Wed 31 Oct 2012
Today is Reformation Day—the day Lutherans (and other Protestants of varying types) mark the anniversary of All Saint’s Eve, 1547. On that day, according to popular legend, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses outlining papal abuses to the church door in Wittenberg. The church door acted as a kind of bulletin board, and it was a notice that Luther wanted to hold debate or discussion on the topic. If that’s all that had happened, perhaps history would have played out differently. But, the legend continues, readers of the theses were so struck by the force of Luther’s complaints that they decided to share them with others. They went off to the nearest copy shop (ie, printing press) and made multiple, bootlegged copies. These subsequently made their way across Germany and other parts of Europe, bringing Luther’s complaints to an audience far larger than that of little backwoods Wittenberg.
It was the first act in the theological drama to come.
Reformation Day is for us a bitter-sweet remembrance. On the one hand, we celebrate the theological movement that took place under the care of people like Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. They called for a “re-formation,” that is to say, a “forming again” of the Church. They believed the Church had strayed from the teachings of the early Church, especially on the question of how we are saved. The Reformers championed (rightly, I think) God’s grace toward sinners, received through faith—something that had been obscured by popular teachings on indulgences and works. Luther cried “ad fontes”—“back to the sources!” Back to the Scriptures. And it wasn’t just a call to theologians; the average person should have the Scriptures opened to them; to that end, he translated the Bible into the common language of the people. In all these things—grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone—, the focus was ultimately on Christ. For Christ was (and remains) the giver of grace, the perfector of faith, and the very Word of God made flesh. Yes, through Christ alone. And so there’s plenty to be thankful for come Reformation Day.
And yet, while we celebrate the Reformation, we must also recognizing the division in the Church it brought about—division which exists to this day. Luther was excommunicated by the Roman Church. And to be fair, Luther could be a particularly vicious opponent; it’s not terribly surprising he was likewise met with fierce opposition. But even the more peaceful Melanchthon could not broker peace between the Evangelicals (for that is what the reformers called themselves—those devoted to the “Evangel” or “Gospel”) and supporters of the status quo. Despite Melanchthon’s contention that the Evangelical faith was well within the boundaries of historic, orthodox Christianity (a contention I obviously agree with), the Roman church disagreed. The Council of Trent drew the final dividing line: if you believed in salvation by faith alone, you were anathema. And it’s hard to have a discussion with someone who believes you’re anathema. (Though, no doubt, the Pope likewise found it difficult to hold discussion with those who called him Antichrist.)
Today is a day of mixed feelings: a matter for rejoicing as well as a matter for great sorrow. We rejoice over the doctrines rediscovered in the days of the Reformation. We sorrow over the divisions which rent the body of Christ in that time and continue to rend it today. Ours is gratitude tempered by the painful awareness of separation. The Church ought not be divided. And yet it is—or at least the Church visible is.
We earnestly thank God for the Reformation. But we do so with heavy hearts; we grieve its necessity. And we pray that the Desire of nations would at last come and bid our sad divisions cease—that He would make us one openly and visibly, just as spiritually the Church of Christ truly is one.
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us.
This post is published concurrently at A Christian Thing.