Diocesan News

The Reformation: Historical perspective

Historical Perspective: Viewing the Reformation through the lens of Medieval culture, religion and politics

(SNR) - The Diocese of Lincoln’s Office of Evangelization presented a five-part series about the Reformation during “coffee house” events at Gianna’s Java & Gelato in Lincoln.

October 17, 2017 was marked as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As the Protestant population within the diocesan boundary is more than six times the Catholic population, the series was held to equip Catholics with a thorough understanding of the Catholic perspective on the Reformation.

The speakers prepared short recaps of their talks for the Register. The full videos of each talk is available online in the video gallery.

Msgr. Timothy Thorburn, vicar general, was the guest speaker at the first coffee house event Sept. 10. He provided a thorough historical perspective. A brief summary is included.


By Msgr. Timothy Thorburn September 10, 2017

We are 500 years down the road from that catastrophic split in Christianity popularly known as the Protestant Reformation. As long as Christians remain divided, we are part of a terrible problem we have created for God, who wants us to be his united children, as Jesus prayed in his last will and testament (Jn 17:21).

While the beginning of the Reformation is often linked to that colorful event in which  Martin Luther supposedly nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, this was only the sprouting of a plant that had roots growing for several hundred years. This seed of division was watered and fertilized by a “modern” (for 1517) philosophy developed by, among others, Marsillius of Padua, William of Ockham, and Niccolo Machiavelli. These philosophers rejected the traditional philosophy of Saints Athanasius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, whose work had demolished such early heresies as Arianism, Manichaeism, and Pelagianism. By doing so, these three “moderns” paved the way for errors that affected Luther’s time and Luther himself.

According to Marsillius’ notion of “double truth,” one could know something is false by reason but accept it as true by faith. Moreover, reason is knowledge of truth in the public forum, with the state as its master, while faith is knowledge of truth in personal matters, like religion, with the Church as its master. The effects of this error persist today when politicians say that they are “personally opposed” to abortion but, as legislators, are constrained to support its legality.

According to William of Ockham’s error of “voluntarism” or “nominalism,” God’s power is expressed by his will, not his intellect. Therefore, his expression of power need not be logical. If God were to say black is white, then black is white. Will defines what is true. Again, in present-day politics, issues are not considered and argued on the basis of their goodness or truth. The loudest voice enforces its will, regardless of the truth of the matter. 

From Niccolo Machiavelli comes the anti-proverb, “The end justifies the means.” Of course, if God’s power is arbitrary, and he can use any means to accomplish his will, political leaders are free to do the same.

It was into this atmosphere, and even because of this atmosphere, that Luther began to struggle with his own interior spiritual difficulties. Significantly, his approach to the Scriptures as well as to the various moral and theological corruptions of some churchmen at the time, was heavily influenced by the likes of Marsillius, William, and Machiavelli.

But perhaps this 500th anniversary of the sad break-up can be, as our Holy Father has hoped, an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation. St. Peter exhorts us, “Be ye all of one mind” (I Pet 3:8). Protestants have Catholic roots, for the Catholic Church is the object of the “protest.” Likewise, Catholics should always see Protestants, not as foreigners but as separated brethren. Let us work and pray for unity. Jesus is Lord of all because he is the only Savior. Let us pray, for God’s glory and the restoration and victory of his Kingdom, that Jesus’ desire is fulfilled: “That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (Jn 17:21).

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