By Joshua Sander
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, the event widely seen as the unofficial beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This anniversary is not passing by unnoticed around the Christian world, including our campus. In a matter of days, Union will be hosting the REF500 festival consisting of plenary speakers, guided breakout sessions, preaching, and a public read-through of the Bible.
The event’s coordinators have scheduled numerous well-qualified Union faculty and outside speakers to guide the conference in its discussion of the many implications of the various reformation movements in sixteenth century Europe collectively referred to as the Reformation. As the speakers, the university, and the vast majority of the campus’s students and faculty are Protestant, the many benefits and needed reforms which came out of this period will undoubtedly be at the forefront of most of our minds, both during the festival and throughout the entire year. It is right to discuss and recognize these good changes to a Church which both Protestants and Catholics now agree was in desperate need of some type of reform.
At least some of the conference’s speakers will hopefully warn against attitudes of untempered celebration at this event (which is ironically called a festival), yet it can still become easy during this time to develop or reinforce this type of attitude towards the Reformation. Such an attitude would be inappropriate, not primarily from a false view of the Reformation, but from an incomplete one. Our recognition of its benefits must not exclude a similar recognition of the deep and lasting tragedy inherent in this period.
This inherent tragedy does not refer to the various waves of political and religious violence which followed the Reformation, though these events were certainly tragic. The universal presence of sin rarely leaves widespread and necessary reformations without tragic elements attached. The emancipation of America’s slaves, the fall of Nazism in Europe, and the Civil Rights movement were by no means free from corresponding elements of violence, sin, and tragedy. Even the New Covenant and our eternal salvation were instituted through the torture and execution of God Himself.
Rather, the inherent tragedy refers to perhaps the most defining legacy of the Reformation: the legacy of schism. This break in the communion of Christ’s Church did not have the mercy of being a structurally clean break (relatively speaking), as was the case with the schism with the Eastern Orthodox Churches. It was a shattering of the Body of Christ which not only refused to heal as time went on but continued to shatter into ever smaller and less recognizable fragments.
Ecclesial division is not an idea which Christians have the freedom to accept. Christ prayed in Gethsemane that his Church might be one. Correspondingly, the leaders of the early Church viewed schism with the utmost seriousness and severity. Even the Protestant reformers initially desired to heal the Church rather than split it. Yet many subsequent generations (especially of Protestants) not only lost a rightful disgust of schism, they even celebrated and worked to cement divisions already in place, effectively transforming a scandal into a solution within a couple centuries. The sheer number of both Protestant denominations and church splits over some of the smallest issues is a testament to this phenomenon. Where communion and fellowship were lost, suspicion and hostility too often took their place. Even when the latter two were not apparent, a conspicuous silence frequently reigned. Conspicuous bordered on absurd, as churches located practically within sight of each other never so much as acknowledged the others’ existence.
But hope for healing was not to be forever buried. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen the lifting of official anathemas, an increase in interdenominational (ecumenical) conversations and conferences, a recognition of the saving work of Christ in other Christian traditions, and an increasing desire to work towards a fuller communion on the individual and ecclesial levels. A formal example of recent ecumenical efforts is the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, written and signed signed by both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, and affirmed by the World Methodist Council. On a more informal level, ongoing ecumenical conversations exist in the U.S. and around the world, especially between various Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. Though suspicion and hostility certainly still exist among God’s people, the work of healing is underway.
In view of the prayer of Christ, the history of the Church, and the work underway around the world, as we host the REF500 festival in the midst of this anniversary year for the Reformation, we should make our best attempt to adopt a proper attitude looking back and looking forward. Looking back, we must recognize the tragedies of the Reformation along with the triumphs and mourn the resulting schisms of Christ’s Church which continue to this day. Looking forward, we must keep a spirit of love and a desire for understanding towards all those who are a part of the orthodox Christian faith—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—while echoing the conviction of the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, which stated, “It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ.”
This type of reflection would serve as the first small step towards what should be our ultimate goal for Christ’s Body, an enlightened unity. Rather than simply a Christian version of universalistic indifference, this unity would be a situation where continuing differences and disagreements are discussed, not casually dismissed. However, attempting to figure out what each of the intermediate steps would involve is beyond the scope of this article, and precisely how this goal would appear in its completion is uncertain. But it would allow our common Faith to act as an adequate cause for the blessing of full communion with each other, regaining that which was lost and restoring that which was broken.