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5 Ironies About Celebrating “Reformation Day” Today

October 31, 2017


Today, for most of us, is Halloween. But a lot of Christians are disturbed by the way that Halloween seems to celebrate evil, and many Protestants choose to celebrate Reformation Day instead. While I respect the desire to have fun without celebrating evil, I find Reformation Day to be unwittingly ironic. Let’s look at five reasons why.

Irony #1: Calvinist Iconography 

This made me grin: To celebrate Reformation Day, Calvinists are commemorating with John Calvin Jack O’Lanterns. I wonder if the (quite-skilled) artist recognized the absurdity of making a Calvinist graven image.

What about Calvin’s fatuous interpretation of the First/Second Commandment, that it prohibits all religious imagery? After all, this is the same Calvin who was such a fierce iconoclast that he denounced as idolatry any images of God or His Saints.

In Book I, Chapter 11 of Institutes of Christian Religionhe wrote, “It is therefore mere infatuation to attempt to defend images of God and the saints by the example of the Cherubim [Exodus 25:17-22].” And this same Calvin oversaw the burning of the religious paintings in Geneva, and the destruction of the religious statues.

Nor is this graven image alone. The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland (depicted on the left) is an enormous stone monument with engraved figures of the Calvinist Reformers. Four figures: Calvin, Beza, Farel, and Knox, tower over their mortal counterparts, and form the centerpiece of the wall.

And let’s be honest here. Calvin (and the others) are being venerated in this way for the religious contributions. If this were, say, the Apostles, or St. Augustine, instead of Calvin, Calvinists would be having a fit.

But perhaps it’s okay to have Calvin engravings, because modern Calvinists aren’t prone to superstition, and aren’t about to start worshiping a Calvin pumpkin or statue. That’s a fair point. Except that it’s an argument that Calvin rejects: “Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a single nation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian ReligionBook I, Chapter 11).

So that’s the first Reformation Day irony: it involves engraving images of the men who hated engraved images.

Irony #2: Reformation Day is Everything (Some) Evangelicals Hate About Christmas

This second irony is admittedly more narrow in scope. It’s specific to those Evangelicals who are against Christmas, on account of their belief that it stems from Babylonian paganism. John MacArthur is a good example here. While he permits celebrating Christmas, he still thinks it’s a combination of Christianity and paganism. In a nutshell, he claims:

  1. December 25 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Catholics tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe) remained.
  3. Evangelicals denounce this as a spiritually-dangerous mish-mash of Christianity and paganism.

Many Evangelicals refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, for this reason. Now, I suppose I should note that, historically speaking, this is mostly garbage. As Mark Shea explains, the evidence suggests the exact opposite: that it was the paganism mimicking a Christian religious observance, rather than the other way around.

But there’s no question that “Reformation Day” is an attempt to Christianize Halloween. By their own logic, then, Reformation Day should be considered evil.  In other words:

  1. October 31 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Protestants tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (pumpkins, gourds, candy-eating, etc.) remained.
  3. Yet Evangelicals like John MacArthur embrace Reformation Day.

So that’s the second Reformation Day irony: many of the same people who denounce Christmas for (allegedly) Christianizing a pagan festival embrace Reformation Day for attempting to do the exact same thing.

Irony #3: To Avoid Celebrating Evil, It Celebrates Evil 

As I said above, the origin of Reformation Day was a desire by conservative Protestants not to celebrate Halloween, since it often involves folks celebrating evil. That’s completely legitimate, and an issue Catholics address as well. Of course, it’s quite possible to have fun celebrating Halloween without celebrating anything evil.

But the solution that these Protestants have taken is the saddest irony. Instead of celebrating Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517 (which probably never actually happened).

But they’re not celebrating the Theses themselves: to my knowledge, no Protestant actually believes all 95 of Luther’s Theses.  For example, you’d be hard pressed to find a Protestant claiming that:

  • “inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh” (Thesis 3), or that
  • “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest” (Thesis 7), or
  • “That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25), and so on.

Rather, what’s being celebrated is the Protestant Reformation. That’s why it’s “Reformation Day,” not “95 Theses Day.”

But in celebrating this, they’re celebrating the unraveling of the Church. Even for many Protestants, that makes Reformation Day morally problematic. Why celebrate divorce? Why celebrate the great Christian refusal to listen to Jesus’ Prayer that we all remain One (John 17:20-23)? Why celebrate the refusal to listen to Hebrews 13:17-18, which says,

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.

And finally, why celebrate the commission of many of the sins that St. Paul condemns in Galatians 5:19-21:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensionsfactions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

That’s the third, and saddest, irony of Reformation Day. While it rejects Halloween for celebrating evil, it replaces it with a celebration of different evils.

IRONY #4: Reformation Day is a Protestant Man-Made Accretion Protesting Man-Made Accretions

One of the major reasons that Reformation Day is popular among Protestants is that it celebrates what they believe is the triumph of Truth over false man-made traditions. So, for example, the Protestant blog The Road to 31 explains: “We celebrate Reformation Day because it represents the reclaiming of the one true gospel that had been lost in the Catholic church and replaced with the traditions and teachings of men.“

The problem is, a good chunk of the Reformation Day story seems to be made up. As The Road to 31 notes, Reformation Day is built around a central event: “On October 31, 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five These on the Power of Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Castle Church.“

But as notes:

October 31, 1517: Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg with hammer strokes which echoed throughout all of Europe. This act has been portrayed numerous times thoughout the centuries, and until the 21st century it was accepted as fact. It has become a symbol of the Reformation as nothing else has.

It was like a slap in the face when the [C]atholic Luther researcher, Erwin Iserloh, asserted in 1961 that the nailing of the theses to the door of the Castle Church belonged to the realm of legends. 

The facts are convincing, the first written account of the event comes from Philipp Melanchthon who could not have been an eye-witness to the event since he was not called to Wittenberg University as a professor until 1518.

Also, this account appeared for the first time after Luther’s death and he never commented on ‘nailing anything up’ in 1517.  […]

It is also worth noting, that there was no open discussion of the theses in Wittenberg and that no original printing of the theses could be found.

So Reformation Day takes a legendary bit of Lutheran hagiography, along with other false and ahistorical traditions (like Luther’s famous “Here I stand” line from his defense at the Diet of Worms, which was also made up), to commemorate the alleged triumph of truth over man-made tradition.

IRONY #5: Reformation Day celebrates the supremacy of the Bible by commemorating an event the Bible condemns.

The other, closely-related reason for Reformation Day’s popularity is that the Catholic Church allegedly didn’t care about the Bible, and refused to let the people know what the Bible said, much less read it for themselves. These claims persists despite the fact that the Church was the one solely responsible for preserving the Bible for centuries, and despite the numerous Biblical commentaries, etc., being produced at this time, or the various German-language Bibles existing decades before Luther was born, like the Mentel Bible. But ignore all that history. The important part is that Luther came along and showed the Bible was really important!

There are several things ironic about this narrative. The popular version of Luther is that he elevated Scripture over the Church. The real Luther elevated his theological opinions over both Scripture and the Church: he was so convinced that sola fide is right that even when he found parts of the Bible that directly contradicted the doctrine, he just cut them out of the Bible.

And his Bible, which supposedly put the word of God in the hands of the German people for the first time, actually sowed the seeds of doubts about Scripture, as Luther added his own prefaces, denying the canonicity of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, as well as Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation.

But there’s arguably a bigger issue. However compelling you may find the Biblical arguments for the various Protestant doctrines in dispute, Biblical teaching on schism is clearly opposed to the practice. The Bible calls for Christians to be “one in spirit and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). This is also what Jesus Christ prayed for, for His future followers, in John 17:20-23. St. Paul goes so far as to describe schism, including both dissensions and factions, as the sort of sin that will keep you out of Heaven (Gal. 5:20). And this becomes a real problem for those defending Reformation Day: they’re celebrating a set of events that culminate in schism.

Of course, Biblically-literate Protestants aren’t blind to this fact. The Road to 31 defends the celebration of schism this way:

You might ask why is a schism in the Church something to be celebrated? Should we not welcome unity rather than division?

Unity within the Church is a very good thing and is even commanded (Philippians 2:2), but so is separating out the wheat from the tares (Matthew 13). The Church will always need sifting while we are on this earth. Our pews and even pulpits are full of sinners, some saved by grace and some not. Corruption cannot and will not be tolerated within the Body of Christ.

Look at the wheat and tares parable cited to support schism. It teaches literally the opposite of what Reformation Day teaches (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43)

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” [….]

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

So the Body of Christ, until the end of time, will contain both saints and sinners. And of course, this has always been true, as anyone familiar with the Apostle Judas should be aware. Christ explicitly forbids us from trying to create a manmade church of just the wheat (and prophesies that it’ll never succeed). Yet this is the passage that The Road to 31 uses to defend Reformation Day, since apparently we have arrogated to ourselves the duty of “separating out the wheat from the tares,” a duty Christ entrusts to the angels at the Last Judgment.