That They May All Be One: From the Reformation to Christian Unity


Almost 500 years ago—on October 31, 1517—an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg door.  Looking ahead to the 500th anniversary of what is today called the Reformation, Lutheran and Evangelical churches are even now planning for a grand celebration to mark the date.

According to the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the great Reformers—Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Calvin and others—are among the prime sources of ideas in religious, political and intellectual history. 

Anyway, that’s one way of looking at it.  Another way was proposed earlier this year by His Eminence Cardinal Kurt Koch, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. 

The Pontifical Council has its origins during the Second Vatican Council, when Pope John XXIII expressed his desire that the Catholic Church become involved in the contemporary ecumenical movement.  On June 5, 1960, the Pope established a “Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity” as one of the preparatory commissions for the Council, and he appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea as its first president.

As current head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Koch is a mediating influence in the Church—seeking ways that the Catholic Church can collaborate with adherents of other faiths.

This time, though, the Cardinal says no.  The Reformation is not, from the Catholic perspective, a great and grand holiday to be celebrated, a cause for rejoicing.  Rather, it is a sad remembrance, the day which marked the beginning of the fracturing of the Church into some more than 28,000 denominations.  The 500th anniversary of the Reformation cannot, he says, be called a holiday.  It is a celebration of sin—the sin of pride and divisiveness which thwarted the expressed will of Jesus that we all might be one, just as he and the Father are one.

“We can not celebrate sin,” said Cardinal Koch.  He went on to note that his remarks may well be branded “anti-ecumenical” by persons of other faiths.

It is against this dramatic backdrop that I repost a blog from last year, “That They May All Be One:  From the Reformation to Christian Unity.” 


I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
–John 17:20-23

In sixteenth century Germany, an Augustinian friar by the name of Martin Luther became concerned about things he saw happening in the Church. He saw some priests, even some bishops, who were engaged in practices which he considered to be wrong—particularly the sale of indulgences.

And there was, indeed, a moral problem at the time: Corruption had crept into the Church. Pope Leo X had authorized the sale of special “jubilee indulgences” in the cities and principalities of Germany. The indulgences were plenary, meaning that for those who purchased them, all sin and eternal and temporal punishment would be forgiven. Half of the money raised from the sale of indulgences would be used to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome; the other half would be used by the archbishop of Mainz to pay off a loan.

Luther drafted a series of ninety-five statements in Latin—offering his reflections on indulgences, good works, repentance and other topics. The Castle Church in Wittenberg faced the main thoroughfare, and the heavy church door served as a public bulletin board, a place for posting important notices. So it was that on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his list of “Ninety-Five Theses” to the door of the Castle Church.

Unintended Consequences – The Splitting of the Christian Church

Luther had hoped that his Theses would initiate an academic discussion—not serve as the agenda for a major reform of the Catholic Church.

However, within weeks the Theses were translated into German, then reproduced using the new moveable-type printing press. They were widely circulated through Germany, and soon became a topic for discussion through all of Europe. Three years later, amid the international attention, Luther was excommunicated by the pope and declared a heretic and outlaw. The Reformation had begun.

Just as Martin Luther did not anticipate the huge response his Ninety-Five Theses would receive, he did not foresee the further splintering of Protestantism into some 38,000 Christian denominations (the number reported in the Atlas of World Christianity, published in 2010). If, as Luther’s movement proposed, there is no authority vested in the Church, then there is no reason not to break off and begin a new movement within Christianity; and in less than 500 years, the result has been the splintering of Christ’s Church into ever more movements and denominations. It is a great scandal that Christ’s high priestly prayer to the Father—that we may be one in order that the world will see—has been thwarted.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Reversing the Trend Toward Division

In 1908 Father Paul Wattson, founder of an Anglican religious community which later became part of the Catholic Church, established a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”–a week to pray with our Christian brothers and sisters of other denominations, and to celebrate those areas where we find common ground.  His initiative received the blessing of Pope St. Pius X and was later promoted by Pope Benedict XV, who encouraged its celebration throughout the Catholic Church.

The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed the importance of this quest for unity among followers of Jesus Christ.

Each year the theme of the week is chosen by an ecumenical group representing a different region of the world. This year’s theme, “All shall be changed by the victory of Jesus Christ our Lord,” was selected by representatives of the Catholic Church and the Polish Ecumenical Council. It is drawn from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

Wednesday, January 18 began the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  Pope Benedict XVI, addressing more than 8,000 pilgrims at the Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square on January 22, called the quest for Christian unity “a common response to the spiritual hunger of our times.” He acknowledged that the division within the community of believers is a great challenge for new evangelization, which may be more fruitful if all Christians proclaim together the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and give a joint response to the spiritual hunger of our times.

Pope Benedict reminded us that according to St. Paul, the achievement of full unity “demands that we allow ourselves to be transformed to an ever more perfect image of Christ. The unity for which we pray requires an interior conversion, both in communion and personnel. It is not just a question of cordiality and cooperation, we must strengthen our faith in God.”

  • Rick Evans

    I enjoyed this article. However, our scripture reference appears to be in error. It’s not Luke 17 but rather John 17.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Wow, thanks, Rick! You are right– that is a monumental typo. I’ll go back and fix it in the original!

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  • Kim Hampton

    The splitting of the church happened almost 500 years before Luther…when the Bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other; thus splitting the church into the Eastern Orthodox branch and the Roman Catholic branch. The fact that the Roman Catholic side ended up splitting more is not surprising.

    • JoFro

      Except the Roman Catholic Church has not ended up splitting even more – rather, the first Protestant Churches are the ones that have kept splitting.

  • Steven J

    I am sorry to hear the response of the Cardinal. As a member of a Protestant denomination myself, it feels rather brutal. I do understand the feeling of not wanting to celebrate the events of the Reformation. I am not sure that I want to celebrate them. The burdent that Protestantism carries is that of division. Fortunately in the last century, there have been efforts to some denominational bodies that share some commonality. I like to think that is a good thing.
    I was glad to see the reminder of another commenter that the Reformation was not the first split in the world-wide church. Before it, there was the schism between the west and the east. Before that there was the expulsion of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.
    The question that this poses for us becomes how do we find unity among diverse Christians, and with those one the margins of Christianity?
    I don’t know the answer, but it is a question to hold on to.

    • Steven J

      Sorry, it should have said:
      Fortunately, in the last century, there have been efforts to unite some denominational bodies that share some commonality.

  • BDW

    “We can not celebrate sin”?

    Whose sin is he talking about? The church was incredibly corrupt. The Reformation was necessary.

    The Catholic Church is still corrupt.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Is the Church full of sinners? Yes. Christ came to call sinners. Reform (but not fragmentation) will always be necessary, in the Catholic Church and in your church, until He comes in glory.

      But is the dissolution of Christ’s church into thousands of denominations part of His will? Absolutely not.

      • Sagrav

        If the dissolution of the corrupt Catholic church was not God’s will, then why didn’t he stop it? His deafening silence on the matter sure makes it look like He’s just fine with His church shattering into a thousand pieces.

    • Christopher Lake


      A reformation was necessary, but Luther started a theological *revolution* that has led to one Protestant denomination after another, each claiming to simply “teach the Bible,” yet not agreeing on what the Bible itself teaches! The “spiritual, invisible unity” of Protestantism is akin to a divorced couple claiming to have “unity,” while not being able to be together in the same room. God is not the author of such confusion.

      Yes, the Catholic Church has serious problems. The New Testament itself shows local churches in which people are committing incest, and coming to the Lord’s Supper while drunk. On the sex abuse scandals, my own life has been touched by sexual abuse, and far be it from me to minimize the pain and outrage of the scandals in the Church. I am very angry about them– as is the Pope! Read his letter to the Church in Ireland, and you will see that he is committed to stopping the abuses. He has worked for a greater culture of protection and safety for children in the Church. Would that many leaders of various Protestant denominations would do as much as he has to protect the children in their midst! (See the website, “Stop Baptist Predators.”)

      The media has an easy target in the Catholic Church, precisely because the Church is an *universal* Church– worldwide, visible, one, in a way resembling *no* Protestant denomination. It’s harder to target scandals in Presbyterianism or Lutheranism or the Baptist faith, because those traditions are so fragmented and lacking even formal unity *among themselves*. By contrast, the Catholic Church is visible, worldwide, easier to identify and locate– and thus, easier to make into a target. Not that the press hasn’t done much good in reporting on the scandals– the Pope himself has expressed thankfulness for the role of the press in the scandals. At the same time, if one truly does serious research, it becomes clear that the Catholic Church is not especially corrupt, in a way that would supposedly disprove its validity, as compared to the whole of Protestantism, with its much-less-reported problems.

      In the end, one should judge a Church, not by those who radically disobey its teachings, such as abusive priests, but by those who radically *obey* those teachings, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Maximllian Kolbe, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Damien of Molokai. Such selfless, holy people who radically loved Christ and others could *not* have come from a Church which was, and is, not of Christ.

      The Catholic Church is full of sinners and scandal, but the Church has existed since Christ founded it, and He will not allow the Church to dissolve, though various opponents, from anti-Catholic, fundamentalist Protestants to snarky atheists, have predicted the Church’s demise. The Church will not end, because Christ Himself *does* not end.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    I would be interested in getting your comments on a piece I wrote entitled “Why the Reformation Was Necessary” (The Berean Observer: The was an underlying theological issue about the nature of justification that I don’t think was resolved very successfully by the Council of Trent.

  • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

    P.S. I forgot to mention that the blogposts on “Why the Reformation Was Necessary” appeared in September 21, 25 and 28, successively.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      I’ll look them up when I get a chance, Bob! You should quote from them here, for the benefit of the discussion.

      • http://TheBereanObserver Bob Wheeler

        I can give you a very brief summary here. I point out that if you read the best Catholic theologians, they always recognized that the death of Christ was an atonement for sin, that Christ is the Savior, and that we are saved by grace through faith in Him, although they often understood receiving Christ in a sacramental sense — when you partake of the Eucharist you are actually receiving Christ. But to the extent that put their trust in Christ as their Savior from sin, they are just as “saved” as any Protestant us.
        Unfortunately, over the centuries various other things crept in to obscure this central truth of the Christian gospel – scholastic philosophy, canon law, and tradition, so that by the time of Luther the average Catholic thought that you could receive the forgiveness of your sins simply by contributing money to the church. Luther realized that that wasn’t what the Bible taught at all, the Reformation was born. A huge debate over the nature of justification ensued, in which Catholic theologians argued that justification was a matter of INFUSED righteousness while the Protestants argued that it was an IMPUTED righteousness. When the Council of Trent took up the issue they came down and what had become the accepted Catholic position, and at that point the schism was sealed. The Reformation, then, was a return to the authority of Scripture and the doctrine of justification by faith.

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