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Reform, revive or renew?

The Reformation 500 years on

Do people really care about the Reformation today? One speaker at a recent symposium on the topic pointed out that Playmobil recently created a figure of Martin Luther for the German market. The first batch of 34,000 ran out in 72 hours, making it the company’s fastest-selling figurine ever. A later speaker – a German Lutheran – however, gave a different perspective by explaining how German children celebrate Reformation Day (October 31st): they dress in outlandish costumes, and go door to door demanding candy! The churches’ response? To create and give out “Luther Candies” – naturally.

So what exactly is the legacy of the Reformation today? With the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Church coming soon (2017), a panel was convened at Wycliffe College in Toronto in late February to discuss just this issue. The speakers represented a wide range of denominations – itself an interesting commentary on the history of the past 500 years: Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology, Wycliffe College, who gave the main paper; and a variety of respondents: Gill Goulding, Associated Professor of Systematic Theology, Regis College (Jesuit); John Vissers, Professor of Historical Theology, Knox College (Presbyterian); John Rempel, Director of the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre; and Michael Stahl, Head of Communications for the Evangelical Church of North Germany.

Dr. Radner pointed out that although the Reformation caused far-reaching changes in European culture, and not only in church life, very few young people care about denominational distinctives any more. They will go to whatever church gives them life. Taize, the Catholic pilgrimage centre in France, attracts thousands of young people of every denomination every year.

Even in the early days of the Reformation, there was more sharing of church buildings, and certainly more intermarriage between different traditions, than the theologians were happy with. Radner’s own mother, a Lutheran, was told to avoid Catholics because of the danger of demon-possession – and then married a Jewish man. As a later speaker commented, “Intermarriage is a more powerful form of ecumenism than theological dialogue!”

Nevertheless, one of the lasting legacies of the Reformation is the sad reality of innumerable churches and denominations. Some have called the constant splitting of churches “the Protestant disease”! Radner expressed his own hope that church divisions would be “swallowed up in the death of baptism.”

A ‘new ecumenism’
One place to begin is by asking, Who is a Christian? The Reformation answer was in terms of what you believed – the confessions to which you gave assent. As a result, one could say of that period, “A Christian is someone who separates from other Christians.” Now, in many parts of the world, that has changed because of the martyrdom of Christians – in some places, 300 a month.

Dr. Goulding quoted Pope Francis’s observation that it makes no difference to terrorists whether the martyrs they make are Catholic, Protestant or Coptic. They don’t care. And all Christians honour children killed for their faith, even if their church is one we might technically consider “heretical.” As a result, there is a new “ecumenism of blood.”
The question is increasingly simply whether one is baptized or not. Even during the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics agreed that baptism was valid, even when it was performed by “Jews, infidels and heretics.”

Not that this makes the reunification of churches any easier. “It is not enough to stand round the Lord’s Table, hold hands and sing, ‘They will know we are Christians by our love.’” Dr Radner paused: “Though actually we could do worse . . . we have done worse.” If the Reformation taught us how to live apart, we now we have to learn to live together.

Dr. Vissers, the Reformed speaker, likened the church to a city of many neighbourhoods. His home territory is the Presbyterian neighbourhood, but these days it is in decline and has no power to form Christian identity, and so he finds himself drawn to explore other neighbourhoods, once considered alien and even forbidden territory. Now we recognise that all neighbourhoods belong to the same city.

He reminded the audience of the Reformation slogan, “Ecclesia semper reformanda” – the church always in the process of reformation (though he pointed out that the Reformers did not invent it) – and that the key to ongoing reformation is always to refocus on Christ. The Reformation may be over, but the call to confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour is always before us. This is our baptismal identity and our calling: that “in life and in death we belong to Jesus Christ.” The lasting legacy of the Reformation is to work for the continuing conversion of the church.

  • John Bowen directs the Institute of Evangelism and Wycliffe Serves! at Wycliffe College in Toronto, a graduate theological school in the evangelical Reformation tradition of the Anglican Church. Bowen is the author, most recently, of Green Shoots out of Dry Ground: Growing a New Future for the Church in Canada.

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