Five hundred years ago today, Martin Luther set in motion a series of events that would eventually be known as the Protestant Reformation. It is a momentous event in the history of Christianity, and its implications extend far beyond the narrow confines of ecclesiastical affairs.
Reflecting Upon the Reformation
Martin Luther was not a perfect man (either personally or professionally). He would have been the first to concede that point. But his life bears witness to how God often works. As Luther searched for answers to his own spiritual questions, he discovered something of much greater importance. The church—which Luther loved and for which Christ died—was broken, and it needed to be fixed.
Looking back from the vantage point of history, there is no doubt that medieval Christianity had lost its way. We should not be surprised, however, that people besides Luther loved the church, and we should not be surprised that their love for the church led them to substantially different conclusions than the ones that Luther reached. For centuries, the church’s best minds had emphasized the Spirit’s activity in the church, and especially in its popes and councils. And since nearly everyone saw the Spirit as truly and fully God, its presence and activity in the church could only mean that the church was infallible (whether people used the term or not). And then there were those pesky radicals who agreed with Luther that the papal “emperor had no clothes” but who wanted a far more radical solution to this apparent problem than even Luther was willing to entertain.
Unfortunately, these disagreements led to bloody conflict. The wars and persecutions of the next 130 years may have been motivated by greed and pride as much as they were by religious fervor, but they remain some of the darkest days in Christian history. An unimaginable number of lives were lost, and the violence inculcated in many average people a suspicion of religious authority that remains to this day.
Moreover, the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants—not to mention the conflicts among Protestants themselves—revealed that there were many things that we still did not understand about the gospel and its implications for the world. Medieval scholars had worked diligently to dissect every aspect of Christian belief, and their efforts had produced works that we still reference today. Still, the conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries revealed how much work needed to be done—and how much of the work that had already been done needed to be reconsidered.
Reflecting Upon the Reformation’s Implications: Protestant Witness and Catholic Renewal
There is little doubt, at least in my mind, that the Reformation was a tragedy that could and perhaps should have been avoided. Paul, John, and other biblical writers plead with Christ-followers everywhere to be unified. The last thing that they wanted was for the church to splinter into dozens of mutually hostile sects.
Nevertheless, God used the Reformation to call His people back to himself and to strengthen their witness to the world. The benefits of the Reformation for Protestant Christianity are obvious. It urged Protestants to return to the Bible again and again as the sole source of authority for Christian thinking and living. It pushed Protestants to reflect upon the nature and importance of faith, and it called them to focus on faith’s object (Christ) rather than faith’s vehicle (the church). Eventually, this renewed focus on the gospel led Protestants to forsake their comfortable habitations in Europe and North America and to engage in a worldwide missionary endeavor.
Catholics, too, benefited from the Protestant Reformation. Renewal began almost immediately, and it continues to this day. At the Council of Trent, Catholics clarified their belief that salvation is exclusively a gift of God’s grace, and, since then, Catholic theologians have made meaningful contributions to Christian reflections on a wide range of theological, philosophical, and ethical topics. At the Second Vatican Council, Catholics acknowledge the truly Christian character of Protestant Christianity, and both before and after the Council, Catholics have regularly cooperated with Protestants in theology and ministry. Moreover, Catholics have embarked on effective missionary endeavors around the world, making converts for Christ and doing his work among the world’s most impoverished peoples.
Facing the Future: Faith, Hope, and Love
As a Protestant minister and Bible scholar who studied with and under Roman Catholics, I am optimistic about the future of Christ’s body. Sure, there are still issues that need to be resolved. Catholics still have difficulty with the Protestant tendency to separate justification and sanctification, and maybe they have a point. I certainly believe that Catholic lay-people put too much emphasis on Mary and the saints, and I think that even Catholic clergy invest more in the sacraments than I think is warranted.
Still, I think that we have learned that Christ is, in fact, the Lord of his body. He uses people of courage and conviction to speak truth to that body, and we ought to celebrate those faithful souls. But we also need to remember that, as Lord of his body, Jesus will not rest until his body—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—is united around a single message. What is that message? It is the good news that Jesus is Lord and Jesus alone saves.