Does the Reformation Still Matter?
2017 is the commemorated 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As I noted here earlier, however, that date—1517—is a bit arbitrary. Somehow, I’m not sure when, who or how, Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the Cathedral Church door in Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany on October 31 became for Protestants around the world “Reformation Day.” Of course, as any church historian knows, there were already Protestants in Europe—in the theological sense—long before that signal event in Luther’s life and the life of the church.
Still and nevertheless, this year, 2017, will be celebrated by Protestants of all tribes around the world as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
The question I want to pose and answer here is whether the Protestant Reformation still matters. To put it more personally: I consider myself Protestant but why? During my lifetime many changes have occurred in the Catholic Church. Do they erase the reasons for remaining separate from it?
Also during my lifetime many notable Protestants have joined the Catholic Church. One example is, of course, Lutheran theologian Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009). I could name many more. The “bridge” has not been as populated the other direction—from Catholic to Protestant. At least not for notable Catholics.
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One question worthy of considering and answering (in such a discussion as this question invites) is whether a Protestant who joins the Catholic Church thereby becomes something other than a Christian. I will answer that for myself with a definite “no.” (This assumes, of course, that the hypothetical Protestant-turned-Catholic was a Christian at the time of his or her “conversion” to the Roman Catholic Church.
A second question, however, is whether such a conversion signals a serious step away from biblical Christianity into something else. Many especially evangelical Protestant colleges and universities draw a line for their professors in terms of church affiliation. Often that line is between recognized Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church or one of its non-Roman Catholic offshoots (of which there are several most of which agree with the RCC about almost everything except the infallibility of the bishop of Rome). Faculty members of such evangelical Protestant institutions of higher learning are often expected to remain members of approved Protestant churches. Some who have joined the RCC have been fired. The most notable example during my lifetime in American evangelicalism was Thomas Howard, English professor at evangelical Gordon College who, in 1985 converted to the RCC and was forced to resign.
Since 1985 many evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have found much common ground and even comradery in their traditions’ opposition to secularism, nihilism, relativism, etc. I won’t go into all the details (or all possible the examples) but the formation of the organization “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) in 1994 signaled a sea change for many American evangelical Protestants’ attitudes toward the RCC. I participated in ecumenical dialogues between Protestants and Catholics in both Europe (University of Munich) and America (ecumenical dialogue events hosted by Lutheran theologians—both then living in Minnesota—Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson). I have invited RCC priests and theologians to speak to my classes at all three evangelical Protestant institutions of higher learning where I have taught over the past thirty-five years. Often I, and many of my students, have found greater harmony between them and us than between speakers from some Protestant traditions.
Of course, as a moderate Baptist and Free Church evangelical, I find myself in as much theological tension with many Protestants as with the official theology of the RCC. For example, were I to find myself living in a remote mountain village somewhere where the only two churches within traveling distance were a RCC and a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod I would have trouble deciding which to attend for worship (if either one).
My point is that my Protestantism, while informed by Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin and other 16th century “magisterial reformers, is decidedly free church and radical. For me, the magisterial reformers did not go far enough with their key Protestant insights (viz., sola scriptura, sola gratia et fides, and the priesthood of every believer). Nor did they realize the necessity of separation between the powers of the “magistrates” (rulers) and the churches.
So, from where I sit (or stand), while Luther’s recovery of the gospel and reformation of the church (that led to a division) was very important and valuable, paving the way for my Christian tradition to be born and develop, I recognize a great gulf still existing between many of those in the magisterial Protestant traditions (viz., sacramental and creedal) and my own faith tradition.
When I read about and study the birth and development of “Protestantism,” my heart is not warmed until I come to the radical reformers such as Balthasar Hubmaier and Menno Simons.
So, for me, there are two gulfs so far still fixed, theologically, among Western (for now I am leaving to the side the Eastern churches) Christian traditions—one between Protestants and Catholics and the other between Free Church Protestants and those Protestant churches that descend from the magisterial Reformation and still hold onto sacramental spirituality and confessionalism (functionally treating some extra-biblical statement of belief as equal in authority with Scripture itself).
By no means are these “gulfs” unbridgeable in terms of Christian fellowship, cooperation, even harmonious worship together. But they are fixed for me in terms of church membership. For me, speaking only for myself, of course, belonging to an evangelical church in the Free Church tradition of Radical Reformation Protestantism is just as important as being Protestant.
So, back to the question: Does the Reformation still matter? Yes, as a historical series of events it is much to be commemorated if not celebrated. I celebrate some of the great insights of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. However, for myself, as an evangelical Free Church Protestant, I look forward even more to 2025—the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Radical Reformation which I consider the real restoration of the New Testament church—even if not perfectly or completely (something I doubt ever can happen perfectly or completely).
What I wonder is how many of my fellow evangelical Free Church adherents will celebrate 2025? I fear that the influence of the heirs of the magisterial Reformation traditions have largely determined how even we, heirs of the Radical Reformation, regard church history. In my opinion, baptists (to use James McClendon’s “small b” term for our common tribe of Protestant Christians) should nod toward Luther and Zwingli this year—in commemoration of 1517—but celebrate 2025 as the real 500th anniversary of the birth of the renewal and restoration of the New Testament church (however imperfectly).
It was, of course, in 1525 that Zwingli’s followers in Zurich launched the Free Church tradition and the Radical Reformation. All baptists should look back to that year as that renewal and restoration of New Testament Christianity in greater fullness if not completeness or perfection.
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