A few months ago I posted my thoughts about what I perceived to be an unfair bias towards the Reformation in the teaching of modern Church history. After finishing teaching the Reformation this semester, I’m beginning to reconsider the matter just a little.
For all the ways that overly focusing on the Reformation might obscure other parts of the history of Christianity, the vitality and change that the movement brought is hard to underemphasize. Without a Protestant Reformation, our world today would look different in many ways.
The Reformation is attractive for teaching and learning because it crystallizes–like some of the key debates in the early Church–so many issues that are vital to the Faith itself. What is the Church? Who is Jesus Christ for us? What is a human being? How can we be saved? What is our calling in this life?
The Reformation features strong personalities that engage in titanic clashes and meditate on powerful themes: people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. It highlights a group like the Anabaptists who took the Reformation to its logical conclusion and were hated by all for so doing.
The clarity of ideas during this period and the definition the various historical actors gives them is powerful. Their influence is legendary, and speaks as much to a new birth of theological reflection as it does the continued march away from the Church as united community towards the rampant individualism that has marked much of modern Christianity.
Consider me a fan of teaching the Reformation. While I still feel that there can be a tendency to focus too much on it or remain in the midst of Reformation-era theological debates long after their date of expiration, it has great value. The issues of the 16th century are both easier to conceptualize and ultimately more theologically influential than either of the centuries that surround it. Indeed, it stands out as one of the most pivotal of all eras in the history of the West.