The Protestant Reformation didn’t just cause schism from the Catholic Church; it also corrupted the way people thought about divine revelation and authority. Personal opinion became the ultimate authority of truth, and 500 years later we see the devastating effects of that error.
Of course, Martin Luther and John Calvin didn’t set out to destroy Christendom. They assumed the Christian culture they enjoyed would always be there as a foundation for society, but in striking off on their own they undermined the very foundation on which it was built.
It took 500 years, but we are living in the logical result of Protestantism’s self-defining ethos: a narcissistic, hedonistic society that is destroying itself at an ever-accelerating pace.
The Reformation dawns
In the early 1500s, Martin Luther, a scrupulous priest, saw certain abuses in the Church, especially surrounding indulgences and clerical power, and he protested against them. What started innocuously enough as a local dispute boiled over into a much bigger series of events, and his protests became more vehement and dramatic.
Though he was himself an Augustinian priest, he began to rail against the priesthood, distrusting and eventually rejecting the special authority that the Church said Christ gave to ministerial priests. Emblematic of his rebellious movement as a whole, he left the priesthood. A vow can be made; a vow also can be broken if one feels like it, and Protestantism was born.
His strategy looked like this: break the priesthood; break the Church’s monopoly on authority; use sola scriptura as the way to free God’s revelation from the Church’s control; and then claim to be the authentic interpreter of the Bible. Others saw what he was doing and decided they too wanted to be “reformers.”
With this pattern in place, it became open season on every sacred belief—the sacraments, the priesthood, apostolic succession, books of the Bible itself, sacred art (whitewash it, smash it!)—and even the first fruits of the Reformation showed themselves to be rotten.
The ascension of opinion
Martin Luther famously asserted that popes and councils had erred, but he didn’t seem to consider that the same could be applied to him. If they could err, so could Luther. His fellow rebels like Zwingli and Calvin realized this. They went their own way, and he went his, on countless doctrines. And Protestantism’s first diverging movements were launched.
While Luther had come up with the idea of sola scriptura to wrest control of divine truth from Catholicism, a different reality was setting in. In sola scriptura, Protestants explain that while the Bible alone is the sole infallible rule of faith, it is not the only authority. Wise, faithful Christian leaders of the “Church” have authority as well and should be listened to.
Sounds lovely, but it is of course a figment of the Protestant imagination. Sola scriptura becomes solo scriptura, wherein the ultimate interpretive authority is the individual person. Anyone who looks at Protestantism’s precepts and what it looks like in practice can see it, and one group of Catholics syllogistically proved it to be true.
Protestantism evolves like bacterium
Protestantism began to morph: from the 1600s to today, denomination after denomination sprang up, split off, rejoined, and mutated, some dying out. Much as do microscopic organisms.
Seems obvious this is bad, but at least one Protestant scholar, Alister McGrath, claims that this amoeba-like ability for Protestantism to adapt to ever-changing cultural norms is a feature, not a bug. McGrath is an Anglican and, while remaining a Protestant, he nonetheless has the objectivity to recognize the impossibility of Protestantism every unifying. No arbitrator exists between two people contradicting each other on the meaning of Scripture, and the existence of an arbitrator would contradict Protestantism itself.
While adaptive microorganisms are indeed fascinating, and we can thank God for them, and while the Church can and has adapted to different cultures across the world, that diversity can be legitimate only when united to unchanging truth. God doesn’t change what he has revealed to us; the truth doesn’t change. Unity in the truth that God has given to us is not just a nice idea but the prayer of Christ in John 17.
The dizzying Protestant panoply
Given this history, and the DNA of Protestantism, it is no wonder that I get emails from Catholics who feel hopelessly confused by Protestantism and the Protestants they meet. It is for them that I wrote Navigating the Tiber, a guide to leading your Protestant friends into the Catholic Church.
This week an eager Protestant began aggressively commenting on my YouTube video about apostolic succession. He boldly declared that the Catholic Church was in error because, in the first place, it was not using the King James Version of the Bible.
I’ve encountered this sub-strain of Protestants, affectionately known as KJV-Onlyists, before. The only Bible they will read is the KJV. Other people are heretics because they don’t use the KJV. But what should people have done before the early 1600s, which is when the KJV came out? I asked him. “Read the Bible in Greek and Hebrew,” he said. Apparently, all the other translations of the Bible into scores of languages between the first and seventeenth centuries were garbage.
While that Protestant commenter’s pet issue was the KJV Bible, another Protestant emailed me and declared he was a “late-Acts hyper-dispensationalist.” Now, if you don’t know what that is, you are not alone. I didn’t either. This was an animal that I never imagined in my wildest dreams. I don’t think that St. Paul did either, when he wrote Acts. It is not worth going into the idiosyncratic interpretation of Acts that this subset of Protestantism has come up with—in fact, by the time you read this, they will likely have morphed into something different. What is important is realizing that Luther and Calvin paved the way for such ever-changing chaos.
What’s a Catholic to do?
With such a confusing set of Protestant permutations, it’s an uphill battle for even a Catholic who is willing to learn what it takes to respond to the main lines of Protestantism.
Fortunately, going back to the foundational issue of authority works against all forms of Protestantism. They all share the same rotten roots, and pointing out that the roots are rotten over there, and that the Catholic roots are divinely healthy, is the topic back to which you should continue to steer the conversation.
The foundational explanation for Catholic authority is this: Christ established the Church and appointed rightful leaders over it, beginning with the apostles. The apostles then appointed men to succeed them, and this was also the divine design. The bishops of the Church trace their authority directly back to the apostles and therefore to Christ himself.
In the first century, the Holy Spirit inspired some men in the Church to write books about Christ, and the Church codified these into the New Testament. The Church did not cause them to be authoritative–God did when he inspired them—but then God guided his Church to know which books those were.
Alongside Scripture, God imbued the Church with Tradition. This Tradition concerned the sacramental life of the Church, the Mass, and the fullness of truth of the Faith that God wanted to communicate to his people until his return in glory.
Against this truth, Protestants take out a subset and claim it is supreme. They say the Bible—and by this they mean the sixty-six books in their Bibles—is the sole infallible authority. This claim opens the door to discussing authority—namely, the question of how we know which books God inspired and which he did not (a topic known as the canon of Scripture).
While I recommend that every Catholic learn the arguments about the canon of Scripture and share them with their Protestant friends, arguments alone are not the enough to win Protestants over to Catholicism.
The personal factor in achieving reunion
A friend of mine named Luke messaged me recently. He was in excited disbelief over his sister returning to the Catholic Church after decades away.
We met for lunch, and I asked him to tell me more. They grew up in a nominally Catholic family, but their parents didn’t believe strongly, and eventually they divorced. Luke graduated from high school and decided to also “graduate” from Catholicism. He started living a “normal” life of hedonism and sin.
His sister encountered various personal problems as a young adult, but instead of leaving Christianity altogether, she fell in with a group of Protestants. They welcomed her into their hearts and church, and she became a “born-again” Evangelical Protestant.
Soon family reunions got awkward, as Luke’s sister spent most of the time trying to get the others to believe in Jesus. They responded as many nominal Catholics would have: by telling her they already knew about Jesus but weren’t interested in going to church, Catholic or otherwise.
Eight years passed, and Luke himself had a reconversion to the Catholic Faith. He went through an RCIA-like program for cradle Catholics at his local parish, and his life began to change. But a personal conversion was not enough: he still had to deal with his sister and her increasingly anti-Catholic attacks.
He began reading apologetics books, including mine, and he started plying her with some of the arguments. She was not moved in the slightest. He felt baffled by how ineffective they were, since he knew them to be true and powerful.
One day on the phone she said to him, “You never come and visit me. Ever since Dad died, I’ve wanted my big brother to comfort me, and yet you only have time for yourself and your youth group, a bunch of kids you’re not even related to!” (Luke had started volunteering at his parish’s youth group as an adult mentor.)
Luke was angry after this conversation, and for several weeks he stewed about it. Then one day the Holy Spirit showed him that his sister’s accusations contained a good deal of truth. He had not been there for his little sister. He had not been a good big brother. Yes, he had had a conversion, but in this area of his life, he was lacking.
Luke called his sister, and she was ready for him to start making excuses. Instead, he said, “You were right about me. I haven’t been a good big brother. I’m so sorry. Will you please forgive me?”
She forgave him, but something else happened that he wasn’t immediately aware of: his sincere apology had melted not only the barrier between them but between her and the Catholic Faith of her childhood. Over the next month, they had long conversations where she asked questions instead of arguing. She wanted to know about Luke’s Catholicism and why it made sense, and he began with the canon of Scripture. It all fell into place for her starting from there.
One Sunday morning she called him and said, “Guess where I am? I just went to Mass at our old parish!” In less than one month after his apology, in spite of absorbing a decade of anti-Catholic Protestant rhetoric, his sister returned to the Catholic Church.
She made an appointment and went to her first confession after twenty years.
Reunion, one person at a time
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, they say. Well, the Reformation wasn’t prevented, and now, for the past 500 years, we are applying the pound of cure, one soul at a time.
In the case of my friend Luke and his sister, it wasn’t a theological argument that was most needed but a demonstration of love from an older brother. I’ve often seen that this is the case: the message is valued only as much as the messenger is respected. People need to see that you care, that you love them, before they can weigh the evidence you present.
What Luther and company destroyed by rebellion, we can rebuild by love. The unity of Christ’s Church was not broken or lost, only wounded—and, one by one, God helps us reconcile these separated brothers with to the Church to which they belong.