Revisionist (Church) History

In the Protestant church, the Reformation is often held as one of the single greatest moments in human history. It was the time when Martin Luther "stormed the gates," so to speak, of the evil Roman Catholic tyranny. A time when some of the true faith's most venerable and incorruptible heroes set the church straight after centuries of doctrinal additions and abuses. Without this moment and these great men, the Protestant church wouldn't exist as we know it today. Or so we're told.

Many modern misconceptions also exist regarding the Reformation. For example, Luther had no intention of breaking from the church; he simply wanted a forum for dialogue on contentious issues. And yet many hold him up as the standard for church saints today, even though he was about as incorruptible as the Third Reich. Still I wonder if the biggest pill we've swallowed is that the Reformation wasn't merely the product of culture.

photo credit: Keren_ via photopin cc
The timing of it is certainly suspect. I mean it's not as though church corruption was a recent convention in the 16th century. The church had already split several times, and indulgences had been commonplace for hundreds of years. Why this particular time in history and not centuries earlier?

Could it have had anything to do with a certain movement that had been sweeping across Europe? Or more specifically, could it have had anything to do with a relatively new way of mass communication? In fact, many of the reformers' pamphlets were disseminated so quickly due to the use of Gutenberg's press. Now I’m no church historian, but what if the Reformation didn't happen out of a desire to protect the gospel? What if it was just another ebb in the flow of the cultural tide?

I say all of this because today we too live in such a time. Not one of intolerable corruption, but of technological revolution. Before the printing press, thoughts and ideas were commodities. Records and writings had to be carefully preserved and thus couldn't be available for widespread distribution. But Gutenberg changed all of that. For the first time in human history, ideas could no longer be held captive and protected from the masses. Information became public domain. In this sense, the clergy's owned and operated gospel was bound to be tampered with—for better or worse.

Still, even mass produced books were subject to the resources of contemporary transportation. Enter the internet: arguably the second most influential landmark of human society. Before, the common man merely had access to the Scriptures. Now, his thoughts and commentary on them are being broadcast every second for mass consumption. Gone are the days of teachers and prophets; behold, we live in an age of prattlers and pundits.

A little melodramatic perhaps, but we are seeing Cyprian's fears borne out before our very eyes. If they ever were, Protestants are no longer unified in the gospel; they are splintered, dissident children of their own, preconceived hermeneutics. This is not said to sympathize with an episcopal hierarchy (at least, not entirely). However, we should lament the utterly broken state of the Protestant church.

Just like the Reformation, we have fallen victim to the whims of culture—for better or worse. If anything, this should make followers of Jesus today pay as much attention to their history books as their Bibles. Because the first step in avoiding the mistakes of the past is to know what they are.