Examining some myths about the Reformation

As this year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let’s address some common myths associated with it.

Myth: “Martin Luther chose to leave the Roman Catholic Church.”

Luther neither desired nor chose to leave the Roman church.

He was excommunicated by the church and placed under the sentence of death by the Holy Roman Emperor because he refused to violate his conscience and deny the truth of his writings.

Luther was a reluctant reformer who had no intention of starting another church.

He advocated dialogue concerning abuses in the church, and for the rest of his life he called for a council of the church to address questions of theology and practice, to no avail.

He became a reformer because he was a pastor who was concerned about the spiritual well-being of his flock.

Today, many Roman Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Pope Francis speak highly of Luther.

Germany’s Catholic bishops have praised Luther as “a Gospel witness and teacher of the faith.”

Myth: “The Reformation destroyed the unity of the Church.”

Actually, the unity of Christendom was shattered hundreds of years before Luther.

The Great Schism, also known as the East-West Schism, was the event that divided Western (Roman) Christianity from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This break was formalized in AD 1054, when Pope Leo IX of Rome and Patriarch Michael of Constantinople excommunicated each other, but both churches had been estranged long before then over issues such as papal authority.

For several centuries, the pope had claimed supremacy over all other bishops, including those of eastern Christendom.

Not surprisingly, bishops in the East disagreed, and the rift was never healed.

Philip Melanchthon, a close associate of Luther, wrote that one might accept the pope as head of all Christendom by human arrangement rather than divine right, if only the pope allowed the preaching of the pure Gospel, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.

Myth: “The Reformers abandoned tradition and the teachings of the early church fathers.”

On the contrary, Luther and Lutheran theologians relied heavily on the writings of church fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine to argue that the Gospel taught in Lutheran churches was no innovation.

In contrast with the more radical reformers Zwingli and Calvin, Luther’s reforms were conservative in nature, preserving rites and traditions of the church that did not conflict with the Gospel.

Myth: “Luther used drinking (tavern) songs in church.”

This is an oft-repeated statement by those wanting to validate the use of secular, pop-music in worship.

They argue that if the great reformer found value in contemporary music, shouldn’t we have church services today featuring rap, heavy metal, reggae, techno, etc.?

In fact, only one of Luther’s hymns (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) was originally paired with a secular love ballad, but due to the tune’s association with non-sacred activity, it wasn’t long before Luther wrote his own tune for the hymn, which replaced the love ballad and became the standard tune which we sing today.

Apparently, Luther had second-thoughts about pairing his hymn with a secular love song.

Another myth is the so-called Luther quote, “Why should the devil have all the good tunes?”

The problem is that scholars find no evidence of the quote anywhere in Luther’s writings.

Rest assured, however, that the devil does not have all the good tunes.

Luther believed the music of the church should proclaim Christ’s saving work with tunes that can be easily sung by the congregation and are free of overt, secular associations that could overshadow the Gospel message.

Myths surrounding the Protestant Reformation are easily dismissed by keeping the following in mind: It was all about Jesus Christ and the centrality of his saving work in the life of the church and in the life of every member.

Whatever obscured Christ, whatever undermined confidence in his saving death and resurrection, the reformers abandoned.

Whatever proclaimed Christ and created faith in him, the reformers gladly retained.

The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, and may be reached at grace columbus.org.

The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Columbus, and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.