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The ‘Failures’ of the Reformation


From my listening to various messages from Alan Cairns, here is an interesting one, from a 2004 ‘Reformation’ conference:  The Failures of the Reformation. Informative, and not quite what I had expected, Cairns here first addressed many supposed ideas that modern folks have, about the failures of the Reformation–in terms of the leaders and their actions and behaviors, judging from our 20th and 21st century cultural sensibilities.  These include the doctrine of infant baptism, their views of the State and the Church, and criticisms regarding the Reformers’ treatment of heretics.  After addressing these ‘supposed failures,’ with the details of the historical situation and the nuances often lost today, Cairns mentioned what he actually considered the failures:  the failed Reformation in France, as well as the failure of the Reformation in Poland.  More on that later in this post, after the supposed failures.

Of note, he does not address the more-recent ‘failure idea’ introduced by John MacArthur in 2007 (three years after this message), that the Reformers failed to reform their millennial view and just imported it from Roman Catholicism.  In light of what Cairns did say regarding these other supposed errors, my observation here would be that the Reformers did not ‘import it’ from Roman Catholicism, as they certainly had no great love for the Pope; more to the point, I would say, they continued it from the later views of Augustine.  And it is also noteworthy that premillennialism, or chiliasm, was already making a ‘comeback’ by the early 17th century (for example, Joseph Mede)–so not in the initial Reformation but soon after, and before the English Puritan era began.

Regarding all the supposed failures of the Reformation, Cairns provided the historical background and the nuances often lost today.  The Reformers’ view of infant baptism did not come from Roman Catholicism but their overall understanding of the continuity of scripture, Old and New Testament, regarding the covenants of scripture, and the continuation of the Lord’s working in household as He did in Genesis, and again in Acts (ref. Acts 2:39).  Cairns said this as a credo-baptist, in a Free Presbyterian Church.  (That’s another topic, that the FPC denomination does not emphasize the baptism method distinction, allowing for both, and that most of their preachers are actually credo-baptist — Michael Barrett as one notable actual paedobaptist, who was in the FPC in years past.  The credo-baptist preachers in the FPC hold to the Westminster Confession construction of covenant theology, a view that I see as what scripture teaches, as opposed to the 1689 Federalism view of the covenants.)

Regarding the Reformers’ church-state view, Cairns brings out the point that people today typically take a view (at least what comes out in practice, if not consciously realized) of the church and state being at enmity with each other.  Yet this is not a biblical view, and the Reformers saw these two entities as complementary, not opposed.  As to the Anabaptists, Cairns points out that the Anabaptist movement was very diverse and hard to define, embracing many different ideas and many differing types of people — similar to the rather neboulous ‘New Covenant Theology’ movement today.  He notes that it took historical researchers many years to fully document all of what was included in the Anabaptist umbrella, the many different beliefs and activities; and if it took that long for this to be understood, we can certainly understand that the Reformers had far less information.  The movement included extreme pacifists, a problem in a society that did not have a regular army, with its military defense as all able-bodied men who lived in the Swiss canton; the Anabaptist pacifists would not do their part in the defense of their own canton, when it came time to defend against the Roman Catholic army.  The movement also included dangerous, violent insurrectionists, and heretics.

Now, to some real ‘failures’ — of course these were not failures in the context of God’s Sovereign plan and providence, His decretive will.  Yet, from the human perspective of history, these could be considered failures:  the failure of the Reformation in France, as well as in Poland.  The story of France is better known, as one that started good, but was later suppressed by the French government, with the Huguenots fleeing France and dispersed over other European countries as well as the New World French and English colonies, and others martyred or force-converted to Roman Catholicism.  I was not familiar with the 16th century Reformation in Poland.  Here are a few links that give more details, regarding the Reformation movement that began well, but then fizzled and came to nothing: 

The historical reasons for these failures included the effects of weak leadership, and also a lack of unity among the branches of the Reformation.  In Poland, particularly, the Reformation movement occurred only at the higher social class, within a certain group of people and never reached the masses.  Cairns here reflected on the overall Reformation’s lack of unity, citing the well-known incident of Martin Luther dividing with Zwingli over the nature of “this is my body” and even refusing to shake hands with Zwingli afterward, and provided general application to the current-day believer’s life, from his own experience in different Christian “camps” such as the Fundamentalists who rejected him as “not fundamentalist enough” and the other extreme of people who would no longer listen to Dr. Cairns because of his association with Bob Jones University, that he would not “condemn” the BJU teachers.

It’s an interesting and informative message, beyond the usual content of “Reformation theme” messages.

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