The following two quotes about the Reformation resonate deeply with me. First is this, from Steven Ozment:
The great shortcoming of the Reformation was its naive expectation that the majority of people were capable of radical religious enlightenment and moral transformation, whether by persuasion or by coercion. Such expectation directly contradicted some of its fondest convictions and the original teaching of its founder. Having begun in protest against allegedly unnatural and unscriptural proscriptions of the medieval church and urged freedom in the place of coercion, the reformers brought a strange new burden to bear on the consciences of their followers when they instructed them to resolve the awesome problems of sin, death, and the devil by simple faith in the Bible and ethical service to their neighbors. The brave new man of Protestant faith, “subject to none [yet] subject to all” in Luther’s famous formulation, was expected to bear his finitude and sinfulness with anxiety resolved, secure in the knowledge of a gratuitous salvation, and fearful of neither man, God, or the devil. But how many were capable of such self-understanding?
…Late medieval and Protestant reformers attempted to fashion a religion more in accord with human nature as well as with divine decree. That the Reformation adopted its own repressive measures was not the reason it failed. Its failure rather lay in its original attempt to ennoble people beyond their capacities–not, as medieval theologians and Renaissance philosophers had done, by encouraging them to imitate saints and angels, but by demanding that they live simple, sober lives, prey not to presumption, superstition, or indulgence, but merely as human beings. This proved a truly impossible ideal; the Reformation foundered on man’s indomitable credulity. [Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 1250-1550 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 437-438]
Second is this, from David M. Mills’ The Emergent Church – Another Perspective: A Critical Response to D. A. Carson’s Staley Lectures:
While our histories of the Reformation tend to focus on Luther’s reading of Romans 1:17 and his call for the church to change, such a reading ignores the multiple cultural factors at work in this shift and the many other pleas for ecclesial reform which were heard even before Luther’s time. Changes in philosophy, science, politics, technology, art, education, and historiography were beginning to change the way that people thought about their religion, and Luther himself is an illustration of that shift. While this point can be overstated, there is a real sense in which Martin Luther’s “discovery” of justification by grace through faith would not have been possible in the same way at a different time in history. His plea for reform is itself enmeshed in a specific time and place within Western culture, and the changes he calls for are bound up with other changes taking place at the time. To ignore those factors is to misrepresent the nature of the Protestant Reformation.