On October 31, 2017, the Protestant Reformation will turn 500. How ought one commemorate such an epochal, complex, and influential historical development? While the date is still a while off, I have been thinking about the question a lot lately. In part, because my colleague Mark Noll at Notre Dame and I received a grant a year ago to host a conference around this question. (It will take place this November on the campus of Gordon College; if interested, click here.) Also, I will soon be leading a study trip to sites of the Reformation in the former East Germany, during which time I will meet with some German colleagues considering 2017.
To be sure, the question has many possible angles: social, cultural, political, economic, and, of course, theological. But where does one even begin to answer a question on the theological significance of the Reformation? There are certainly as many answers as there are denominations within Protestantism And this is to say nothing of the lingering divide between Protestants and Catholics over the Reformation’s meaning.
Thinking more intently about these divisions, however, might not be a bad place to begin. Several years ago I came across the then Lutheran theologian Jaroslav’s Pelikan notion that the Reformation is best remembered as a “tragic necessity.” Pelikan elaborated:
The tragedy of the Reformation consists in the loss by both sides of the some of the very things each claimed to be defending against the other; its final outcome was not what Rome or the reformers had wanted. Yet the necessity of the Reformation consists in the loyalty of the reformers to the best and highest in Roman Catholic Christianity and their obligation to summon Rome back to it. Partisans on both sides have difficulty acknowledging the Reformation was indeed a tragic necessity. Roman Catholics agree that it was tragic, because it separated many millions from the true church; but they cannot see that it was really necessary. Protestants agree that it was necessary, because the Roman church was so corrupt; but they cannot see that it was such a tragedy after all… [Whatever the case] an honest assessment of the Reformation belongs to any… effort at meeting the present situation between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.
Let me suggest that, as the Reformation quincentennial approaches, Catholics ought to try to think about why so many, then and now, felt the necessity of the Reformation. Conversely, Protestants ought to consider why Catholics, then and now, have perceived it as tragic. That might not answer all questions, mend all divisions. But it might not be a bad place to start.
But, esteemed reader, let me close with a question: how do you think the Reformation ought to be commemorated in 2017?