Book Review: The Reformation 500 Years Later

Dear Reader,

I have been aware of Benjamin Wiker’s book on the Reformation for a little while bit honestly had been afraid to read it. I have read a number of his other books — one of Darwin (see the end of this post); A Meaningful World which is on everything from astrophysics to Shakespeare; a few on philosophy; and on on politics (discussed in this post) — and loved them, but, knowing Wiker is Roman Catholic, I was afraid I would read this book and not like him so much anymore. But, since we will be studying the period from the Renaissance and Reformation on in our homeschool this year, I decided I should bite the bullet and give The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know (Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2017) a try.

The structure of this book is similar to Wiker’s philosophy books — Ten Books that Screwed up the World and Ten Books Every Conservative Must Read. The Reformation is divided up into not ten but twelve easy to digest sections. The first tells us his reasons for writing the book and a basic thesis behind it. The world is a dangerous place for Christians. Persecution is still a very real thing and Wiker makes clear where he thinks this persecution is coming from. What binds us together or divides us as believers is more the line between liberal versus conservative than the lines between various Christian denominations. A conservative presbyterian (like me) has more in common, Wiker says, with a conservative Catholic (like him) than with a liberal presbyterian. Though the Reformation divided us, Wiker’s goal in this book is to bring us back together by demonstrating that it need not continue to be such a divisive thing.

The history in this book is very good. Though I would like to think I had some awareness of the forces at work, Wiker does an excellent job of showing just how many threads there were at work and how they interplay. In his treatment of the various parties to the Reformation, Wiker is somewhat of an equal-opportunity offender — there is something here to upset Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Calvinists and anabaptists. 

Though I liked the book and plan to have my high schoolers read it, there are a couple of big points on which I do not agree with Wiker. The first is his interpretation of history. This is actually an excellent book for showing that one’s overarching view of reality is important. Wiker tells us a lot of facts about the forces in play at the time and I have no doubt that what he says is factually accurate. Yet there is an intellectual framework here that skews the interpretation of those facts. In the last paragraph of the book Wiker refers directly to God’s providential role in directing events (p. 189)  but the attitude in the rest of the book seems to be one of a precarious “what if” existence. “What if,” Wiker asks, “Luther had become a lawyer” (p. 126). For Wiker if this or any of a number of other events had gone a different way, the result would not have been a tragedy. Luther’s Reformation would not have happened but reform would have come through some other means. The overall story reads like this: these events happened in this way and these people lived at this time and made these decisions and the end result of all these things — any one of which might have been different and changed the whole trajectory — was that the Protestant Reformation happened in this time and place and by these means. But let me paint another picture: these things happened at this time and in these ways and these people lived and made the decisions they made because God is sovereign and chose to orchestrate them in just this way. The role which Islam and atheism and nationalism played in the Reformation are not products of chance. They are evidence that God was preparing the world at this time and this place for the reformation He had planned for His Church. Luther is not one more product of chance but what he began is the culmination of what God was doing and has been doing throughout human history. 

The other big issue I have with this book is how we draw the lines. In chapter 1 Wiker says essentially that conservative Christians need to stick together today because we are all facing the fame persecution from the same forces. He draws a line between conservative Christians and everyone else, including liberal Christians from the same denominations. He cites the Nicene Creed as the litmus test (pp. 5, 188). Those who can agree to its propositions are on one side, everyone else on the other. Up to a point, I agree with him. I do think liberal Christians are not in the same camp I am. Catholics and conservative presbyterians like me are on the same side of certain social issues (abortion comes quickly to mind). We do both face persecution (not persecution as such  in the US, but globally). But does that put us on the same side of the line? Do we preach the same gospel and have the differences of the Reformation, as Wiker claims, been all but negated? 

Interestingly, the problem of where to draw the line was an issue at the time as well and appears in the reaction to Islam. Luther, Wiker tells us, lumped Muslims, Jews, Catholics and even Protestants he disagreed with together (p. 99). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, “saw Islam as an age-old antagonist, and one that should unify Christendom in opposition” (p. 101). 

This is really not a new controversy. Even before the New Testament canon was complete, those who liked Paul’s preaching and those who preferred Apollos were quarreling (1 Cor.1:11ff). The answer Paul gace was to point the people to Christ and the one gospel which united them (2 Cor. 11:4). But if there is one message which unites, we are also called to reject any other, contrary message (Gal. 1:7-8). So then we are left with the question: do we have the same gospel or not? 

In Wiker’s defense, he does not gloss over the fact that there are still differences between us. He acknowledges that our “theological disagreements were (and still are) important” (p. 9). Nor does he necessarily expect us all to become one church with one hierarchy again (p. 8), but he does argue that we are in the same camp, that we have the same gospel (though he does not use those words), and that the major issues of the Reformation have been smoothed out by time and further reforms. 

There are a lot of complicated issues at work here and it is beyond the scope of this post to make a final judgment on the question of whether we do and can have unity with Roman Catholics. I will confine myself to a few observations — Wiker is correct that some of the issue which Luther rallied against are just not issues any more. The Pope no longer controls a vast political empire. My understanding is that indulgences are still on the books but they are not sold willy-nilly to fill the church’s coffers. And recent Popes certainly seem much more moral than many of their medieval counterparts. Wiker would have us believe as well that the doctrine  of sola scriptura  which divides Catholic and Protestants has been, if not abandoned in theory by Protestants, largely jettisoned in practice (pp. 153-56). I think this represents a misunderstanding of what sola scriptura really means what the role of the confessions is. (But it is a misunderstanding many Protestants themselves have so it is hard to fault a Roman Catholic for it.) So the problem of authority remains as does Luther’s theological revelation. Sola fide remains as a theological  dividing line. Wiker does not address how we could get beyond this difference. His own take seems to be that sola fide was a matter of convenience for Luther, a doctrine which allowed him to break his own vows and ultimately led to antinomianism. He is right, of course, that many Protestants have tended towards a rejection of the Law but this again is due to their misunderstanding of the implications of  sola fide and of what really happens when we are saved by grace through faith.  In the end, I don’t have an answer to the question of where to draw the line. I know some Catholics whom I consider brothers and sisters in Christ, but I also think there are significant doctrinal issues which cannot be swept aside. 

I do recommend  The Reformation 500 Years Later and I don’t regret having read it and would certainly continue to read Wiker’s books. He is an intelligent, deep thinker who manages to explain philosophical concepts clearly to a less educated audience. Though I have some issues with it, the main contribution of this volume is to provide the ideological and political context for the Reformation and as such it is quite valuable.

Nebby

3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Schaeffer’s book addresses the Protestant Reformation but I also had both my children read Benjamin Wiker’s The Reformation 500 Years Later. Wiker is a favorite author of mine. I am a little more hesitant with this book. As he is Roman Catholic and I am Protestant, this is the area where our differences are most apparent. Nonetheless, The Reformation is an accessible book that covers a lot of topics and gives one a fair amount to think about. Rather than having my kids merely narrate it, I gave them a list of readings and specific questions to address for each section. Think of it more as a guided narration. You can find that assignment list here (opens a Google doc). You can find my review of the book here. […]

    Reply

  2. […] The Reformation 500 Years Later: 12 Things You Need to Know by Benjamin Wiker — The short story on this book is that I found it quite useful and plan to have my kids read it this year as we study the period beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation. The longer story is that Wiker is a Catholic and I am a Reformed Protestant and ultimately I am now sure I agree with him, at least in terms of what he wants to see happen and whether it can even happen. His insights into the history of the time and the forces at work are very good though. The long version of this review is here.  […]

    Reply

  3. […] [1] For a more complete discussion see this earlier post on Fesko’s Reforming Apologetics. A fairly accessible book on the ideas behind the Reformation is Benjamin Wiker’s The Reformation 500 Years Later (though it should be taken with some reservation as Wiker himself is Roman Catholic; see my review here). […]

    Reply

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