The brilliant German monk never intended to start his own Church

A few years ago, a Lutheran friend sent me a link to her favourite website: Lutheran Satire. The brainchild of a US Lutheran pastor, it focuses on Church humour from a Lutheran angle. The goal is catechesis through comedy, and no issue or religious leader is too sacred to poke. One of the site’s most popular videos is a cartoon called “The Reformation Piggybackers”. The plot is simple: Luther nails his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. Then he heads for breakfast. But he’s promptly stopped by Huldrych Zwingli, then joined by John Calvin, and then by Henry VIII – who, after a few collegial pleasantries, start denouncing each other and bickering over who really owns the Reformation they all claim. Meanwhile, Luther argues that he never “left” the Catholic Church. He got kicked out.

Funny and shrewd, the video is also uncomfortably close to the truth. As Brad Gregory notes in his absorbing, wonderfully readable new portrait of Luther, the brilliant German monk never intended to start his own Church. Quite the opposite. He wanted to reform from the inside the Christian Church commonly shared by all Europeans of his day, a faith that shaped nearly every aspect of daily life. And looking back on the first decades of the 16th century, at least some of Luther’s early complaints against the conduct of Church leaders were clearly warranted.

The Christian Church had seen periods of decline, rot and renewal before. Reformers and heretics were not a new phenomenon. This is one of the reasons Catholic leaders failed to grasp the unique pre-Reformation dynamic emerging in Germany. In Luther and his times, they faced something without precedent. Increased lay piety and literacy in the 1500s contrasted with the corruption and institutional sclerosis of many Church leaders. Changes in commerce and technology, like the printing press, combined with the spread of Renaissance humanism and emerging nationalist sentiment to erode the habit of automatic deference to Rome.

In Luther himself they had an opponent of striking intellect and ego, tireless work ethic, moral perfectionism and ferocious skill at polemics. What Luther set in motion, though, quickly exploded in a way he did not foresee and could not control.

As Gregory notes, Luther and similar contemporary reformers (the word “Protestant” wasn’t used until the late 1520s) soon “differed from medieval reformers by asserting that many of the Church’s teachings were themselves false. The problem wasn’t just bad behaviour; it was also erroneous doctrine.” This made reconciliation almost impossible and set the stage for 150 years of bitter religious conflict.

The Reformation is familiar ground for Gregory, the author of two earlier distinguished works: Salvation at Stake (1999) and The Unintended Reformation (2012). Rebel in the Ranks, timed to coincide with the Reformation’s fifth centenary, targets a more popular, general audience. His narrative is simply organised, vividly written and respectful of all parties. He assumes little or no knowledge of Reformation history among his readers, but he has the skill of elevating the awareness of his audience without speaking down to it. And yet this is not “history lite”. Gregory draws the reader intimately into the forces shaping Luther and the other major reformers, and gives a flesh and blood reality to a civilisational sea change as it unfolds.

As with The Unintended Reformation, the great strength of Rebel in the Ranks is its explanatory power. How did we get from a world where the Christian faith penetrated every atom of every life to the radically secularised societies of today? Gregory answers that question most directly in his concluding pages.

“Luther would deride the idea of freedom as we know it today and disclaim any credit for it. In fact, he would be disgusted by it, because it has nothing to do with what he regarded as the only real freedom: the bound freedom of a Christian.

“Neither Luther nor any of the other Protestant reformers sought or envisioned anything like modern individual freedom. Nor did the Protestant Reformation as such lead to it. What led to it were the more-than-religious conflicts between magisterial Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation era, which created a situation that led indirectly, unintentionally and eventually to the making of a 21st-century world that nearly all committed Christians of the Reformation era would have deplored.”

The world we now inhabit is, in a sense, the world we deserve. To borrow from Scripture: the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. The Reformation began with sincere questions of truth, belief and practice. It foundered on human obstinacy and violence on all sides, bringing forth an entirely new and drastically different consciousness.

Rebel in the Ranks is the story of the why, the who and the how it happened – and the consequences. It’s also a witness to the cost of weaponising truth, and pursuing it unmoored from patience, self-criticism and love.

The Most Rev Charles J Chaput, OFM Cap, is Archbishop of Philadelphia

This article first appeared in the October 13 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here