Cancel culture knows no bounds, even historical ones. Based on some un-Christlike writings by Protestant reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther—along the lines of burning heretics—there have been some recent discussions about “canceling” these paragons of church history. The debates sound similar to conversations we’ve had about secular historical figures being canceled for owning slaves, for example.
Unfortunately, it seems every generation of Christian leaders and teachers has had its own problems and blind spots. We should seize these opportunities for self-reflection, to determine if we ourselves might have similar weaknesses.
In 200 or 300 years (if there are still 200 or 300 years of history left ahead of us!), what are we going to look back on as seriously problematic? It’s only recently that most Christians I know have given up smoking, for instance.
There have been great social changes since the 16th century, a time when most Christian leaders considered burning heretics an acceptable practice. In their view, heresy on key issues of the faith was such a serious problem that genuine apostates could not be allowed to live and had to be put to death as a lesson to others.
I live in the middle of Oxford, a few hundred yards down the street from the Memorial to the Martyrs Ridley and Latimer, who were burned at the stake in the 1550s. Those were terrible times. We look back and say, “How could they possibly have done that out of misplaced zeal and loyalty to God and the gospel? What was that about?”
From their point of view, burning heretics was about trying desperately to keep the church and society pure from the devastating, corrupting influence of heterodox teaching. Now we would say they were wrong in taking those actions. But that’s where leaders were at the time.
For me, what Calvin and Luther wrote or said in these questionable instances doesn’t negate all of their teaching. It merely means that they, like the rest of us, got something seriously wrong. In fact, Luther himself developed the theology that we are at the same time both righteous and sinful. He knew perfectly well that he was still a sinner, even though in Christ and by faith, God had declared him righteous.
We must look at the larger picture, as well, and see that in every generation, there are people (including myself) who invoke God in Christ but whose lives, habits, and larger policies are not blameless. There are many theological issues that subsequent generations will look back at and say, “We see something different than what they taught.”
If you start where Luther and Calvin started—with the Roman Catholic theology of the late 15th and early 16th centuries—then you see how church problems were playing out in terms of the sale of indulgences and other issues. They were forced to give fresh answers to questions of their time. And they did the right thing by going back to the original sources of Scripture to retranslate or reinterpret the Greek and Hebrew of the New and Old Testaments.
The problem with canceling them, at least from my perspective, is that they were trying to give biblical answers to late Medieval questions. From where I sit, both Luther and Calvin were largely unaware of the different nuances of first-century questions at the heart of Scripture. And so I applaud their method of going back to the original sources and learning fresh wisdom.
They were concerned enough to critique Medieval abuses. But that didn’t mean they had no abuses of their own.
Instead of canceling them, let’s honor their method by reading Scripture in the original and doing our best to find out what it means. That will help us understand what questions early Christians were seeking to answer. It will also give us a new set of answers to questions we’re facing in our own day.
Ultimately, we can go to these characters from the past and celebrate what’s good in their theology without idolizing them or their actions. They were as human as anyone, and I think they themselves would have insisted upon it.
N. T. (Tom) Wright is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars and the author of many academic and lay-level books on theology and the Christian life. This piece was adapted from a live conversation on the Ask NT Wright Anything podcast from Premier Unbelievable?
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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