Which Henry Caused the Reformation?

November 03, 2017

by Carl Trueman

Almost from the moment Luther called for a debate on the practice of indulgences, the Reformation has been subject to two types of powerful and antithetical narratives. There are the triumphalists who see Luther as one of the truly great and good, and there are the catastrophists who see him as one of history’s great villains.

Each narrative tradition is broad, and each varies in the triumphs or tragedies it lays at Luther’s door. Some of the triumphalists see him as engaged in a faithful recovery of the gospel. Others see him as a staging post on the way to many modern goods, from religious freedom to modern science. No Luther, no Reformation, no Western freedom.

The catastrophists, too, have various narratives. Early attacks focused on Luther’s alleged sexual appetites and saw his libido as key to his actions: Luther shattered the church because he wanted to break with his vows of celibacy. That the English Reformation was triggered by the marital antics of England’s Henry VIII only adds more grist to that particular mill. Recently, the catastrophist narrative has become more sophisticated and formidable, seeing Luther and the Reformers as setting in motion the patterns of thought and behavior that have led to the moral and political chaos we now see all around us.

The latter approach has gained considerable traction over recent years, in part because of the impressive scholarly work of Brad Gregory in his book The Unintended Reformation. It also has undoubted appeal at a time when traditional Christians see the Western narrative as a whole as being in a state of flux. Christianity in all its forms is declining. Even in general terms, it is hard to argue that the West to which the Reformation helped to give birth is the absolute meaning of history, as it once appeared to be. China, Russia, India, and Islam all offer alternatives to Western modernity, and all would seem at this moment to be gaining in strength even as the models offered by Europe and North America are weakening. . . .

. . . continue reading at First Things.

Carl Trueman

Dr. Trueman (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of church history at WTS.

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