.
Others exploited Luther’s revolt in an attempt to bring about a political and social revolution, much to Luther’s horror. This was expressed in the Peasants Rebellion, which Luther called on the authorities to suppress with the utmost brutality. In a tract against the peasant rebels, Luther demanded that the princes kill both the innocent and guilty until the rebellion ceased. “All their blood is on my neck. But I know it from our Lord God that he commanded me to speak”.
Atheism, paganism, Islam
Much of the above may already be familiar to those with a decent knowledge of the Reformation, but Wiker also reveals several striking and lesser known facts. Wiker argues that atheism, paganism, and even Islam had a significant effect on the Reformation.
It is often thought that atheism first manifested itself strongly during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. But, as Wiker shows, the atheist mindset can be traced back to the ancient Greek writer, Epicurus. Epicurus was a materialist who believed that the central goal of human beings is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, the basic principle of our modern hedonistic society. To Epicurus, human beings were mere atoms. They had no immaterial souls and therefore no need to think about God or the afterlife. They therefore could live as they pleased. With the revival of pagan thought in the Renaissance, the ideas of Epicurus once again became popular. Renaissance thinkers used the writings of ancient skeptics to attack the central dogmas of Christianity. Leading Renaissance writers denied the Trinity and the immaterial soul while others advocated sexual libertinism. It is interesting to contemplate how far a pleasure-loving pope like Alexander VI might have been influenced by Epicurean philosophy.
Due to the moral corruption of the papacy in this era and the fact that Italy was the center of the Renaissance, many Protestants have blamed the decadent Catholic Church of this time for the spread of atheism. But Wiker states that Protestants were also to blame. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was used by some to justify all sorts of license and a ‘radical redefinition of the faith’. Certain communities of Anabaptists for example, practiced polygamy. An Anabaptist synod of 1550 denied the divinity of Christ and doubted the reliability of the Bible, which Wiker calls ‘a strange result of the Protestant focus on the Bible alone as the source of authority.’ Wiker concludes that
both Catholics and Protestants share the blame for aiding the cause of modern atheism. If papal corruption…can be held accountable…so too can Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura, which not only created a multitude of different Protestant variations based upon rival interpretations, but reinforced the existing skeptical notion that the Bible was not revealed truth, and that Christianity was entirely subjective – just as irrational as any ancient pagan religion.
One of the most surprising facts explored in this book is the role played by Islam in the Reformation. Many today believe that the West is in danger of being overwhelmed by Islam. This was even more the case in the 16th century when a large part of southeastern Europe had fallen to the Turks, who showed every sign of advancing further. Many, including Luther, interpreted this as a sign of the end times and divine judgment on a sinful Church. Both pope and emperor saw resistance to the Turks as their priority. But Luther said, “To fight against the Turk is the same as resisting God, who visits our sin upon us with his rod”. To Luther, the Islamic scourge was a punishment for papal sin. Muslims were no different to Catholics in their errors. Luther wrote that Muslims “deny and ardently persecute Christ, no less than our papists deny and persecute him.’ To Luther and other Protestant reformers the fight against Islam was no different to their fight against Catholicism. Both caliph and pope were Antichrist figures.
While the Church called for Christendom to unite against Islam and the Protestants saw it as just another heresy like Catholicism, the atheists and neo-pagans of the era, much like liberal secularists today, looked on Islam with some sympathy. Willing to support anything that would unseat Christianity from its place in Europe, these atheistic philosophers denied that Islam had been spread by the sword but rather had spread because of its tolerance and benevolence. The Crusades were an act of aggression by backward Christians against a peaceful and advanced Islamic world. Wiker shows that atheists and secularists from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment, to today have persisted in promoting such mythology in the name of undermining Christianity.
A call for unity
Brimming with fascinating facts, this book is an excellent short history of the Reformation, the ideas that influenced it, and its impact on Europe and the modern world. Wiker shows an excellent grasp of the central philosophies of the time and his relating of the Reformation to current events is much to be appreciated. This book would serve as an enlightening introduction to the Reformation for any student of the subject. Wiker ends his book with a passionate plea for Christians to bring the Reformation to a close and unite in face of the assault of militant secularism and militant Islam. Amen to that!
The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know
by Benjamin Wiker
Regnery History, 2017
Hardcover, 189 pages
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