The Reformation at 500

Christ has called the church to unity. So, how do we memorialise a schism? by Dr Justin Stratis

This October 31st marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s fateful nailing of the 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and so much has changed since then. Whilst doctrinal differences continue to divide the Western churches, the abuses against which Luther railed in his theses (and even more pointedly in his Address to the Christian Nobility in the German Nation, published in 1520) have largely been addressed by the sixteenth century Catholic Reformation and by subsequent generations of the Catholic faithful. Moreover, the rise of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century has revealed a mutual will for respect and understanding amongst the churches, and indeed has produced a number of encouraging documents and initiatives which reflect a genuine desire to move beyond old stereotypes and suspicions.

And so, the question presents itself, particularly to modern Protestants: what exactly do we mean to celebrate in this quincentennial year of the Reformation? Again, given the on-going ecumenical discussions between Catholics and Protestants, the answer cannot be as straightforward as the supposed triumph of truth over error, or even that of Scripture over so-called human authority. We have learned much of the heartbeat of Catholic theology over the past hundred years, and if this journey has produced anything, surely it has been an appreciation for the complexity of the differences between our respective communions. Hence, the challenge confronts us: how do we appropriately memorialise what some might consider the very opposite of Jesus’ wish for his followers in John 17, namely, a painful schism?

A ‘quest for the one Church’

As a Protestant theologian, the question is one that vexes me personally. On the one hand, I have been convinced of many of the insights of the magisterial Reformers, perhaps most significantly their insistence on sola Scriptura, or the idea that the church must ensure the freedom of the Bible to reform its life at all times (hence Luther’s emphasis on repentance as the primary characteristic of the life of faith in the first of the 95 Theses). And yet, on the other hand, I recognise just how foolish it would be to cut myself off from the insights of non-Protestant brothers and sisters who profess to walk alongside me as we follow Jesus Christ together. I cannot call myself a Roman Catholic, but neither can I erect a wall of separation. Thus, what we need is a way to submit the entire matter, in all its messy complexity, to the Lordship of Christ, and therefore—somehow—for the sake of his own kingdom and glory.

In 1936, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth penned a ‘message’ to the World Conference on Faith and Order, which was to meet in Edinburgh the following year. The title is ‘The Church and the Churches,’ and the task of the essay is to reconcile a theological account of ‘Church’ with the empirical fact of division in the body of Christ. ‘What is the Church,’ Barth asks, ‘if it can only present itself as repeating the manifoldness and contradictions of the world of pagan religions?’ In other words, does not the disunity of the church prove its status as just another human sociological phenomenon? In response, Barth suggests, we must ‘look away from the array of the many churches in a quest for the one Church.’ For Barth, the oneness of the church cannot stem from the mere agreement of the Christians on matters of doctrine, ethics, or polity, but only on the grounds of a shared participation in the church’s one Lord: Jesus Christ. Consequently, he writes, the unity of the church is lost only when ‘we have lost and forgotten Christ,’ for Jesus Christ ‘is the oneness of the Church.’

What then, do we make of the existence of so-called ‘churches’ in the midst of the one Christian body, that is, the Church? Importantly, Barth argues, the multiplicity of the churches is not something that we should seek to explain—say, in terms of Paul’s one body/many members metaphor—since division in the church only exists because of sin, that inexplicable, almost nonsensical circumstance in which creatures elect to act contrary to the will of their Creator. Consequently, we must be careful not to celebrate church division as if it were diversity, as if the Holy Spirit were complicit in leading believers in multiple, sometimes contradictory directions. What we need, then, is a strategy for confessing the unity of the church in such a way that neither a) minimises its real divisions nor b) attempts to put a ‘good face’ on these divisions as somehow part of God’s intention.

The task of unity

Barth offers just such a strategy by means of an intriguing suggestion: perhaps the unity of the church is not so much a set of commonalities to discern as a task to which we are accountable. In other words, when Jesus prays for the unity of the believers in the Gospel of John, what he is doing is petitioning the Father for divine grace to enable his disciples to serve, follow, and bear witness to him ‘as one,’ even as he and the Father are one. He knows that this task will be difficult. He knows that the story of their shared pilgrimage through time and space will be characterised by all sorts of diversions, obstacles, and delays. And so, for this reason, Jesus promises, ‘I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter [paráklētos], that he may abide with you forever’ (John 14.16).

There is thus a dual reality to what it means to be ‘the Church.’ On the one hand, Christians have real fellowship with one another through their mutual participation in Christ: ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’ And yet, on the other hand, this received unity demands the public and visible ‘amen’ of the church, not just in word, but also in deed. Just as in a wedding ceremony, couples receive both the gift of matrimony as well as a charge to live in fidelity to that new relationship, so the church’s unity in Christ demands a commitment to live into this reality in obedience to the command of her Lord. And so, Barth concludes: ‘The task of church union is essentially one with that practical task which all church activity must presuppose: the task of listening to Christ.’

What the church therefore had to confront in the sixteenth century Reformation was the claim that Jesus Christ had spoken, that in the context and circumstances of early modern European Christianity, the Lord was calling his people to confess and follow him in new and surprising ways. For some (such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli), this ultimately entailed a break with Rome; for others (such as Erasmus, Lefèvre d’Étaples, and Ignatius of Loyola), it did not. But what united all these figures, I suggest, was a shared desire to seek out the leading of Christ and to submit to his command above all others. Put another way: it was a shared commitment to the task of submitting to Christ that knit these brothers together, even in the face of disagreement concerning the nature of the divine command itself.

A unity that ‘tests the spirits’

Today, as in the sixteenth century, the church is a communion marked by incredibly complex diversity, including seemingly insurmountable disagreements concerning the nature of scripture, doctrine, sacraments, and polity (to name just a few contentious matters). And yet, we confess in faith, this body is still a communion—a fellowship of disciples seeking to discern the voice of their Lord. Consequently, ‘reformation’ ought to characterise ecclesial life, because we are a sinful people who nevertheless are accompanied by the Spirit of Christ—the One who never ceases to lead us away from our own self-justifying idolatries and ‘into all truth.’ Ours is a unity that does not paper over differences, but which leans into these differences as occasions to ‘test the spirits to see whether they are from God’ (1 John 4.1).

As a Protestant, I celebrate the Reformation because I (along with many other believers) discern something of a true word from Jesus in these cataclysmic events of the 16th century. And yet, as a Christian, I put my faith not in my own judgments concerning these matters, but in the larger confession that I, like all brothers and sisters, am accountable to listen, first and foremost, to the voice of Christ—a voice which, by the Spirit, and in accord with the promises of Jesus recorded in John 14, still speaks. I may not be a Roman Catholic, but I continue to regard Catholics as my fellow travellers, and therefore would expect them to ‘test the spirit’ of my Protestantism, just as I will engage critically with their tradition, all in deference to Christ.

So as we remember the Reformation this year, let those of us who are Protestant not engage in prideful triumphalism, but instead give thanks for the presence of Christ by his Spirit, and commit ourselves afresh to submitting all our confession and witness to him, whom God has made both Lord and Christ of us all.

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