Did the Reformers Have Any Right?

Lately, I’ve been reading St. Francis de Sales’ defense of the Catholic Faith, The Catholic Controversy. I haven’t read the whole thing, but so far, I think it’s the best defense of the Faith ever given. Chris, who’s been reading it recently as well, agrees. Almost all modern Catholic apologetics repeat his reasonings, but without putting things quite as clearly as St. Francis does. It’s almost as if modern apologists have given ground and decided to only defend attacks from opposing apologists, arguing on their opponents’ terms and giving defense only from verses, instead of using reason to state their own case un-apologetically. St. Francis, however, uses reason as a guide and faith as a basis to point out the errors of the Reformation and the truth of the Catholic Faith. Of course, he uses the Bible abundantly, but to show Catholic traditions as the only ones consistent with Biblical Faith, not strictly deriving Catholic beliefs from passages. I’d like to see more of that these days.

One of the cases St. Francis makes against the Reformation is something that has been on my mind quite a lot lately. I’ve been wondering what right the Reformers had to do what they did. This line of thinking would never have occurred to me years ago, in my Protestant mind. In fact, I had many arguments with Chris where I flatly denied any worth of appeal to tradition, or history, or the validity of any beginnings of the Reformation. I adamantly insisted that the only thing that really mattered was whether or not the Reformers were right to leave the Church and reject the authority of the Pope, not whether they had the right. I steadfastly held to the idea that truth was a rare commodity, held by a few faithful, sought and not found for 1500 years. I thought my insistence that everyone throughout history could have been wrong was akin to believing truth was something that couldn’t be claimed by a majority. But now I believe there are earmarks on the truth, ways to recognize it, not by a majority like I thought Catholics were trying to do, but by the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary authorities that God has placed over us.

Chris eventually gave up even mentioning history, but obviously I somehow changed my mind. I think knowing more history changed my mind. Reading the Church Fathers and both Protestant and Catholic histories of the Reformation opened my eyes. I found out that I never really knew how things happened or why, I only had a vague outline of events in my mind, usually tainted by the agenda of the historian telling the tale. (Side note: read primary sources! You’ll find out whether Augustine believed in the Real Presence when you read his works.) It is important to know where ideas come from and with what authority people promote them. Recognizing God’s authority behind things is a vital way to recognize His truth. It’s not enough to say something with its truth recommended only by your repeated insistence: “I’m right!” More and more, it seems to me that’s the only thing the Reformers really had, insisting they were right where the Catholic authorities were wrong, leaving everyone else to decide for themselves if they agreed. And by what authority were the Reformers saying these things?

The Bible often commands us to submit to authorities (Rom 13:1, 1 Pet 2:13). Luther insisted this was only meant for secular authorities, but there are other verses that seem to be talking about Church authorities (Heb 13:17, 2 Pet 2:10) and verses where Jesus specifically mentions obeying those in authority over God’s people, those in the seat of Moses (Matt 23:1-3). Biblically, obeying authorities does extend to religious authorities, and it would seem Luther said it didn’t because that was the only interpretation he could make consistent with his personal desires, beliefs and actions. Since there are religious authorities we need to obey, we need to learn to recognize both ordinary religious authorities (priests and rabbis commissioned in the ordinary way of laying on of hands by those already in authority) and extraordinary religious authorities (like Moses, specifically commissioned by God Himself).

St. Francis makes clear arguments that the Reformers had neither ordinary nor extraordinary authority to do what they did. He calls this right a “mission” that Reformers could have obtained either from earthly authorities or directly from God. He denies the right of secular authorities to commission a religious mission, which I think none of us will argue with. He says it’s rather ridiculous for the Reformers to claim any ordinary authority on the basis of their priesthood, since they operate in disobedience to their bishops and have rejected the Catholic Church anyway. So the Reformers are left trying to claim an extraordinary mission that comes directly from God. Now here’s the interesting part:

Throughout the Bible, there are stories of men on a mission from God. Consider Moses. God speaks to Moses and sends him on a mission, and before even asking for the ability to speak that mission clearly, Moses requests “patents” proving that God has sent him. God sees this as good and gives Moses three different miracles to attest his authenticity. Miracles have always been proof that someone is sent by God. If anyone who has walked the Earth should be excused from this proof of authority, this patent of authenticity that they are sent from God, it would have been Jesus Christ Himself. Yet, even Christ said that if he had not performed miracles, the people would have been right not to believe in Him. He was accredited by God through His miracles (Acts 2:22).

The Reformers had no miracles, so they had no mission from God. In fact even if they did have miracles, those on extraordinary mission do not overthrow ordinary authorities, they fulfill and uphold them. They had no legitimate reason to overthrow the ordinary authorities because Catholic beliefs do not contradict the Bible, they are consistent with the Bible, just not the Reformer’s interpretation of it which they had no authority to promote. Using Biblical standards, it’s rather obvious that the Reformers were not sent by God.

It’s baffling, really, how men could have just decided that sola scriptura is the only rule of Faith, then based on that alone overturn 1500 years of traditions that did not contradict the Bible. Was it really Biblically necessary to cut the number of sacraments from seven to two? Of course not. But sola scriptura gave Reformers carte blanche to interpret everything themselves and start from scratch. Beliefs and practices began to boil down to the personal insistence “I’m right!” in their interpretation of the Bible, without consulting traditions or authorities. History meant nothing anymore, and perhaps that’s why you never hear modern apologists talk about whether the Reformers had the right to do what they did. There’s a disconnect with and almost an impertinent disdain for history in the world today.

Today, Protestants defend the Reformation principle of sola scriptura and reject any ultimate Earthly religious authorities by saying men are fallen, fallible, corrupt creatures. The Catholics steadfastly maintain that the faithlessness of man does not diminish the faithfulness of God, so the corruption of anyone anointed by God can’t negate their anointing. Judas was still an Apostle despite his undoubted reprobate status. He still did miracles in Christ’s name and was sent out as one of the twelve. David was still God’s chosen king despite his treachery concerning Bathsheba. God’s anointing remains, despite our sins. The corruption of men does not negate the status of Christ’s Church as His Spouse, nor does their fallibility equate with the fallibility of the Church as a whole, since we have Christ’s promise against its demise. The Protestant reasoning behind sola scriptura sounds to me like invented justification to follow our own judgment, driven by fear of corrupt men and lack of trust in God’s ability to lead His Church, even though the Bible commands us to obey authorities regardless of their quality. Ironically, when warned against men who will lead us astray from the gospel, it is those who despise authority we need to be wary of (2 Peter 2:10).

If anyone accuses me of trusting in potentially corrupt men, I must answer that the man I trust is Christ, and I believe His promise of faithfulness to His Church, believe that only men chosen by God are placed in authority, especially in His Church, and that as well as having His Word faithfully conveyed in the Bible, He is capable of having the Faith conveyed by His visible Bride. (St. Francis has some things to say on the visibility of the Church as well. Great book. You oughta read it.) There is no reason for me to believe that Christ has abandoned His Bride to the AntiChrist or demolished His Church. There is no man that has come along with a new mission since Christ and the Apostles. The Reformers had no right, and I can’t consider any of their proposed beliefs knowing that the men themselves were not sent by God. If I’m Christian, I’m Catholic.


James Swan wrote Did Athanasius Have Any Right? in response to this post. I have heard many Protestant defenders say that Athanasius and the Reformers were doing the same thing and if you accept one you must accept the other. I wrote Yes, Athanasius Had the Right to show the difference between them.

7 Responses to Did the Reformers Have Any Right?

  1. lenetta says:

    Wow. Just . . . wow. But it’s easy for me to believe, since you’re soundly confirming what I hold to be true. Would that the Holy Spirit would send my beloved clicking over here and that this would speak to his Protestant ears . . .

    > Protestant and Catholic histories of the Reformation

    Care to provide me a short list (or not so short?) to add to my To Be Read pile?

    Just added The Catholic Controversy . . . I pink puffy heart St. Frances de Sales. In fact, I think I’d do well to read nothing but the Bible and his writings for the rest of my life . . .

  2. Stacey says:

    Let’s see, short list:
    There’s Luther and Calvin’s biographies – Luther the Reformer (mention that one a lot, but it has a lot of background information) and Calvin for Armchair Theologians. Hilaire Belloc is my very favorite Catholic historian 🙂 and he’s written Crisis of Civilization, The Great Heresies, and Survivals and New Arrivals which all have similar sections on the Reformation, though they all have different context and other information, I would suggest The Great Heresies first. He also wrote How the Reformation Happened, but I haven’t read that one. There’s also a good history of the early Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: the Early Church was the Catholic Church. I’ve read different articles and sermons that these book reference as well. I kind of read like a frog, hopping from one lily pad to the next.

    It’s kind of funny, I bought the Luther book for Chris when I was trying to convince him I was right, and it backfired. Helped to convince me he was right! He also bought all of those Belloc books when I was less than Catholic friendly and I got them for Christmas for him rather begrudgingly, not knowing exactly what was in them. Oh, I would have had kittens if I knew how unapologetically Catholic Belloc is 🙂 Probably not a good one to pass on to the hubs!

  3. Chad Toney says:

    Lookout, you just got linked!

    Be prepared for schoolyard double-dares to call in to somebody’s internet radio show!

  4. stirenaeus says:

    “I’ve been wondering what right the Reformers had to do what they did.”

    Y’know, it’s interesting — St. Irenaeus and Tertullian responded to the Gnostics with a “hermeneutics of authority” — that is, they denied that it wasnt so much a matter of interpretation between the Gnostics and catholics, but rather whether the Gnostics had any right to read and interpret catholic Scriptures at all.

  5. Stacey says:

    It is interesting. I’m planning on looking back through their works against heresies, do you know any good places off hand?

  6. stirenaeus says:

    Good question…here’s the Amazon page for Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, the first two look accessible; Tertullian has a variety of works on the subject…

    The ccel page is here; you can find Irenaeus and Tertullian online there.

    Or you could buy these ten volumes for $150; or all these 34 volumes for $400.

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