Four hundred and ninety years ago, an unremarkable Catholic monk posted a sheet of almost one hundred complaints at the place where people posted such things in those days. That would be a church door, and the monk, of course, would be Martin Luther. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had just split the church into a group that would still be known for its “protesting” of Catholic doctrine a half millennia later: happy birthday, Protestant Church.
That is the vaguest of possible outlines, of course. Depending on your point of view, this event may seem to point to one of the most faithful, triumphant actions ever to be performed for the Christian Church, or to one of the dastardliest of deeds. Most people these days are not quite so polarized, however, and they are left mostly just wanting to sweep Luther’s act, and Reformation Day, under the proverbial rug lest it ruffle any feathers of well meaning people.
Some of this inclination is well founded. In many places, certainly the United States, the differences between orthodox Protestants and Catholics has grown increasing small when placed against the backdrop of the overall society. Thanks to Vatican II and other recent shifts in the Catholic Church, Catholic services no longer seem nearly so strange to the Protestant. At both the lay and clerical levels, animosity has mostly evaporated and, save for a few obvious issues, such as the adoration of Mary, theological differences no longer seem that hard to overcome. Even the issue of justification by faith, key to Protestants – and central to Luther’s push for reformation – no longer seems to hold the divisive weight it once did, as testified by joint statements issued by the Vatican and the World Lutheran Federation.
So what are we to make of Luther’s act and the following schism between the Reformers and the Western church today (the Eastern church had already gone off its own way a few centuries before)? Should we indeed hide the events of 1517 under the rug of consciousness and ignore this day?
I believe the correct response must be an emphatic “no.” As an Evangelical Protestant with a high respect for the Catholic Church, I still make a fairly large deal out of Reformation Day and firmly believe every church ought to recall the day on Reformation Sunday (the Sunday before Reformation Day). The point is not to emphasize our differences as Protestants and Catholics so as to be divisive – the Biblical directive seems clearly to be to seek unity. Rather, this day is a confession of the frailty and humanity of the church – it is a reminder that the church is made of fallible humans who will become corrupt and who will make mistakes. The Reformation did serve its purpose in helping to shake out some of the worst corruption in the Catholic Church – even in places that did not become Protestant. Moreover, it caused all involved to seriously consider their beliefs rather than merely assuming them; Protestants went one way and Catholics, through the Council of Trent, responded in the opposite direction, but neither side was merely able to uncritically hold onto doctrine in the wake of Luther’s actions.
The Reformers, well aware of the need to be conscious about our theology and to always realize our potential for corruption did not seek a static church, but rather the “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda:” the church reformed, always reforming. This is the key lesson of the Reformation: the people of God should be diligent in seeking to be reformed by the will of God. Whether or not you agree with Luther’s particular grievances in their entirety, this remains the central principle that everyone ought to take to heart.
Reformation Day should not be a yearly exercise in divisiveness, but rather a yearly reminder to check our beliefs as individuals and in community. May the church always be reformed and reforming until the day Christ returns.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.