About 10 years ago, Mark Noll, an eminent evangelical Protestant church historian who teaches at the bastion of Roman Catholic academe, Notre Dame University, raised more than a few eyebrows with his book entitled Is the Reformation Over? I’ll let you read the book to see what Noll has to say about the state of the churches who trace their roots to the Reformation and of the ecumenical relations between Protestants and Catholics nearly five centuries after they unceremoniously parted ways. But the question he poses – or a variant of it – bears serious consideration, even if the conclusion is ultimately that the Reformation is not over and that it is still worth celebrating. At least those settled convictions are likely to be better understood and perhaps more nuanced than if they continue to be uncritically accepted and unquestioningly upheld. As we anticipate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation next year, it is worth reflecting on exactly what it is we are celebrating and whether or not we should continue to do so.
Developmental psychologists describe a stage when people reach a certain level of maturity and are able to engage in self-critical reflection that leads to growth in maturity, wisdom and understanding. As a parent of three teens and tweens I’m glad that it doesn’t take 500 years for humans to reach this stage, but the Church is a much more slowly developing sort of organism. My hope is that, by this time, the Church has reached a point where we can take a step back, engage in this sort of self-evaluation and with some objectivity discern the things associated with the Reformation that are worth carrying forward and which ones should be left behind. It’s fair to say that most people on either side of the Reformation divide have gotten over the need to prove themselves completely right or the other side completely wrong. We’ve moved beyond defining ourselves over and against another group who we now rightly recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ, whatever lingering differences may remain between us.
Common ground and joint efforts
Many thoughtful people besides Mark Noll have wondered quietly or otherwise about the legacy and the future of the Reformation. A number of factors have led both Protestants and Catholics to this point. The tectonic shift of Vatican II and its effects (however one judges them), not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but for all Christian communions, cannot be underestimated. The ecumenical relationships that have resulted and the common ground that has been (re)discovered have enriched both Protestants and Catholics. Both traditions have belatedly come to realize that the era of Christendom (if it ever existed) is definitively over and that they have common cause in the context of a society that is increasingly secular, and becoming more aggressively so. Joint efforts in addressing issues of abortion, refugees, euthanasia and poverty (to name just a few) have resulted in long-standing partnerships and allowed mutually respectful working relationshipsto flourish. In terms of worship, many Protestant churches now observe the liturgical calendar and appreciate how it orders the rhythms of a congregation’s life according to the pattern of the life of Christ. In addition, many churches have also moved toward more frequent (even weekly) observance of the Lord’s Supper, recognizing the sacrament’s indispensable relationship with the preached Word. We have been blessed by each other’s biblical and theological scholarship, and many on both sides wonder whether the differences that still remain necessitate maintaining a schism in the body of Christ which seems to do little to strengthen our witness to the world and much to undermine it. On a practical level, our world has gotten smaller and more interconnected. Gone are the days of living most of life in ghettoized enclaves. We have friends, neighbours, maybe in-laws or even spouses who are Roman Catholic and we wonder what really separates us from them.
Photocredit: Creative Commons/Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.
How should we celebrate?
So, should we still celebrate the Reformation, 499 years later? Well, that depends on what we’re celebrating. The solas of the Reformation – that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, that we look to Scripture alone for authority and guidance, that we give glory to God alone – are worth upholding, treasuring and passing on to future generations. The way in which we have often celebrated or defined and lived out the Reformation, on the other hand, might need some re-thinking. In other words, maybe it’s less a matter of what we celebrate than how we celebrate it.
What if, instead of looking back five centuries and nostalgically pining for a by-gone time, we turned around and looked ahead, envisioning a New Reformation and dreaming about what we would like the Church to be 10, 20 or 100 years down the road? More pointedly, what would Jesus desire for the church that he prayed might be one (John 17:21)? Does it mean working toward institutional unity? Maybe, but that seems a bit unrealistic given the remaining differences. Perhaps it is even undesirable in the current cultural landscape with the widespread distrust of institutions. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue unity where we can find it and continue to work for it as an ultimate goal. But what if we began to develop more organic relationships with actual people from the Roman Catholic Church down the street or across town? What if we worshiped together or engaged in some sort of ministry to the broader community we are all called to witness to, and not just at Christmas or Thanksgiving when it is expected? What if we hosted a respectful dialogue between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic theologian to talk about the history and legacy of the Reformation and what led up to it and why it was significant and how it changed the world for good or for ill?
As we approach the the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, maybe it’s time not to give up on the Reformation project that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others bequeathed to us, but to carry it forward in a new way – less triumphalistic, more humble; less certain, more faithful; less definitive, more hopeful – that might just lead to a New Reformation.