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The Conflict Between Rome and the Reformation

Part 4 of 7 from ‘A Short Theology of Conflict’ by Olof H. de Vries and translated by Pieter Lalleman

We turn our attention to intra-ecclesiastical conflicts, first of all to that between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Protestantism: born of conflict

There is no Protestant religious community that was not born out of conflict. That sounds bitter. But it’s true! Protestantism, taken as a whole, arose out of a conflict within Catholicism. And the multitude of different Protestant churches and denominations exist with a multitude of conflicts among themselves. You have to want to see that! You have to dare to say that out loud. It leaves you with a bitter taste in your mouth. But you must not seek to sweeten that bitter taste by pointing out the truth of the position of your own faith community in the bitterness of the conflicts.

Tension between truth and unity

The local church does not have to be ashamed of conflicts. They are given with the provisionality and incompleteness of our sanctification. From the beginning, the conflict stings like a thorn painfully into the unglorified flesh of the earthly body of Christ. Why? I am reminded here of what Paul writes about the thorn in his own body: ‘lest I should exalt myself too much’ (2 Cor 12:7). It makes a difference whether, as a local church, you know the conflict as a painful reminder of your own provisionality, or whether, as a local church, you derive your right to exist from the conflict. In the latter case, as a faith community, you have your roots in the conflict. You draw your life juices from the conflict. The conflict is literally in your blood. 

I wrote: a faith community must not seek to sweeten the bitterness of its birth out of a conflict by pointing to its own truth in that conflict. That is a form of self-justification which has no right to exist since the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Lk 18:9-14). In this self-justification, the theme of ‘truth and unity’ is always used. In the conflict, one of the parties shouts: ‘There is no unity without truth!’ And steps up to start its own business as a faith community. You can also – and this is very biblical – turn the statement around: ‘There is no truth without unity!’ Every schism is a lie. It is a lie that the solution to conflict lies in separation, in which both sides justify themselves by appealing to the truth. Only ‘together with all the saints’ (Eph 3:18) do we know the fullness of Christ’s love. With the fullness of Christ comes the fullness of the Church. It is precisely in the provisionality of their sanctification that the saints cannot do without each other. ‘Now our knowledge is imperfect.‘ (1 Cor 13:9, 12). The conflict has to do with this imperfect knowing. During a schism we must not deny this with an appeal to our own truthful knowledge. As long as the time of sanctification continues, the truth in the church consists above all in perseverance in the pain of unity. As Protestants, we have our roots in conflict. Our Protestant existence is originally conflictual. That is precisely why the history of Protestantism is so full of conflicts. Protestants have to be very careful when things get tense in their faith community. We must realise that conflict is in our blood! 

The lesson of history

It is a classical Protestant idea to describe the reformation of the Church in the 16th century as a divine deliverance of the Church from the corruption of Catholicism. This interpretation of events surrounding Luther usually serves to justify one’s own Protestant existence. The Protestant churches that separated from Catholicism are a gift from God! Who dares to ask a critical question? However, it is both from a biblical and from a historical perspective questionable whether the spiritual value of the Reformation lies in the appearance of new churches. To confine ourselves to the historical aspect, the monk Martin Luther did not intend to found a new church as a solution to the problems of the Catholic Church. What this monk undertook was not new. The history of the medieval Catholic Church is full of attempts at reformation which often began in monasteries. Such evangelical innovations often had a salutary effect in large parts of the Church. When Luther began his actions, he entered this tradition of evangelical monastic reforms. It happened to him that these actions eventually led to the founding of a new church. 

Re-Catholicisation of Protestantism

Here, too, we must be willing to learn from the irony of history. Just as the history of the separation between Israel and the Church proves that the two cannot exist without each other, so the history of Protestantism shows that radical separation from Catholicism is impossible. In this context, I will mention two examples of a ‘re-Catholicisation’ of Protestantism. In popular Protestant parlance, Catholicism is characterised by ‘salvation by good works’ and Protestantism by ‘salvation by faith in Jesus Christ’. Its aversion to ‘good works’ has caused Protestantism trouble. The sanctification of life became an appendage to preaching and teaching. Protestantism always hammered on that one anvil: humans can’t add anything to their eternal salvation by their works! Whoever even suggested ‘sanctification by works’ was guilty of preaching Roman heresy. 

In the 18th century, a great revival movement began to break through in Protestantism in England and America. One of the hallmarks of this revival movement was its emphasis on the sanctification of life. The great preacher John Wesley proclaimed that justification by faith is the door through which the believer enters the house of sanctification. Eternal salvation is also brought about by the sanctification of the Christian life. This holiness movement can be seen as a re-Catholicisation of Protestantism. In its polemics, a Protestantism opposed to Catholicism degenerates into a spiritual poverty from which only the rediscovery of certain Catholic values can free it. 

Not only the holiness movement, but also the charismatic movement has catholicising tendencies. Exorcism of demons and anointing of the sick have never been lacking in the Catholic Church. Protestantism has broken with these ministries. Quite strikingly, writers from the charismatic movement refer to ancient Catholic sources in their books on exorcism and healing! The charismatic movement is innovative in the Protestant churches. At the same time, it appears to evoke recognition among Catholics. The charismatic renewal of Protestantism is also the re-Catholicisation of Protestantism in several respects.


The history of the conflict between Rome and the Reformation teaches us that the solution to the conflict does not lie in a radical separation in which each side claims the truth for itself. This conflict has to do with the unfinished sanctification of the entire Church. A church split cannot help us to escape the confrontation with our own provisionality. As churches and faith communities – Catholic and Protestant – we have to go through it together. Only in this way do we grow in sanctification.

Olof de Vries (1941-2014) was a lecturer at the Baptist Seminary from 1981-2009 and a special professor of ‘History and Doctrines of Baptistism’ at Utrecht University from 1991-2009. He had his own characteristic way of teaching and theologizing and inspired and trained countless pastors and congregants through his lectures, sermons and articles. His consistent view of church and theology from the perspective of history is typical: how people follow their faith in time and culture. The relationship between tradition and innovation was his lasting interest, based on the conviction that tradition always contains the possibility of innovation.

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