March 6, 2017

Before becoming Catholic, I was an evangelical Protestant for about twenty years, an ordained Protestant minister for more than eleven.

My conversion was hard. I broke a lot of glass coming into the Church. Because of my background and situation, becoming Catholic wasn’t something done quickly. It was the result of intensive thought and prayer over the course of some four years. It involved a rethinking of my entire worldview as a Christian — including the teaching of Scripture and the history of the Church.

Given this experience, I can’t talk about Catholicism and Protestantism without instinctively making the case for the one and against the other. At the same time, I can’t talk about Protestantism without deep affection for those I still consider my brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Most Serious Division in Christian History

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft has referred to the division that occurred between Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation as “the most serious division” in the history of Christianity. It certainly was, and is. And the Catholic Church acknowledges that it is not without blame for the fracturing among Christianity that took place in the early 16th century.

In fact, whatever blame may be assigned for what happened back then, it certainly is not the fault of Protestants alive today, and Catholics accept them as fellow Christians. Quoting the official Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts …. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church — for which, often enough, men on both sides were to blame …. one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers (CCC 816-818).

I have no doubt in my mind that I was a Christian for twenty years before I ever became a Catholic — that I knew Christ. I also have no doubt in my mind that the Spirit of God was present and active in the evangelical Protestant churches I attended and served during those years.

And our Catechism agrees with this as well. In fact, in the very next paragraph we read:

Christ uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church (CCC 819).

And so, with respect and affection, during this year in which the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be commemorated by a great number of our brothers and sisters in Christ, in a series of monthly articles I’d like to ask the questions: What was the Reformation? And why did it happen?

To begin, what was the Reformation?

Discussing this same question, Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc in his book The Great Heresies began by emphasizing what the Reformation was not. First, he said, it was not a matter of individual Christians introducing one or two or three particular false doctrines that needed to be dealt with. It was much more general than that.

Nor, Belloc continues, was it the creation, the introduction, of a new and separate religion, as was the case with Islam in the seventh century.

I sometimes hear Catholics speak of Protestants as though they were members of a different religion: “Oh, he belongs to a different religion; he’s a Baptist.” I’ve even heard Catholics say, “Oh, she’s not a Catholic. She’s a Christian!” Allow me to attempt the impossible and put a permanent stop to this. Wrong! The division between Catholicism and Protestantism is a division within Christianity. Catholics and Protestants are both Christians. The Reformation was not the creation of a new religion.

Well, if it wasn’t a matter of disagreements over a doctrine or two or even three, and it wasn’t the introduction of a new religion, what was the Reformation?

What Belloc emphasizes is that Protestantism created “a certain separate moral atmosphere,” which he characterizes as that of “reaction against a united spiritual authority.” This moral atmosphere, he says, “so continued in vigor as both to break up our European civilization in the West and to launch at last a general doubt, spreading more and more widely.”

Reaction Against the Authority of the Catholic Church

We can see this in lives of the Reformers.

For instance, you read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and he doesn’t seem to have gone into his study and come forth with one or two or three “improvements” on Catholic theology, a couple of doctrines he believes the Church to be mistaken about. Rather, he seems to have taken his Bible and gone into his study and come forth with his own total vision of Christianity.

Catholicism is something that is rejected outright. There’s the sense that he is reinventing the wheel, starting over, returning to the original sources and taking a fresh look at Christian theology. And when he speaks about the Catholic Church, he doesn’t speak about her “errors” so much as her “evils.”

What comes through is “a certain moral atmosphere” that I think could certainly be characterized as a reaction against a united spiritual authority; in particular, a reaction against the authority of the Catholic Church.

We can sense this same “moral atmosphere” in the attitudes of Catholics today who oppose a number of the Church’s settled teachings — on women in the priesthood, artificial birth control, the authority of the bishop of Rome, abortion, divorce and remarriage, etc.

For the most part, it’s not as though these people have rigorously studied the scriptural and theological arguments in favor of the Church’s positions on each of these issues and then answered them. Their stand is a stand against the very idea of a unified spiritual authority. Their protest embodies and conveys a certain moral atmosphere. They don’t like being told what is right and wrong. They want the freedom to decide for themselves what they think about women in the priesthood, birth control, and so forth.

This is at the heart of what the Reformation was.

It was a dispute over the issue of authority that tore at the Church in the early 16th century. The separation that occurred at that time between Catholic and Protestant was a separation between those who continued to embrace the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church on matters of faith and morals and those who rejected that authority to stand, with Luther, on the authority of Scripture alone.

What Protestants Have in Common

Now, Protestantism began immediately to take numerous forms.

Martin Luther began by saying, “I do not accept the authority of popes and councils; in matters of faith each Christian is his own pope and council” (D. Martin Luthers Werke, Weimar: 1898). Yet, within a very short time (two years!) he was complaining, “There are as many sects and beliefs as there are heads!” (Letter to the Christians at Antwerp, 1525).

Protestantism fragmented almost immediately because of disagreements among the various Reformers and denominations created by the Reformation. But the one thing Protestants had in common was this reaction against the idea that there existed on earth a united spiritual authority outside of the Bible itself, and that the Catholic Church represented that spiritual authority.

And this is still the essence of the disagreement.

There are a great number of Protestant sects and denominations in the world today. And they differ with one another on a great number of issues, both doctrinal and moral.

But there’s one thing they are in perfect agreement on: “The Catholic Church has no spiritual authority over me. God has given us His Word in the Bible. God has put His Spirit in our hearts. He’s given us pastors and teachers to assist us in understanding the holy Scriptures. What more do we need?”

Sola Scriptura

Another way to express this is to say that the foundation of the Protestant worldview is sola Scriptura — the belief that the Bible serves as the “sole infallible rule of faith and practice” for the individual believer, and for the Church as well. This is how evangelical Protestants think.

This is how I thought for many, many years. And for the most part, it wasn’t a position I came to as a result of some serious in-depth analysis of the Protestant and Catholic “claims” with respect to the issue of authority. For the most part, it was simply assumed. Every Christian I knew thought this way, as well as every church I attended and every teacher I listened to.

So how did Protestants come to think like this? What were the causes of the Reformation in the 16th century? And how is it that so many at that particular point in history came to react against the spiritual authority of the Church?

Read next: What Was the Reformation and Why Did it Happen, Part 2: An Explosion of Ideas


Ken Hensley

  • Nicholas Sessa

    “The Reformation was not the creation of a new religion.” How do you account for the fact that Belloc himself said that “there is no single Christian religion”?

    • Paradox

      Out of curiosity, is it possible that Mr. Hensley was not attributing that claim to Mr. Belloc? Maybe that leads to other problems, but it seems to account for the current discrepancy fairly well.

      • Ken Hensley

        Yes, at that point I was summarizing Belloc. I found his distinction helpful. Protestantism wasn’t essentially a whole new religion (like Islam) or a dispute about one or two or three doctrines (like a dispute between Lutherans and Baptists) but was a rejection of the entire idea that there existed on earth a unified spiritual authority outside the Bible alone.

        • Paradox

          Ah, that explains it. Thanks.

    • hows_the_boy

      I cannot accept that Protestantism and Catholicism are the same Religion, for the simple reason that the worship due to God (namely, the Holy Mass) is offered in Catholicism, but in Protestantism not only is it not offered, bt it is not even possible to be offered!.
      If the cult of worship is different, how can they possibly be the same religion?

      • radicalrepublican

        They worship the Same Triune God and use the same Holy Book. There is a unifying belief system, so the same religion.

      • Ken Hensley

        What Belloc meant was simply what radicalrepublican says here — Protestantism wasn’t like Islam or Hinduism, bringing in an entirely new idea.

      • Ken Hensley

        I suppose one could debate what the minimum requirements are to call something “Christian.” But given my experience of 20 years in evangelical Protestant churches, coupled with what I read in the Catechism, i would agree with Belloc. People come to Christ and believe the basic message that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. They join with others of like faith to pray and sing songs of worship and listen to the Word of God read and preached. They have been taught that the Lord’s Table is a meal of remembrance and so they commemorate this. If they knew that it was more, they would happily receive it, but because of the teaching they’ve received, they don’t know it is and so they don’t. I believe this to be an incomplete Christianity but if it isn’t “Christianity” what is it?

  • Richard W Comerford

    RE: Who do we follow?

    I have read (and I hope it is not true) that there are 80,000 different Protestant Churches in North America. However our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ founded only one Church. That Church is His Mystical Body. The Catholic Church. It is perfect. Without defect. An attack on that Church is an attack on its Founder. An act of rebellion against Almighty God our Creator. And the first to rebel against God was Satan.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

    • David Green

      Catholic church was not founded by Christ!

      • Johnny

        You should be saying that about the Muslim religion. Who made that? The devil? After Christianity started becoming established this religion came along that has been a thorn on its side ever since.

      • catesmike

        What reason do you have to say this? The Catholic Church WAS Christianity for the first 1500 years.

        • David Green

          For the first 280 years of Christian history, Christianity was banned by the Roman Empire, and Christians were terribly persecuted. This changed after the “conversion” of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine provided religious toleration with the Edict of Milan in AD 313, effectively lifting the ban on Christianity. Later, in AD 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicea in an attempt to unify Christianity. Constantine envisioned Christianity as a religion that could unite the Roman Empire

          • David Green

            the first 280 years no Catholics!

            • Ken Hensley

              This is misleading. The Church was first referred to as “the Catholic Church” by Ignatius of Antioch in around 110 AD. But of course, the word “Trinity” wasn’t used for centuries but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t describe something that is true. The important point is that the Church that was made legal by Constantine was the same Church that had been growing like a mustard seed and spreading throughout the Roman Empire all alone. It’s theology was developing but it was the same Church.

              • David Green

                No it is not it is historical fact!Ignatius of Antioch’s letters addressed the organization and authority of the local church. It is in his letters that we first find a clear distinction between bishops and elders. In the New Testament, the terms pastor, elder, and bishop are used interchangeably and clearly point to different aspects of one position. Pastor refers to the duties of feeding and tending to the flock of God as a shepherd. Elder refers to the position of honor and respect as the head of a family. Bishop refers to the duty of exercising oversight of others. The first churches appointed multiple elders who fulfilled all of these duties (Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1–2). It is in Ignatius’s writings that we first find the terms bishop and presbyter set in opposition to each other. By the time of Ignatius, churches had come to the practical conclusion that there had to be one “senior” pastor, who was called the bishop, and the other elders, or presbyters, were ranked under him in authority and position. Ignatius’s letters acknowledged that the bishop was not necessarily the oldest among the elders, but was one whom God called to that position. Ignatius argued that there should be one bishop in charge of each congregation in order to prevent splits and ensure correct beliefs were preserved. sounds protestant to me!

                • David Green

                  God was not pleased with the path of Salvation the catholic church had proclaimed. I do believe there are some things the catholic church is right about.But, it is very unfortunate that the church did not learn any lessons of the Reformation that God allowed to happen. It is a church full of chains and bondage!

                • Richard W Comerford

                  Mr. David Green:

                  Did Almighty God personally inform you that He w”as not pleased with the path of Salvation the catholic church had proclaimed”?

                  God bless

                  Richard W Comerford

                • David Green

                  yes

                • Richard W Comerford

                  Mr. David Green:

                  Well if God personally communicates with you maybe you can ask Him for teh grace to convert to the one, true faith?

                  God bless

                  Richard W Comerford

                • Richard W Comerford

                  Mr. David Green:

                  Bishops are successors to the Apostles. Others are not.

                  God bless

                  Richard W Comerford

                • Ken Hensley

                  My comment was that Ignatius first used the word “Catholic.” You respond, “No” and then go on to talk about other things. I agree with you that Ignatius was writing about the organization of the churches.

                • David Green

                  Have you read all the church Fathers I have. I see nothing catholic in there writings!

            • Richard W Comerford

              Mr. David Green:

              As mentioned above Catholic in this sense means universal or pertaining to all Christians.

              The Church Fathers of the first three centuries held and taught what the Catholic Church today holds and teaches.

              God bless

              Richard W Comerford

          • Richard W Comerford

            Mr. David Green:

            Constantine was baptized on his death bed. And by ab Arian Bishop who did not believe that Jesus was both True God and True man.

            I know of no primary document that shows Constantine wanted Christianity to be the State Religion in order to unite the Empire.

            However Constantine as Emperor wanted to maintain the peace of his Empire.

            God bless

            Richard W Comerford

      • Richard W Comerford

        Mr. David Green:

        Thank you for your reply.

        Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ did not found 80,000 different Church.

        He founded one Church. To which all Christians belonged. All as in universal. Catholic means universal.

        A quick look at the Church Fatheers will reveal that what they believed and taught is waht the 21St Century Catholic Church believs and teaches. – otherwise known as teh Deposit of Faith.

        God bless

        Richard W Comerford

  • Mike17

    I would suggest that the rejection of the authority of the Catholic Church, like many Protestant doctrines, came about through necessity. Luther came up with the new-fangled doctrine of justification by faith alone. The Catholic Church did not accept his teaching on the subject of justification. Therefore Luther rejected the Church. Basically he said, “I believe something and I am right. If the Church disagrees then the Church must be wrong. If the Church is wrong on this then clearly it cannot have authority over doctrine.” So the Protestants had to invent sola scriptura, even though it isn’t in the Bible. But it’s fascinating reading or listening to a Protestant attempting to claim that sola scriptura is in the Bible.

  • Brother Anthony

    Relying on Scripture without Tradition (upper case “T”) leads to a fracturing of the body within itself as Ken Hensley has highlighted, even within Catholicism on settled issues. Tradition is the inspired continuous, unbroken line of preaching and teaching of the Good News of Jesus by the Apostles and their successors the bishops. Without this unified continuity with Tradition guided by the Spirit, there is disunity and pain of separation. As a Catholic, I have learned much from Spirit-filled Protestants whose holiness, whose love for Jesus and the word of God are unshakeable. They continue to inspire me. At the same time, I cannot live without that foretaste of heaven and profound encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.

    • Gaffer7

      Your statement regarding the Eucharist is the essential meaning of our Catholic faith, My best friend is non Catholic but believes the moral principles that our church teaches – for those of us who have been catechized. Those great Franciscans were my mentors and remain so to this day. I tell my friend that she is Catholic – but doesn’t know it — told her that in High School we learned that CATHOLIC meant all (including our separated brethren) There is so much confusion regarding our faith today — it seems like the evil one has taken over the world and rejecting Christianity. Was it Pope Paul VI who stated that the Smoke of Satan had entered the Sanctuary. Having spent 2 years as a Novice in a Missionary – Nursing order – that was dedicated to Jesus through Mary, to this day I place all my confusion over to Mary, and She tells OUR LORD that we need more wine!

  • MoonRiver

    I don’t agree that those who question ‘settled teachings’ are all about rejecting a unified authority.

    You are doing the same thing you accuse those others doing – making false accusations based upon your own biases and ignorance.

    I can read, I do read and will read and still question. That’s the first commandment – SEEK with all the mind etc. Doesn’t mean I am some rebel – anti authority or unity.

    More a case of believing something cause I understand and it at least makes some kind of sense.

    ‘Us and Them’ is never ever a good place to seek Unity.

  • I have believed for years that the energy of the Reformation came from individual kings figuring out that they themselves, rather than the Pope, could be the head honcho of their nation’s church.

    • Ken Hensley

      Yes. There’s more to it but you are dead on correct on this.

    • David Green

      There have always been reformers. This belief that the Catholic church was all there was is a total farce! The catholic church murdered the same brothers and sisters they now claim are a part of there church for thousands of years!

      • Robertson Daine

        Who did they murder?

        • David Green

          fellow christians!

          • Robertson Daine

            Details please

      • USARSUPTHAI

        Need to some history on that one, show me the history!

  • JohnnyVoxx

    Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. That clip from the 1983 catechism is heretical.

  • David Green

    Reformation happen because the catholic church was the false Church! Always has been always will be! Prasie be to God that the protestants are 100 percent right when it comes to salvation!

    • Anita

      The Catholic church was the first church for 1500 years. If it was false it would not have begun with Peter, who Jesus gave authority to, to lead it. Protestantism is not the way Jesus taught, He taught, if you pay attention to Scripture, that He had authority and gave authority to Peter, who was the first Pope.
      Every person cannot take authority on their own, that is why rhere are so many Protestant denominations. Too many different personal opinions. It doesn’t work properly, there bevcomes a distortion of Jesus’ teachings.

    • Johnny

      False church? That is why all its beliefs are more in conformity with the early Christians including the Church Fathers then any other Christian organization. And that is why those who enter Satan’s service renounce the Catholic church and why they do a travesty of the Catholic Mass with the Black Mass. Why would they do that if it wasn’t the true church of Christ?

    • steve j.

      Which protestant sect is 100% right? Their teachings are so varied and a new one seems to pop up every day. If each protestant sect is right(because they believe in Jesus), then I suppose a Catholic faith is just as ‘right’ too, since at least it also teaches Jesus as savior…

      • David Green

        So are catholics/orthodox/cc ect

    • Ken Hensley

      Actually, no. The view of justification Luther and the others came up with is a view even Protestant scholar Alister McGrath admits had never been taught in 1500 years of Christian theology. He refers to it as a “theological novum.” Brand new.

  • Susan

    Remember this: Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail again it. He did not say, thou art Calvin or thou art Martin Luther. Peter was our first pope and the authority from him has been handed down forever.

  • Mart1963

    Yea lets bring back the good old days,
    the inquisition of witches
    the paying of indulgences to get people out of Hades
    the torture and excommunication of those who don’t fear the Church
    any secular man made rules of the popes
    the praying to the saints and Mary to grant request instead of praying in Jesus’ name as Jesus Himself taught.
    hiding pedophilia
    etc.

    Reform is good because people in power grow more perverse with time and add there poison to the mix until the Church has no longer any Christ in it.

    Steel sharpens steel, one denomination will point out the faults in another denomination, nothing worse then only one denomination which becomes dull, rusted and useless. Better the denominations rub against each other and both remain sharp.

    • Ken Hensley

      Well, you’re mixing some things together here.

      Yes, because we are all sinners, we are in need of continue moral and spiritual reform.

      But you’re idea that it would not be good to have one Church doesn’t make sense. In the OT, Israel become “dull, rusted and useless” at times but imagine if one Israelite had said to another, “Hey, let’s go out into the desert and form our own Israel! We’ll consecrate our own priests and construct our own temple and do it right for a change!”

      No doubt the earth would have opened to swallow that man.

      Jesus founded one Church and prayed that the Church would be “one” so that the world would know that the Father had sent him (John 17). The apostles commanded the Christians to be unified as one. The attempt to argue that it’s actually better that we have hundreds of denominations and sects and independent movements, each contradicting the other — well, that’s quite a stretch. Sure, you are free to believe that the Catholic Church is not the true successor to the Church of the Apostles, but the idea that it’s actually to be preferred that Christ’s body is fractured into hundreds of competing sects doesn’t make sense, not does it fit with anything we see in Scripture.

      It’s true that there was plenty of sin in the Church at the time of the Reformation. And it’s true that believers and churches can function like steel sharpening steel, morally, spiritually, and yes, even in the sense of coming to deeper and deeper insights into the truths of the faith But it doesn’t follow from this that what our Lord wants is contradictory messages.

      • Mart1963

        One Church many denominations!
        One Church many families!
        Any denomination that says that they are the only true Church is a cult.
        Christ saves not denominations.

    • Matt Swaim

      Bad people in a religious group aren’t enough to render it invalid. If that were the case, the Church would have been a bust when 1/12th of Jesus’ hand picked guys went rogue, or if not then, a few hours later when all but one of them went MIA at his crucifixion.

      Reform is, as you say, good, and for the reasons you say. But the bigness or smallness of a group of believers is no guarantee that its members will be virtuous or corrupt. The Catholic Church is full of members called to daily reform- or, as some call it, conversion- sharpening one another as iron sharpens iron (Pro 27:17) in the same body of Christ, together in unity toward a common goal with Christ as the head.

      Endless splintering of Christian community doesn’t achieve reform; it simply tries to erase its paper trail while starting something new, until that new thing accrues enough scandals, which is bound to happen if humans are involved. The question remains- if sinners in a Church are enough to write it off, then where’s the congregation without any sinners in it?

      • USARSUPTHAI

        I have returned to the Church within the last 6 years after 40 years of wondering. There is one thing that seems to be common place in the ecclesial community world and that is when ever there is a dispute, disagreement on scripture interpretation the ecclesial community splits.No settlement on scripture, just go your own way and start your own ecclesial community. Here we have, to many to count, ecclesial communities reading out of the same Bible, being lead by the same Holy Spirit and coming up with diametrically opposing interpretations of scripture. How can that be? We as humans like consistency, we are just made that way, so the inconsistency is one of several reasons I returned to consistency, the Catholic Church.

  • David Green

    The catholic church is very confusing to me, because there seems to be two be version of Catholicism. A version that is more hardcore traditional and non tolerant. And version that seems to be reforming against the ancient order!

    • USARSUPTHAI

      The Catholic Church needs to be hardcore, have you lived in the world lately? Jesus didn’t start the “Church of Nice”

      • David Green

        yes he did

  • David Green

    Thank you all for letting me voice my opinions here, most catholic site just ban me, not sure there will ever be a way for protestants and Catholics to come together if we do not Discuss!