‘Reformation’ is an awkward word; so, of course, is ‘Protestant’. Both terms convey a sense of theological unity or ecclesial uniformity wrapped in a righteous evangelical zeal, when, in fact, they are loaded with murky historical complexities and layered like the muddled onion of Catholic Christianity. And there’s another awkward word – ‘Catholic’. Is it the whole Church, or just the Western bit? Is it confined to Roman, to which it is usually appended, or does it embrace Eastern Orthodoxy? Is it defined by loyalty to the Bishop of Rome, and, if so, what do we call those professing Catholics who think their pope is preaching heresy? Have they ceased to be Catholic, or do they remain catholic? And what in the name of all that’s sainted is an Anglo-Catholic?
We can talk about the Reformation as a single historical event or as a process of ‘returning to Scripture’. We can talk about Protestants as being true gospel activists or of protesting against the errors of the Church of Rome, such as the selling of salvation. And then we have to negotiate contemporary politics, exegesis, the social setting or Sitz im Leben of the text, and then define what we might mean by ‘error’ or ‘heresy’, and the true source of religious authority. What role (if any) is played by tradition and experience? Who determined what constitutes ‘Scripture’? An ecumenical council? You mean a catholic council or a Catholic one? Who convened that council, and why? And then we can ponder the counter-Reformation or the Tridentine movement which some might term the Catholic Reformation. And then we might cavil about St Peter and petros, and argue over rocks and pebbles.
On 31st October 1517 – this very day 500 years ago – an insignificant monk and university lecturer called Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle Church of All Saints in Wittenberg, thus beginning what we now call the Reformation. But it was, in reality, lots of mini-reformations, each one peculiar to its own national struggle between spiritual awakening and political identity, yet all united by a desire for individual renewal and a return to the Catholic Christianity of the Early Church.
Or was it to the catholic Christianity of an early church?
Some now follow Luther, some Calvin, some Zwingli, and still others follow Cranmer.
For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.
Is Christ divided? (1Cor 1:11ff).
Christ has been divided since the Church was founded: schism did not begin with the 16th-century Reformation, or even with the 11th-century rupture which divided the Greek East from the Latin West. We no longer talk about the churches of Paul or Apollos, but the question of the universal jurisdiction of the Throne of Cephas still resonates. Who is this man who professes to exercise the power of God in the world? Is he a mere man, or is he some kind of demigod that he may occasionally speak infallibly on matters of faith and morals? If this is Christ’s Vicar on earth, how can he have no jurisdiction in this realm of England, as Article XXXVIII states? How can he be the Antichrist, as the early Lutherans attested? Most people now can deal rationally with such questions as they would a lecture on the Psalter; others just hurl ‘anti-Catholic bigot’ at the inquisitor. It’s easier, isn’t it? A bit like excommunicating heretics.
In 1520 Pope Leo X excommunicated Martin Luther from the Catholic Church: the catalyst of Protestantism was considered to be an unholy fomenter of discord and division, and a heretic.
In 2015 Pope Francis declared: “I also believe it is important that the Catholic Church courageously carry forward a careful and honest re-evaluation of the intentions of the Reformation and the figure of Martin Luther in the sense of ‘Ecclesia semper reformanda’.” He said the Church must follow “in the broad wake traced by the Council, as well as by men and women, enlivened by the light and power of the Holy Spirit”.
In 2016 he said: “I think that Martin Luther’s intention was not wrong… He had taken a step forward and justified himself for his actions. And today, we Lutherans and Catholics, with all the Protestants, have agreed on the Doctrine of Justification: on this important point he had not been wrong.”
When Pope Francis was asked what the Roman Catholic Church can learn from the Lutheran Tradition, he replied: “Two words come to mind, ‘Reform’ and ‘Scripture’. I shall try to explain them. The first word is ‘reform’. At the beginning Luther wanted to introduce a reform at a difficult time for the Church. Luther wanted to solve a complex situation. The second word is ‘Scripture’: the word of God. Luther had taken an important step: to put the word of God in to the hands of the people. Reform and Scripture are both fundamental subjects we can deepen and increase our knowledge of the Lutheran Tradition.”
From conflict to communion; from schismatic and heretic to sainted vessel of the Holy Spirit. It has only taken 500 years for the successors of St Peter to concede that the Reformation helped to restore Scripture to the heart of Christian life, and Christ to the centrality of the Christian faith.
That is to say, all Christians are now Protestants, in the sense that the theological ideas which inspired the Reformation continue to illuminate the whole Church, which is now eager to explore new terrain, to delve deeper into theological disputes, and understand the intricacies of the differences between man and man and church and church. We are no longer burning each other over Eucharistic differences, or hanging, drawing and quartering one another over the temporal jurisdiction of the Pope of Rome: “We have learned once again to love one another,” the Archbishop of Canterbury says, “And to seek to bless and love the world in which we live.”
Some take the view that Martin Luther destroyed Europe’s common culture, but it was already falling apart: kings, princes and electors were each vying for supremacy; arguments over sin and salvation became a convenient shroud for political cynicism. If the devoutly Catholic Elector of Saxony had not protected Luther and defended him against his enemies, the Wittenberg protest might have been short-lived, but it would certainly have erupted in another place at another time. If the University of Wittenberg had not been founded without the imprimatur of the Church, they might never have employed such a free-thinking monk in their theology faculty, but such a university would have arisen elsewhere, and such a theologian would have eventually found employment. If not Germany, it would have been in Switzerland. If not Switzerland, it would have been in England. Public opinion was showing signs of independent thought, and this coincided with the advent of the printing press. The Reformation would have begun no matter what, because freedom of the individual conscience and salvation by faith are works of the Holy Spirit – a truth to which both Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin now attest:
At the heart of the Reformation was something Luther had seen as he read the Bible. He saw that God offers forgiveness of sins, and the promise of heaven, not because we do good works but because we trust in God. There’s an old hymn that says: “Nothing in my hand I bring,/Simply to your cross I cling.”
That was Luther’s immense discovery: the grace and love of God for human beings in all their failings and faults.
Luther might be best known for railing against the soul-prayer Indulgence industry, but he was by no means the first Catholic to do so: clerical confidence tricks are, after all, as old as Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24). Others take the view that he was just an ignorant upstart, yet he was steeped in humanist learning and the writings of the Church Fathers: it was Augustine which pointed him to the authority of the Bible and the revealed will of God in Scripture. While Luther’s opponents wanted to talk about authority and obedience to Rome, he only wanted to talk about God’s abundant grace and the primacy of faith in Christ. This was his revelation and salvation: Christ is head of the Church, not the Pope. By faith are we saved, not by works. “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none,” he wrote in The Freedom of a Christian, then adding: “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
Luther probably never said “Here I stand; I can do no other”, but the rallying cry of Protestants has become the motto of all Christians. As each of us embraces our salvation with gratitude, we spread the good news with joy – often against the scorn and scoffing of the world – because we are all evangelical, because all Christians are called to be so. Every time we argue for Church institutions to be overhauled, practices adapted, liturgies amended or hearts renewed, we are yearning for reformation – individual and corporate. And every time we rail against error, bureaucracy, inefficiency and corruption, we are protesting for the restoration of righteousness.
We are all Protestants now, and all Protestants are catholic. And the whole Christian world has become Protestant because it longs to be free, and in that freedom is the opportunity to discover the immanence of Christ, the beauty of communion, and grapple individually with how theology relates to modernity.
The Reformation isn’t back there; it is still here. It worked, and it is still working. Only when we grasp what Christianity was meant to be can we understand Luther’s central quest for a right doctrine of justification. Redemption through Christ resonates throughout the New Testament: God has achieved the redemption of sinful humanity through the death of Christ on the cross. We don’t need popes and bishops or liturgies of penance: “God has made a testament and a covenant with us,” Luther wrote, “so that whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.” Faith is personal: it concerns the promises of God, and unites the believer to Christ. “Faith unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom.” This is the believer’s assurance of salvation, and this understanding is Luther’s unifying gift to the Church.