Book Review: Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester

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Theologian Michael Reeves and Pastor Tim Chester’s new book, Why the Reformation Still Matters, couldn’t have come out at a better time. All sorts of once-presumed dead ideas (race-blood, nationalism, Jewish plots for world domination) have  been reanimated as of late, so why shouldn’t the old Catholic-Protestant squabbles over baptism, predestination, and the Eucharist be dug up too?

The authors acknowledge that over the last forty years or so there’s been an ecumenical truce between hardline Catholics and evangelical Protestants. During this time, it’s been generally accepted by both sides that they have much more in common with each other than they do with secularists or liberal Christians. While official Catholic doctrine states that divine revelation comes in two forms (through scripture and the Church), and Protestants are supposed to follow Martin Luther’s injunction of sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), it was mutually agreed that these thorny theological differences shouldn’t prevent Christians of various sects from working together on social problems. Reeves and Chester even grant that this truce has so far been politically fruitful. Whereas, since the turn of the twentieth century up until the 1970s, evangelicals had generally led the right-wing religious front on xenophobia, segregation, and business-friendly economics, Catholics usually positioned themselves on the firing lines for anti-Communist and cultural causes. For example, abortion was an issue taken up primarily by Catholic dioceses on the east coast until Jerry Falwell mobilized his Moral Majority for its prohibition in the late 1970s. Since around the fall of the Nixon presidency, however, the right-wing concerns of evangelicals and Catholics have, for the most part, been taken up by both sides.

One doesn’t make truces with genuine friends though, and Reeves and Chester see the political meddling between evangelicals and Catholics as having led to a widespread theological muddling, stating that “If the differences [between Protestants and Catholics] are narrowing, it is often because many Catholics no longer follow official papal teaching, and many Protestants are losing the biblical insights gained at the Reformation.”

According to Reeves and Chester, Protestants and Catholics are both losing their unique doctrinal flavors as more and more pastoral and priestly authorities call for their flocks to ignore points of contention and, instead, focus on “mutual acceptance and common witness.” However, for the authors the doctrinal schisms made and discovered during the Reformation are still of practical importance today, not because certain doctrinal errors will stop a Christian from getting into heaven, but because the wrong hermeneutics will eventually debilitate a Christian’s abilities to effectively thwart social and cultural illnesses from spreading.

And what are these social and cultural illnesses Reeves and Chester are worried about? Anyone at all familiar with evangelical literature can probably guess—although, on the whole, Reeves and Chester do a good job of not merely thrift-shopping the usual laundry list of ephemeral grievances (“postmodernism,” “feminism,” “political correctness”). Rather, the two actually articulate their religious issues with a society in which “everything is about response and feeling.”

“The New Testament calls on us to encourage, rebuke, admonish, and exhort one another,” they write, “but in our current cultural climate people often react aggressively to any challenge.” The question that confronts Christians, then, is what to do in a culture that is both overly sensitive and equally insolent? Reeves and Chester believe the answer lies in the Reformation and thus in the Gospels. Luther publicly burnt the Catholic Church’s letter calling on him to denounce his own writings. Jesus threw furniture down the temple steps in anger. To imitate Christ in his kind love for humanity is one thing, but the Reformation reminds Christians that one must denounce blasphemies with equal fervor.

Reeves and Chester don’t believe Catholicism provides a robust and muscular enough worldview to defend Christendom from external enemies because it isn’t solely grounded in scripture, which is also true of the heresies it’s meant to stand against. Rationalism is about the autonomy of reason, romanticism is about the autonomy of experience, postmodernism is about “autonomous individuals determining truth for themselves,” and the Catholic Church is nothing but an “autonomous community of human beings.” As the authors note, “what they all have in common is a human-centered approach to knowledge.” Reformed theologians such as Luther and John Calvin knew that the knowledge of God is “not found through human wisdom, human powers, or human achievements. It is found in the foolishness of the cross.” It’s through suffering, according to the reformed tradition, that one becomes more knowledgeable of God, not through spiritualism, or intellectual contemplation, or even morality. Whether this epistemological principle is properly biblical is beyond this atheist, although it does recall the stories of early Christians responding to the new fad of Epicurean pleasure-seeking by flogging themselves in the streets of Rome.

Most of the arguments put forward in Why the Reformation Still Matters require a large amount of shared assumptions in order to be refuted. It’s a book debating the rules of a game rather than the game’s merits. Is the bread the body of Christ or isn’t it? Should you or shouldn’t you baptize babies? And if so, why? Is sin cured through repentance, or are we as sinners rectified by God?

To the mass of untheological readers, who don’t share the assumptions, the book still has its uses. Like the political Frankensteins mentioned earlier, all sorts of religious nonsense has been spawning in this country over the last thirty years, with only the occasional scoff or snicker as a counterbalance. Reeves and Chester’s book is a clear account of the Reformation and a compelling narrative for its Protestant perspective. But it’s also relevant to today’s contentious and often contradictory political culture. Luther and Calvin were always on the side of authority while simultaneously going on about how they were slaves to no one. Perhaps this libertarian double-think endemic to the religious movement’s founding is another reason why the Reformation should still matter to us, especially now that their intellectual descendants are again gaining power and prominence.