The Reformation Isn’t What It Used to Be

Justo L. González ’58 S.T.M., ’61 Ph.D.

I would be guilty of unspeakable ingratitude were I to write here about the Reformation without first a word of thankful remembrance. As I got ready to attend Yale Divinity School back in 1957, one of my keenest expectations was to meet Roland H. Bainton, whose book, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, had already made a profound impression on me.

I was not disappointed. Dr. Bainton not only became a model and a mentor, but also a friend whose advocacy and support account for much of what I have been allowed to do since. When I think of YDS I see first of all that small scholarly giant who opened the fountains of the past to so many of us. And yet, for me the Reformation has changed radically in the intervening 60 years. It is not that Luther, Calvin, or St. Teresa have changed. Rather, we today look at it from a different perspective, because the world and the church have altered so dramatically.

Christendom and After

Perhaps the best way to depict this is to speak of “horizontal” changes and “vertical” changes. Both of these profoundly affect our understanding of the Reformation.

By “horizontal” changes I mean the unexpected manner in which the map of Christianity has been transformed since my student days. Today we often speak of the end of Christendom. Most often when Protestant Westerners use that phrase, they mean Christianity and the church have lost much of the influence they once had in the lands of the North Atlantic. From that vantage point, it often carries nostalgic overtones. But when those of us from the global South speak of the end of Christendom, we are thinking rather of the birth of a global church that is no longer controlled by the centers of power that held sway long before and long after the 16th century. For us, the end of Christendom is not a cause for nostalgia but rather of hope and celebration.

This horizontal shift is often expressed statistically, which certainly proves the point. But I personally prefer human experiences to numbers, so I will portray the significance of this change with a personal story. In 1954 when I was beginning my theological studies in Cuba, our textbook for church history was a heavy tome by another professor whom I came to know later at Yale, Kenneth Scott Latourette. It was full of valuable information. I remember one day telling my church history professor that Latourette’s book gave the impression that the culmination of Christian history was North American Protestantism, and I asked him to write a book that would deal more with our own experiences and perspectives. He threw his arm over my shoulder and said: “My son, that will never happen. There is simply not enough market.” By now many such books are widely used throughout the world, including the North Atlantic lands that we used to consider the very center of Christendom.

This is what I mean by “horizontal” changes: We can no longer talk about the history of the church in the 16th century and also forget that at the moment Luther was nailing his 95 Theses, the Spanish were moving into Mexico and the Portuguese were sending a fleet to China to establish relations with the Ming dynasty. Nor can we ignore the fact that it was gold from Mexico and Perú that supported the anti-Protestant military campaigns of Charles V and Philip II in Europe. The reason why we cannot ignore it is that we still do not know which of these sets of events in Christian history will be more significant in the long run.

Vernacular Victories

Then there is the “vertical” dimension of changes in the life of the church and in theology too. When I first studied history, we were interested primarily in the upper echelons of society. Secular history was mostly a matter of kings and battles. The history of theology seemed to be a conversation – sometimes a violent conversation – that took place from mountaintop to mountaintop, hardly influenced by the valleys in-between. Church history was about organization, hierarchy, relations with the state. Today, secular history is also about the common folk, the daily lives of women, the constant struggle for survival. In church history now, we are much more interested than before in the faith and religious practices of people in everyday life. Similarly, when we come to the history of theology, we are particularly interested in understanding how various theologians’ views were shaped by their social milieu.

This has had far-reaching impact on our view of the 16th-century Reformation. (Here again I must render tribute to Dr. Bainton, whose work on the women of the Reformation was far ahead of its time – although he, too, when considering these women, seemed to be interested more in the women of the mountaintop than in those who lived in the social and intellectual valleys.) When we look, for instance, at the matter of worship in the vernacular, we have come to realize the social and psychological implications this had for ordinary people. For them, it was not just a matter of being able to understand. It was also an act of affirmation of people who often had little or no voice in society. Over against the vernacular, Latin was not only the language of tradition but also the language of the intellectual and social elites. It was the language of laws that the populace could not comprehend or use in its favor.

Thus we come to understand something of the past from out of our present experience: We see the liberating power that the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular has unleashed for the Catholic masses in Latin America and Africa. Having witnessed this liberating power, we are now more able to understand why the 16th-century hierarchy so adamantly opposed worship in the vernacular.

Historic Exile

And even the mountaintops look different when seen from the valleys. Look at John Calvin, about whom so much has been written. Until recently, one of the least explored facets of his life and thought has been his exile. Significantly, most references to Calvin as an exile have to do with the few years during which he had to leave Geneva and settled in Strasbourg. We tend to forget that Calvin’s entire theological career took place in exile. He had to flee from Paris in 1533, and after some wanderings he reluctantly settled in Geneva, where he spent most of his life, but where he was not a citizen until 1559, five years before his death. Today, when the ordeal of exile and economic displacement is all too frequent, we begin to see Calvin’s theology under a new light.

We know, for instance, that he understood the doctrine of grace as an experience similar to that of a stranger who is welcomed in a new land. Is there a connection between the experience of being torn from one’s homeland – from one’s kindred and one’s native kingdom – and Calvin’s understanding of communion as a kind of a transport to the final reign of God? As he is read from the viewpoint of the exiled and uprooted multitudes of the 21st century, it may well be that a different Calvin will emerge.

The Reformation is not what it used to be!

Justo L. González ’58 S.T.M., ’61 Ph.D. is a widely read church historian, theologian, lecturer, educator, mentor, and United Methodist Church elder. His many books include A History of Christian Thought (Abingdon, 1975, three volumes), The Story of Christianity (HarperOne, 2010, two volumes), Santa Biblia: The Bible Through Hispanic Eyes (Abingdon, 1996), and, most recently, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation (Eerdmans, 2017).