Charles P. Krauth and the Conservative Reformation

It is en vogue among a certain subset of Protestant intellectuals, especially those that might be denominated Evangelicals, to hesitatingly endorse the events surrounding the religious changes in the first half of the Sixteenth Century. These events have been gathered up and wrapped—undoubtedly too tidily—in a historic and often hagiographic package that states in bright shiny colors: THE REFORMATION. Subsequent generations of historians, pastors, and commentators have rendered this “event” as a first cause of all that is good or ill in the modern world. Of course there wasn’t a single event called “The Reformation.” What has been called “The Protestant Reformation” has many legacies; some good, and some bad. This, I think, is why Evangelicals struggle to be confident concerning the Reformation. But the Reformation isn’t really Evangelicals’ social or intellectual or religious legacy to begin with. There was in fact, only one actual Reformation, the Lutheran Reformation, and all other Protestants groups’ relationship to it must be rendered from how far they deviated from the specifically Lutheran Reformation’s conservative legacy.

Charles P. Krauth’s The Conservative Reformation argued that the Reformation was truly a conservative return to scriptural practices, and that the Late Middle Age Church’s deviation from scripture did not necessitate an entire remaking of church history. Dr. J. Brandon Meeks, an Anglican theologian, paraphrased Charles Hodge and quipped that the Church needed its face washed; it didn’t need its faced pulled off through a gruesome sort of socio-intellectual plastic surgery. Charles Krauth likewise noted Luther’s Reformation was “the means by which Conservatism of the good that is, and progress to the good yet to be won, secured.” “Over against the stagnation of an isolated Conservatism, the Church is to hold Reformation as the instrument of progress. Over against the abuses of a separatistic and one-sided progressiveness,” conservative protestants were to see that the Reformation maintained “that due reverence for history, that sobriety of tone, that patience of spirit, and that moderation of manner, which are involved in Conservatism. The good that has been is necessary to the safety of the good that is to be.”

Most importantly of all, Krauth argued that “there are to be no absolutely fresh starts.” If important historic foundations were removed, “the true course would not be to make a new one, but to find the old one, and lay it again.” But Krauth noted that this was not the case in the case of the Lutheran Reformation.

The foundation never was wholly lost, nor was there, in the worst time of the accumulation of wood, hay, and stubble, an utter ceasing of the building of gold, silver, and precious stones upon it. The Reformation, as Christian, accepted the old foundation; as reformatory, it removed the wood, hay, and stubble; as conservative, it carefully separated, guarded, and retained the gold, silver, and precious stones, the additions of pious human hands, befitting the foundation and the temple which was to be reared upon it.”

The Lutheran Reformation, therefore, was conservative in a way modern Evangelicals who claim its legacy cannot fathom.

Carl Trueman noted in his concise biography that “Martin Luther was not a modern Evangelical.” The German Reformer’s thought world and his physical world were not those of American Evangelicalism. “For many modern evangelicals…private Bible study is central to their understanding of the Christian life, while sacraments are peripheral.” Luther would have rejected this out of hand. So too would he have anathematized the tradition of allowing multiple baptisms, “Believer’s Baptism” and treatment of the Lord’s supper as symbolic or lacking the real presence in any way.

So if the Reformation was the process by which certain Lutheran doctrines were coopted by other groups and turned in to what now passes for Low Church Evangelicalism, I’d understand equivocation on the Reformation’s legacy. But that is not actually what the Reformation was. It was a conservative and in many ways Lutheran event, and closeness to the Reformation’s truths is rightly measured by sacramental and devotional differences between groups that claim the Protestant mantle, and Lutheranism. I tend to be the sort of Anglican who likes Lutherans, and has a tremendous respect for orthodox Lutheranism. So with that in mind, Happy Reformation Day.


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