How ought one to commemorate the recent 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, generally held to have begun when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517?
In our recent edited book, Protestantism after 500 Years, my co-editor, Mark Noll, and I argued that a phrase of the late dean of American church historians, Jaroslav Pelikan, resonates at this milestone. For the interests of truth and Christian unity to be served in remembering the Reformation, Pelikan once asserted that Protestants and Catholics should think of the Reformation as a ‘tragic necessity’. Partisans on both sides, Pelikan elaborated, will have difficulty acknowledging this:
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.
With October 31, 2017 in mind, Noll and I argued that Catholics should try to reckon with why Protestants, then and now, felt the Reformation was necessary, while Protestants of all denominations are duty-bound to grapple with the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. Or, as the theologian Stanley Hauerwas has put it, ‘if we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate [the] Reformation.’
With the good outcomes that resulted from the Reformation came many undesirable ones: bitter polemics, religiously motivated warfare, destructive iconoclasm, confession-inspired executions, and more
However, what exactly—if I may press the question—might it mean for Protestants, and especially evangelical Protestants, to recognize the tragic dimensions of the Reformation? What is at stake theologically? And what might this mean for the Great Commission?
For those who know their church history, identifying tragic aspects of the Reformation will perhaps come easily, for with the good outcomes that resulted from the Reformation came many undesirable ones: bitter polemics, religiously motivated warfare, destructive iconoclasm, confession-inspired executions, and more. The very word ‘Protestant’ first appeared to designate a military alliance in 1529. As we prepare to commemorate the Reformation’s quincentennial, we might do well then to remember the Swiss humanist Sebastian Castellio’s pithy line: ‘To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man.’
Furthermore, there was Luther’s brutal Anti-Semitism, and his excoriating treatment of peasants, spiritualists, Anabaptists, and Ottoman Turks; and this is to say nothing of the escalation of rhetoric against the Pope as the Antichrist—rhetoric readily reciprocated from the Catholic side—that has poisoned Protestant-Catholic relations for centuries.
Christian disunity as impediment
However, there are additional reasons for recognizing the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. Namely, Christian disunity is and remains a massive impediment to the gospel itself—the proclamation of which is and should be evangelicalism’s strong suit. Scripture combines evangelical and ecumenical import. As our Lord prays for his disciples in his so-called high-priestly prayer,
Christian disunity is and remains a massive impediment to the gospel itself.
‘I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me’ (John 17:20-23).
Or, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, ‘I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought’ (1 Cor 1:10). Such admonitions recur in Paul’s letters and in early patristic literature.
Sadly, church history in the post-Reformation era bears ample witness to the gospel-stifling role of Christian disunity. Here are a few examples:
Speaking of denominations, despite a well-meaning naïve flight into the illusion of ‘nondenominationalism’, thousands of mutually exclusive versions of Protestantism persist. In all likelihood, if the sixteenth-century Reformers time-traveled to today, they would be aghast at what their followers had created. ‘The [early] Reformers’, to quote the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, ‘intended to reform the one church, not to smash its unity into innumerable sects whose unity remains totally hidden. The sectarianism within Protestantism is a sign of the failure of the Reformation, not of its success.’
Of course, Protestants have often recognized the scandal of disunity and sought to remedy it. In the late nineteenth century, many Protestant missionary bodies became despondent over the fact that their competition and in-fighting meant taking a divided gospel to non-Western peoples. Overcoming this situation, in fact, was the main impulse behind the famous Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. A key commission at this conference was entitled ‘Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity’. The report of this commission lamented Christian divisions and stated that ‘for the achievement of the ultimate and highest end of all missionary work in . . . non-Christian lands of Christ’s one Church—real unity must be attained.’ This sentiment gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement—a movement of far-reaching significance in twentieth-century church history.
However, as often happens, this movement produced ironic consequences. On the one hand, the original missionary impulse behind Edinburgh later became routinized and bureaucratized into the apparatus known as the World Council of Churches (WCC, f 1948)—a body which soon lost all zeal for evangelism. An op-ed in Christianity Today of 1965 perceptively noted, ‘a movement of Christian unity that began in evangelical transdenominational zeal to evangelize the world has resulted in a theological conglomerate in which evangelism is muffled and the evangel confused.’ Such lines of criticism can also be found among many mainline Protestant theologians, such as Paul Ramsey and Thomas Oden, who have criticized the WCC for substituting grandstanding, left-leaning political gestures for the work of serious ecumenism.
On the other hand, despite the original evangelical impulses of Edinburgh 1910, many evangelicals in the late twentieth century came to assume that ecumenism was something that only liberal Christians did; and, therefore, they should wash their hands of it.
Embarrassment over disunity
This is fair enough, but the abuse of the thing does not invalidate the proper use of a thing—only the abuse itself. Therefore, I am persuaded, that 500 years after the Reformation, evangelicals cannot simply yawn and walk away from Christ’s command that we all be one. The evangelical and the ecumenical priorities remain joined at the hip, as Christ himself testifies in the Gospel of John. They stand or fall together.
However, it is fair to ask what one can possibly do. The divisions that started after 1517—as well as earlier and later ones—are not likely to be going away any time soon.
Evangelicals who care about the Great Commission should at the very least make efforts to become more zealously embarrassed and saddened by church divisions.
Here is a modest proposal: evangelicals who care about the Great Commission should at the very least make efforts to become more zealously embarrassed and saddened by church divisions. For if Christian unity is our Lord’s prayer, it seems that we have no option but to be embarrassed, indeed scandalized, by the actual situation of church divisions, past and present.
Writing more generally about the religious purposes of embarrassment, the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, ‘I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, envy, conceit, never embarrassed by the profanation of life.’ ‘Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we . . . [have] frustrate[d] a wondrous expectation.’ In addition, Heschel wrote, ‘Embarrassment is the awareness of an incongruity between the challenges that we face and of our squandering the opportunity to meet them.’ In Christian terms, we have let down Christ; we have divided his body; we have frustrated his wondrous expectation of our unity. In short, we have stumbled, and this is embarrassing!
It is also sad. We should perhaps then be like Peter, remembering the Lord’s words after he had denied Jesus three times. As Matthew records, ‘And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord . . . . And he went out and wept bitterly’ (Matt 26:75). The maintenance of the divided body of Christ is tantamount to a denial of Christ’s own word.
Christ’s power in our weakness
Yet embarrassment and sadness should not lead to despair. Despair is not a valid option for Christians. For it is often in our very weakness that Christ’s power can shine forth all the more. This realization was important for none other than Martin Luther himself in formulating his well-known theology of the cross. For Luther, divine power is not revealed in the powers of this world, but rather in the weakness of the cross; for it was in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil that Jesus shows his divine power and the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. Perhaps, too, in our very weakness, in the very things that should embarrass and sadden us, our Lord—500 years after the Reformation—can still manifest his power in our faults, and look on us with undeserved mercy to do his work, somehow, despite the lacerations that we have caused in his Bride, the church.
Toward these ends, may I conclude with a prayer for Christian unity found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:
‘O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our only Savior, the Prince of Peace:
give us grace seriously to lay to heart
the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.
Take away all hatred and prejudice,
and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord;
that, as there is but one body and one Spirit,
one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of us all,
so we may henceforth be all of one heart and of one soul,
united in one holy bond of peace, of faith and charity,
and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Thomas Albert (‘Tal’) Howard is Professor of Humanities and History and holds the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University (Indiana, USA). He is the author of Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism (Oxford, 2016) and editor (with Mark A. Noll) of Protestantism after 500 Years (Oxford, 2016).