Was the Protestant Reformation a Mistake?Vol. 28 No. 1 | Nov-Dec 2018
Would the world have been better off without the sharp divisions that led to a split in Christianity and produced centuries of bloodshed and strife?
By Richard Rosica and Betsy Mayer
Christianity has changed dramatically in the past century. While there was once a clear division between Catholics and Protestants, and between Christianity and all other religions, a new era of interfaith cooperation has emerged.
The trend to minimize differences between faiths has raised troubling questions: Was the Protestant Reformation a mistake? Were the Reformers of the 16th century too quick to judge the Roman Church, which has existed for nearly two millennia and today claims the largest following in the world?
THE RISE OF PROTESTANTISM AND THE BIRTH OF CIVIL LIBERTIES
For over 1,000 years, the Roman Catholic Church possessed both a political and a religious monopoly in Western society. By her claim to hold the keys to the afterlife, she also controlled the rulers and nations of the Holy Roman Empire. Through these means, religious and political dissent were quickly silenced. But when the force of Protestant principles dawned on the minds and hearts of Europeans, Protestantism spread across 16th century Europe like wildfire.
What caused its rapid spread? Some cite the influence of the Renaissance. For nearly a century before Protestantism broke into European consciousness, the Renaissance had been challenging the ancient status quo and its rigid views of the nature of man, freedom, and authority. The openness of Renaissance thinking certainly contributed to the willingness of people to consider new religious ideas.
The Renaissance also revived the study of Greek classical literature among the educated classes, previously forbidden by the church. The brilliant Greek scholar Erasmus used this opportunity to give Christianity a new edition of the New Testament, using purer Greek manuscripts from the Eastern Church previously unavailable to the Western Church. The Protestant Reformers recognized Erasmus’ Latin translation of the New Testament as superior to the old Latin Vulgate. His Greek edition became the source for Protestant translations. Coupled with the invention of the printing press, Bibles in the languages of the people became affordable for the first time in history. This, too, added to the spread of Protestantism, for as Scripture was read, the errors and superstitions of Romanism became apparent to thinking minds.
What were the core Protestant principles that created such a religious reformation? While there were differences in understanding among Protestants, a unity of doctrines clearly set them apart from Roman Catholics: 1) the heavenly priesthood and mediation of Jesus Christ, in contrast to the system of earthly priests who opened or closed Heaven to souls; 2) the priesthood of all believers: God is equally accessible to all the faithful, and every Christian has equal potential to minister for God;
3) the primacy of the Bible as the arbiter of truth, in contrast to the pope and church councils, which placed church tradition on an equality with Scripture. Clearly, Protestantism placed individuals in direct responsibility to God, bypassing the system of centralized religion that characterizes Roman Catholicism.
Protestant “individualism” shook 16th century religious and political relationships. In the New World’s fertile climate of freedom, these developments spawned previously unknown and untried political structures. Principles such as an elected head of state with term limits, a representative form of government, and the separation of church and state, could never have developed in societies dominated by Roman Catholic principles such as the Divine Right of Kings and a state-sponsored church.
THE DECLINE OF PROTESTANTISM AND THE THREAT TO FREEDOM
Today, the idea of representative government has spread to even secular cultures. Yet the religious impetus for the development of these principles—Protestantism—has dwindled to little more than a smoldering ember. The Protestant world no longer finds cause for dissent with Catholic principles. It is eager to forge ties with the Church of Rome. The terrible record of human rights abuses of the papal system is fast fading from Protestant teachings and memories. The very power that tried to stamp out the voice of their ancestors’ protests is now seen as a friend.
Although the Roman Catholic Church has acknowledged her dark past, Catholicism’s ancient claim of infallibility remains unchanged. While she may apologize for the deeds of her “misguided members,” she still maintains that she cannot err in judgment.
Perhaps the greatest evidence that Protestantism has forgotten her roots and lost her zeal for truth is the increased favorability her churches show for the papacy. With growing frequency, the pope is quoted as the head of global Christianity. That a church embroiled in one scandal after another, such as the widespread problem of pedophile priests, can still command credibility in the Christian world reveals the low estimate many Protestants place on truth and righteousness.
As Protestantism has declined, the Catholic Church has gradually returned to global power and political prestige. Those who believe that this is merely coincidental are naïve, for it was nations with large Protestant populations that for centuries stood in the way of Catholicism’s ancient ambitions to control world politics. It is not Catholicism that has changed; it is Protestantism.
Today, nations that were once considered Protestant host papal visits and send their heads of state for audiences with the pope. Benedict’s 2010 visit to the United Kingdom was the first state visit of a reigning pope to the British Isles in English history! Prior to 1959, Woodrow Wilson was the only American president ever to meet personally with the pope. But, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower, all twelve Protestant presidents have held at least one face-to-face audience with the pope.
The Bible prophesied that while the papacy would lose her political power for a period of time, she would eventually regain it and pursue her ancient ambitions to rule the world. “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast.” Revelation 13:3. The prophecy ends with the revival of religious persecution against those who resist the religious and political control of two great end-time superpowers. One of these superpowers is a revived papacy.
The American founding fathers understood that nations controlled by Catholic principles would never seek to limit the power of centralized authority nor champion human rights. Much of the US Constitution is a response to the abuse of power experienced in countries once dominated by Roman Catholicism. And although the American founding fathers saw the wisdom of separating the powers of church and state, they also understood that without a moral impetus to keep the conscience free, political forces inevitably return to the strong dominating the weak. The separation of church and state gave religion the free exercise to develop a moral conscience that shunned the abuse of power. And more specifically, it was Protestant principles that presented moral reasons for a check on the unlimited power of kings and popes.
As Protestantism loses its preserving influence in society, the belief that God will hold leaders responsible for their moral behavior and for their treatment of those weaker than themselves gradually diminishes. The growing influence of Roman Catholicism on public morality will not change this trend. This is because Roman Catholicism claims to be above government, and as such there is little accountability for her deeds. Witness the pathetic accountability of the Church for the actions of its pedophile priests in one nation after another. A church that cannot hold its own leaders morally accountable and protects them from civil penalties cannot be a standard for morality in society. It will also allow corruption and oppression by civil rulers to go unchecked.
The rise of Catholic influence on global politics will decrease civil and religious liberties, not increase them. This is exactly what Revelation 13 predicts.
THE ROOTS OF PROTESTANT DECLINE
The decline of Protestantism has paralleled her thirst for power. Protestants have desired political power over the power of the Spirit. Distinct Bible truths are seen as the enemy of Christian unity. In reality, the lack of a solid presentation of truth from Christian pulpits has created a false unity—a unity that will not tolerate truth.
Today, church growth techniques are not based so much on the presentation of sacred truths but on styles of worship. Our culture of entertainment has elevated self. The Jesus of the Bible has been exchanged for a Jesus of the culture. Protestant sermons are no longer Bible-centered; they are “self-centered.” And in a culture of “self,” much emphasis is placed on how God can meet my needs and how the church is here to serve me.
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” 2 Timothy 4:3, 4.
Catholics point to the doctrinal confusion and the lack of spiritual power now emerging from Protestant churches as evidence that the Protestant Reformation was a mistake. The proponents of a universal church must paint the 16th century protest as outdated in order to prepare the world to accept the final manifestations of a tyranny foretold by prophecy.
Catholicism demonstrates longevity, political influence, and a tenacious hold on its theological principles. Yet, in no society on earth where the Church of Rome is the preeminent faith can she hold up the culture as a model of superior Christian character and spirituality, let alone the champion of religious and civil freedom.
Can we place blame for the declining morality of Protestant nations on the Reformation? God forbid. Aided by heavenly agencies, the Reformers fought against the atrocities of Papal Rome and her unjust inquisitors. They sought to bring forth truths that had been buried under layer after layer of church tradition. At the appointed time, the Holy Ghost chose men of character and fortified them to withstand the greatest tribulation in human history in defense of God’s Word. The problem is not with the Protestant Reformers, but with Protestants who have forgotten their heritage.
Today, the same Papal dogmas, coupled with the apostasy of contemporary Protestants and their joint efforts to control politics, are recreating a society that will once more persecute those who seek to follow the truths of God’s Word. And once again, the Holy Spirit will call men and women to the same battles fought by Hus, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin.
Intelligent and talented voices now rise to the defense of the US Constitution. They staunchly and effectively defend the principles of republicanism and the rationale behind the US Bill of Rights. Through their testimony, others have wakened to the threats to freedom posed by the centralizing trends of global socialism and the attempts to rewrite our founding documents. But where are the voices to preserve the religious history and doctrines of true Protestantism? Though the parallel development of these two are striking, the decided lack of strong voices to defend the separation of church and state and maintain the purity of Bible truth demonstrates the subtlety of Satan’s operatives.
The truths brought forth by the Reformation must be heralded far and wide. If not, the glorious virtues of the Reformation will be lost forever, and the falsehoods of Papal Rome may prepare the world for another Inquisition.
Richard Rosica resides in Colorado with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. He is a network administrator, a church elder, and the author of Flee—The Coming Conflict Between Freedom and Religion, and coming soon, Dragon Speak—Deceiving the Whole World. Visit www.fleetojesus.org for more information. Betsy Mayer is the managing editor for Last Generation magazine.