Reading about the Reformation is sad. I’m grateful for many of the lasting effects of the Reformation: having the Bible translated into English from the original languages and understanding salvation by grace through faith sit at or near the top of my list. But the story of these achievements makes for grim reading. I spent a couple of years with Will Durant’s account of the Renaissance, including his depiction of the corrupt state of the visible Church: the simony, the fornication, the hypocrisy, the power politics, the murders, the draining of money from the people of Europe to fund a cesspool of immorality in Rome. But cleaning up this mess wasn’t easy, and reading this year about the power politics of the Protestants, their intolerance for each other, and their rancorous rhetoric hasn’t exactly provided a happily-ever-after ending to the tale.
Take the Peasants’ War, for example. Luther published statements saying that the German princes and the leaders of the established Church should watch their backs and that they deserved all the violent reaction they might receive. The German public read these observations as a call to arms.
So then Luther’s press releases called for an end to the violence of the peasants and encouraged the princes to execute the law and restore order. This public position, of course, prompted a horrific response from the authorities. Between 1524 and 1526, 130,000 peasants died in the conflict. And all in an effort to purify the worship of the Prince of Peace.
Human history is rarely pretty. But ideas are not the people who speak them. And truths sometimes proceed from the mouths of murderers, in spite of themselves. I love reading about the ideas, and I’ve been continually fascinated with the interplay of the characters: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Melanchthon (who comes out looking pretty good), Erasmus (who looks even better), Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles V, Clement VII, Marguerite of Navarre, Catherine of Aragon. With two more weeks of Reformation history to go, I’m ready for things to get worse. But I’m hoping for at least one more Melanchthon.