The Reformers Swerving overcorrection


Revolutions and reformations are zealous.  They want to correct the error of the past but in so doing they often overcorrect and produce their own error just in the opposite direction. In my lifetime I’ve seen this overcorrection among my peers (the boomers) as we were intent on correcting the narrow-minded legalistic approach to religion of our parents.  I now see a similar overcorrection among emerging generations as they zealously attempt to correct the overcorrections of the boomers.


Take the reformation, for instance.  The Protestant reformers deconstructed “church as we know it.”  Everything came up for grabs during this open season on a thousand years of church tradition. Reformers claimed to be “getting back to the Bible” or “restoring the ancient church” but we all know they did more than that.   In times of revolution everything came up for reconsideration.  Even Scripture. While the reformers are (now) famous for affirming the authority of Scripture (especially over the authority of the church) it is lesser known that they had some serious questions about the canon that had been accepted for a thousand years.


Consider Martin Luther.  Luther excluded from the canon a set of Old Testament writings that had been recognized as completely canonical and inspired for more than a thousand years: the books of Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Tobias, Sirach, and 1 & 2 Maccabees). We do not have these books in our reliable NIVs so we assume he was right in tossing them out, but we ought to remember they were there for a thousand years.  Can you imagine if the emergents came along and toss out six books of ours? Whew! There’s be [something] to pay. Luther summarily reversed these six book’s canonicity and presto! they were eliminated. Most Protestants have now adopted the official Protestant spin on this: “Luther was justified since he was “correcting” the thousand year old error of adding books that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”  Whew! Can you picture that today?   Which would we toss? Of course Luther’s action took some time to stick–even the venerated King James Version still included the Old Testament apocrypha when it was published. But Luther’s cut eventually prevailed—and our canon today has six fewer books.


But the reformation zeal to cut out Bible books went further. Luther also had serious doubts about Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. Though he was satisfied that people might read these books he did not count them among the “right sure, principle books.” Luther even went so far as to separate them from the other books in his 1522 edition of the Bible signifying them as deutero-canonical.  WOAH!  Can you imagine Rob Bell doing that today? But Luther was not alone among the reformers. Zwingli also thought that Revelation should be eliminated from the canon.  And, it should at least be noted that even Calvin omitted Revelation from his exposition of the New Testament and in the introductions to his commentaries he expressed doubts about 2 Peter and 2 John and 3 John.   My goodness—reformers gone wild!


But actually this week I am not addressing the canon. I’m thinking about the reformation. During revolutionary days when everything comes up for grabs reformers sometimes overcorrect and go too far. Eventually more conservative minds prevailed and Luther’s and Zwingli’s stance wound up as their own personal opinion and not the church’s position.  But the illustration is still helpful: reformers sometimes go too far—maybe even the Reformation itself?


So, that’s my question this week is:  How has the Protestant reformation overcorrected Roman Catholicism?  How have we “gone too far?”


So what do you think?

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October 31, 2006 Keith Drury