A Meeting Place for Evangelicals, Reformed, and Orthodox Christians

How The Reformation Continues To Fail

Martin Luther Posting the 95 Theses

A Reply to Dr. Peter Leithart’s “How the Reformation Failed.”

Reverend Leithart writes:

The Reformers did not start out with a plan to establish separated churches. Their goal was to reform the entire Latin church. In this they failed….

Some have charged that the Reformers were willing to split the church because they had little interest in visible unity, but that is false. All the Reformers and all Protestant confessions stressed the unity and catholicity of the church. Calvin lamented the “mutilation” of Christ’s body….

As Lee Palmer Wandel ( The Reformation ) has pointed out, the fragmentation of the church was pervasive, deep, and unprecedented. In 1500, the word “Christian” was univocal; by 1600, there were a variety of definitions of the word, and Christians of one sort didn’t necessarily recognize Christians of other sorts as Christians. In 1500, a Christian could travel from one end of Europe to another without fear of persecution; by 1600, every form of Christianity was illegal somewhere in Europe. In 1500, the Latin Mass was the church’s liturgy throughout Western Europe; by 1600, several different, mutually exclusive, Eucharistic liturgies were enacted across Europe.

The division penetrated to families and neighborhoods. Catholics whose children married in non-sacramental Protestant weddings considered their own grandchildren to be bastards. Time was reckoned differently in different parts of Europe: Catholics and Protestants lived in different time zones.

How did this happen? How did a Reformation committed to the gospel, catholicity, and unity shatter the Western church and European civilization?  [Source]


Luther’s Good Intentions

In his recent article “How the Reformation Failed,” Peter Leithart is right to assume Luther had no intention to create a rival Church when he posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church. Yet it must be noted that in the 3⅓ years between Wittenberg (Oct. 1517) and the Diet of Worms (Jan. 1521) much had changed. Facilitated by the the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses and other of his tracts were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and distributed widely across Europe. For example, Luther’s 95 Theses spread through Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in two months!

When he attended the Diet of Worms, Luther was all but certain of his excommunication should he refuse to recant. It is most unlikely that a new Church, at least a separated National Church under his political protector, Frederick the Wise, had not occurred to him. Indeed, the Reformation must not be simplistically reduced to mere theological considerations. The political lust for power and independence was a growing presence throughout Europe’s socio-political realm at the time. In his excellent book, Rock and Sand, Fr Josiah Trenham suggests,

A strong argument can be made that the Protestant Reformation itself was more a land grab by the Protestant princes than about ecclesiastical renewal, and that without their cooperation Martin Luther would have been a flame that quickly ignited, but then rapidly dissipated. (Trenham, p. 8)


Speaking Outside the Bubble

We are thankful that Peter Leithart is a not only a scholar; he is a gentleman as well. He tries to be measured in his writing and analyses. We grant that he sees himself (as one cohort of his is apt to say) “riding the brake” on innovation. His scholarship has broadened his vision so he speaks from outside the bubble of Reformed sectarian purity. Rev. Leithart has given up the glasses of naïveté that so often prevents one from seeing the log(s) in his own tradition’s eye. This has enabled him to observe insightfully:

Yet, the Reformers eventually turned their considerable rhetorical powers against each other, creating stark polarities and treating every dispute as a cosmic war of light and darkness, truth and error. Reformation polemic descended into propaganda, which bolstered the group of identity of separated communions by demonizing other churches. For all the virtues of polemic, Lutheran and Reformed would often have been better served by gentle answers.

Remarks like these are commendable for their insightfulness and courage.


Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquy – 1529

Protestantism’s First Failure

While it is wise to see logs in our own small traditions, we must point out that Pastor Leithart remains unwilling to confront the root problem destroying ecclesiastical unity even among Protestant churches, the departing from Holy Tradition. This problem showed itself some twelve years after Luther’s 95 Theses at the Marburg Colloquy. This historic meeting between Luther and Zwingli provides tragic and telling lesson about Protestantism. Fr. Josiah Trenham’s comments are on point here:

The greatest of these [controversies] took place at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. This official gathering was designed to unify the Protestant theologians, but instead served to express the deepest of divisions between Luther and Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli on the subject of the eucharist. Luther thought his teaching on consubstantiation was the clear teaching of Scripture, and neither could understand why the other was being so hardheaded and disobedient to the ‘clear teaching of Scripture.’ The Marburg Colloquy and Protestant eucharistic controversy revealed the greatest weakness of the Protestant embrace of the doctrine of sola scriptura, and proved the absurdity of any dependence on the clarity of Scripture alone to establish common doctrines. Luther felt very deeply on this matter, and said ‘Before I would have mere wine with the fanatics, I would rather receive sheer blood with the pope. Accomplished Protestant leaders like Carlstadt, Zwingli, Oecolampadius in Basel and Bucer in Strasbourg disavowed Luther’s teaching on the sacraments and church polity. We Orthodox Christians are led to ponder: where is the reality of sola scriptura and the perspicuity of Scripture if even those bound by faculty, friendship, politics and faith cannot agree on the meaning of the central Christian act of worship? (pp. 36, 37)

The failure at Marburg – the inability for sola scriptura to generate a unified understanding of Scripture and a shared Eucharist – has been repeated over and over in the history of Protestantism resulting not just in the shattering of church unity, but its pulverization into thousands of Protestant denominations.





Marriage Advice to a Friend

What do you say to a very likeable, knowledgeable and engaging man [hypothetical/ not Peter Leithart!] who is a friend of yours who claims he loves his wife dearly and wants to reconcile with her. But, he refuses to end his open marriage relationships with other women? You tell him as gently but as firmly as possible, “My dear friend, your commitment to your open marriage and other women is destroying any chance you have for marital Unity. You must repudiate and give up this destructive open-marriage commitment.”

Sadly, and all to similarly, Protestant hubris (old & new) seeks a ‘Unity’ centered around their own current & morphing take on sola scriptura. They do so while spurning the Unity which held together the Church through the major controversies in the first millennium until the tragic Great Schism of 1054. There is no Unity that can arise from sola scriptura’s exegetical and ecclesial autonomy. The Church (not autonomous exegesis) is the Pillar and Ground of Truth. Nor will there be any lasting unity without Her renewed centrality as the proper guardian of Scripture.

Thus, we bid our Protestant friends to do what Luther and the Reformers should have done upon leaving Rome and her errors — forsake sola scriptura and return to the One Holy Orthodox Church. Thankfully, it is far easier today than it would have been for them. Lord have mercy.

David Rockett and Robert Arakaki



Peter Leithart. 2017. “How the Reformation Failed.” In Theopolis , April 18.

Lee Palmer Wandel. 2011. The Reformation: Towards a New History. Cambridge University Press.

Josiah Trenham. 2015. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Theology. New Rome Press.



  1. Stefano

    Hi David and Robert,
    A little quibble. Your first graph is incorrect. Methodism is in no way a breakway from Reformed/Calvinism. Rather it is a breakaway from Anglicanism. Similarly, the Anabaptists (the radical Reformation) developed independently from the Reformed stream.

    • Robert Arakaki


      Good point. I did several searches on Google Image. If you can find a better chart, please feel free to send me the link.

      I selected this chart because it focused primarily on Protestant denominations.


  2. Tony

    Huh that’s what my grade 8 teacher taught me about the reformation. Princes were interested in becoming Protestant because they had no popes to control them afterwards

    • Robert Arakaki


      Glad to have you join the conversation.

      Politics and religion were deeply intertwined back then even as now. What your grade 8 teacher taught you was just one explanation. Don’t forget that by abolishing indulgences the local rulers could stanch the flow of revenues leaving their realm for Rome, and they could now tax the local churches generating more revenues. I also suspect that embracing Protestantism enabled rulers to impose ideological unity on their realm thereby tightening their grip on the local ruling class.


  3. David E. Rockett


    You ever consider submitting at article (this one in particular) to First Things…as a rebuttal
    to a previous article? Just a thought. Hopefully, this article will be shared broadly on FB and
    elsewhere as well. Lord have mercy.

  4. Scott

    It seems that there is no shortage of finger wagging at the reformers and protestants, yet comparatively crickets with regard to Rome and the instigation of the Reformation (and the Great Schism before that).

    It puzzles me. Perhaps it is only my perception, but I try to be dispassionate and balanced.

    It’s as if the Orthodox want to say “You should have stayed with those things we think are heretical! It was wrong to try to correct it!”

    Again, puzzling.

    I agree that a turn to Orthodoxy would have been best, (the failure of the Teubingens and Jeremias is unfortunate) but I also understand the urging of conscience in the face of false teaching.

    Lamenting with Calvin (but not agreeing with him! 😉 )

    • Robert Arakaki


      Welcome to the OrthodoxBridge! It’s not so much finger wagging as it is a friendly exhortation for our Reformed and Protestant friends to consider Orthodoxy. I would encourage you to read the “Welcome” page to see that the focus of this blog is primarily Reformed Christians interested in learning more about Orthodoxy. For that reason, we do not give as much attention to Roman Catholicism. However, if you peruse past postings or if you use the Search Box you will find a number of issues we have with Roman Catholicism.

      Protestants are innocent victims of the Roman church’s post-1054 innovation and departure from the patristic consensus. With sincerity and great zeal the Reformers endeavored to return to ancient Christianity via sola scriptura. Over the past 500 years their spiritual descendants have tried repeatedly to recover ancient Christianity via sola scriptura and failed. We are saying it’s time to let go of sola scriptura and to go a different way — to stop being Protestant and to embrace Orthodoxy and Apostolic Tradition. Doing this is not easy. Many Protestants, especially Reformed folks, need good answers for letting go of their Protestant theology. That is why our analysis of Protestant faith and practice can at times seem sharp. Think of it as a physician advising his patient to stop using home remedies and to submit to best medical care. Sometimes stark, frank language is needed to get the point across.

      As a Reformed Christian I needed to write “Calvin versus the Icon” in my journey to Orthodoxy. I wrote it because I was studying at a Reformed seminary and there was nothing out there that answered my questions about Reformed iconoclasm and Orthodoxy. After writing that paper I was able to move beyond Calvin to the early Church Fathers and embrace the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

      I’m curious. What does “comparatively crickets” mean? I looked up several dictionaries and even the urban dictionary site and drew a blank. Is that a regional slang where you are from?


  5. David E. Rockett

    Hey Scott,

    I empathize with your “imbalance”…per the Blog. I didn’t like it as a protestant and also
    chaffed about Rome & sympathized with Luther, Calvin, et al. You have a good point.
    But the Blog does not try to address or chronicle all RC abuses — just not the focus.
    Instead, we intended to engage the Reformed…since both Robert and I were Reformed
    rather than RC. IF…we’d both been RC, then I suspect the reverse would be true.

    That said, we do realize the Reformers as men were in a difficult situation. Rome was
    morally bankrupt and had corrupted much of what they’d take with them from the One
    holy Orthodox Church. I’ve long fantasized about one of those time-travel/history re-
    writes…where dozens of zealous, holy and knowledgeable Orthodox Monks from Greece
    and Russia came to Germany & Geneva…and claimed Europe and much of RC for Orthodoxy!
    Not in God’s plan. As a once zealous TR Reformed Reconstructionist, I know it must be
    hard for you. It was for me. Be patient with us. We don’t frequently bash RCs or get the
    balance right, I know. But we are sincerely trying our best to engage the serious Reformed
    …who are willing to be engaged and challenged.
    In His Tender Mercies,

  6. Patrick

    A really great article!! From my readings it seems clear that “the Reformation” was a result of many factors: the social, political, and human faults of the late Western church of the Middle Ages, especially those of the clergy, as well as the impact of some questionable (to put it mildly) dogmas (Purgatory, to name but one), and many organizational weaknesses (unclear responsibility of parish priests, for example; as well as the way of selecting and educating clergy; a non-standardized Liturgy; the secularization of universities, etc). And, let us not forget the abysmal way various popes handled the situation. (See Barbara Tuchman’s book “The March of Folly” and the chapter on the Reformation”.
    But, it was also the result of the overbearing and unbelievable pride of Martin Luther himself as well as his very questionable basis of becoming a monk in the first place (fear of dying in a thunder storm!, really?). Unlike earlier (and later) Catholic reformers, Luther was a most prideful man. Compare his actions with those of Francis of Assisi. Humility vice anger and pride.
    Despite taking vows of obedience, chastity and poverty, he threw them all aside. Luther was the only one who knew what was needed to be done for the faults of the entire Western church, and that only he knew the totality of the church’s faults. Only he knew which parts of the Bible were to be kept, he alone! He alone understood that everyone could easily read and understand the Bible (despite the fact that he had no idea of how the Canonical books of the Bible were selected in the 4th century!!) No need for a council or a meeting to discuss the faults that existed. No. Herr Luther knew everything. Added to this sad fact one needs to remember the superficial Christians of the era (specifically the rich, the envious, the ambitious, the aristocracy, the newly educated and frustrated merchants) saw Luther’s pride and desire to become a de facto pope of sorts (a “pope” in that Luther was the sole person who knew what the Western church needed to become the church Luther thought was perfect and in synch with God’s desire) as a way to restructure the political, economic and social structure of the late middle ages. As with the fallen angels, pride was Luther’s downfall and the path that led to the never ending Reformation of today and existence of 30,000 (and counting) Protestant denominations.
    Luther’s theological and intellectual shortcomings are very easy to see if one cares to read Clarence H. Miller’s book “Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will”, which lays out the entire debate of the theological reasons for the Reformation vice only Luther’s side of the story as what is more commonly known.
    But, he is not alone. Henry VIII cared more about “his” Kingdom, his heir, than about the Kingdom of Heaven. He saw a solution to his political and economic problem as being solved by dissolving the monasteries and selling the land to a very rich but not affluent merchant class. But, he could only do this by proclaiming himself the head of the church in England. Incredible.

  7. David E. Rockett

    Well said Patrick…Lord have mercy.

  8. BillB

    David and Robert,

    I have been reading on Orthodoxy for the past few years and there is much to commend it. This post on your blog is an excellent point to ask with respect to the overall Reformation, where was Orthodoxy in Western Europe in the 16th Century? You may have earlier threads that discuss this.


    • Robert Arakaki


      The Protestant Reformers were aware of Orthodoxy, but it seems to be at a distance. John Calvin knew of the Greek Orthodox Church and was highly critical of the Orthodox use of icons. I touched on that in my article “Calvin Versus The Icon.” With respect to the Lutherans, in 1558 Philipp Melanchton met a Greek Orthodox deacon named Demetrius which led to letters being exchanged between the Lutherans and Constantinople. You might want to read Gabe Martini’s excellent article: “Lutherans Write the Patriarch: How the ‘German Orthodox Church’ Almost Happened.” I think both instances are examples of: so close, yet so far. It may be that things will turn out differently this time around.


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