In 2017, the world will witness a momentous milestone: the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, usually dated from that time that Martin Luther nailed his “95 theses” to the castle church door in Wittenberg in 1517. JAF director Tal Howard and Notre Dame historian Mark Noll are jointly working on a project that will examine how one ought to evaluate and commemorate the Reformation 500 years after the fact. This study trip will tie its agenda to the scholarly aims of Noll and Howard. Was the Reformation a success? Is it over or ongoing? How should it be remembered? What should one make of the many divisions within Protestantism today and its “globalization”? What is the relationship between “American evangelicalism” and sixteenth-century, “confessional Protestantism”? These questions and others will be pursued on a JAF study trip led by professor Howard to some of the major sites of the Reformation in Germany: Wittenberg, Wartburg, Erfurt and also the major metropolis of Berlin (the cradle of the liberal Protestantism of the nineteenth century). We will also explore various other aspects of German history and culture, including the Romantic movement, imperial Germany, Nazi Germany, and more.
Photos taken during an alumni study trip to Germany in May 2013.
Hilary Sherratt '14 (JAF 2009-10)
Picture, if you will, an Italian-style coffee shop along the main Strasse in Wittenberg. A knot of eager Americans are perched on the edges of dark lime green seats in a back corner, cups of cappuccino, sparkling water and an orange juice at our elbows. There are books – copies of The Catholicity of the Reformation – on the tables as well, and “Little Talks” (an American song) plays over the loudspeakers.
We – a group of six interested Christians, are here to seek understanding. We are in the heart of former East Germany to chase down Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation’s winding history through Germany, Europe, over the ocean to the wild frontiers of the United States, to today, when the vast majority of Protestants live in the Southern Hemisphere, and there are more Anglicans in Uganda than in England, more Catholics in Argentina than in Italy, and 38,000 denominations have spread the Gospel farther and wider than any of the Reformers likely imagined.
But as soon as we begin, we discover that the Reformation is a mind-boggling knot of political, theological, historical threads, none of them able to be plucked and examined without bringing others along. We ask why Luther was more “successful” than other Catholic reformers (Erasmus von Rotterdam being our favorite example) – but to ask that invites both a question about the meaning of success (what had Luther been intending? What was truly needed?) and in creep the historical contingencies. Luther’s movement caught on because princes in the Holy Roman Empire, eager to solidify and expand their territorial powers, saw the activity in Wittenberg and seized their chance. By protecting Luther, they took a stand against the political power of the Catholic Church. When peace was reached in Augsburg in 1555, a new phrase – cuius regio, eius religio – whose realm, his religion – accorded power to the princes and forever changed the shape of Western Christendom.
And what of this history that sweeps in after Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon? What of John Calvin and the Swiss Reformation, the migration of the Puritans away from the Church of England to the New World? What of the variety of Great Awakenings, itinerant preachers riding the Eastern seaboard, huge missionary movements in the 19th century, Pentecostalism, mega-churches?
The more our group of hardscrabble American travelers learned about Martin Luther, the harder it was to ignore the historical counterfactuals – had Martin Luther’s critiques been read by a more sympathetic papal eye, had Martin Luther not reacted so violently to the reprimands from Rome, had the Duke of Saxony not noticed the skirmish in Wittenberg and chosen to hide Luther in Wartburg Castle… the evidence points overwhelmingly to the contingency of the Reformation, to its fragile dependence on the place and time. Reform, we could claim, was inevitable – the evidence of Erasmus and others – but the Reformation is another question altogether.
With the theological freight Protestantism brings, learning its dependence on these real and contingent human factors seems worrisome. Protestantism has often fashioned itself as a refounding of Christianity. History suggests this is naïve at best – Protestantism’s founding is much closer to a “sorry mess,” as our professor put it.
The hardest task in making sense of Protestantism as we approach a major milestone is choosing what story to tell; the work of commemoration indeed shapes our memory and our understanding of the events. We have choices to make in 2017, as institutions, as individuals, and as one Body. What do we make of this sorry mess? I want to offer two thoughts:
1. An essential part of this commemoration must be ecumenism and reconciliation.
2. That reconciliation does not mean dissolving denominations.
The very name Protestant betrays a part of our purpose in commemoration. Protestant merely means protestor; one who objects to something. When we reflect on the Protestant Reformation, then, we reflect on the protest. One night after a long journey to and from Erfurt and Eisenach, near Wartburg Castle, our group gathered around tankards of Lutherbier to read the 95 Theses aloud; to give voice again to the first protest. It is remarkable to realize how much of Luther’s energy and hope is in returning the Church to its truest practices. At some points Luther even sounds defense of papal intentions and the papal authority. Thesis 50 states that, “Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.” His protest is over the false gospel of indulgences as the key to salvation; again, in thesis 43, Luther proclaims, “Christians should be taught that one who gives to the poor, or lends to the needy, does a better action than if he purchases indulgences.” His is a deeply pastoral protest, one driven by concern for the right teaching of the Gospel and the protection of the Body of Christ in the world.
If the Reformation is about protest and a desire for change, its commemoration must bring the two bodies back into conversation. The Protestant Reformation has no meaning apart from the Catholic Church. And the original purpose of Luther’s 95 Theses (the actual event we commemorate in 2017) was a reconciliatory and reforming purpose. Thus we must, in the spirit of Luther and Erasmus and Melanchthon and others, draw one another back to the table.
But, and here we come to my slightly more radical claim: I don’t believe the proper end of ecumenical dialogue ought to be the emergence of one common denomination. I don’t seek to make Methodists Anglican, Baptists Catholic or Pentecostals Eastern Orthodox. I don’t want our theological differences to be met with a desire for only one tradition.
Are we tasked with the pursuit of unity? Yes, for as Christ said, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17.20-22). Christ prayed that we would be one, as He and the Father are one. He prayed for a Trinitarian kind of unity – a diverse unity, one might say. If our example of fellowship in the Body is the example of the koinoinia or communio or communion of the Three Persons, we ought not to assume that God intends or demands a reconciliation of practice or theology.
Rather, He asks for unity of purpose. Christ’s prayer is directed – so that the world may believe that you have sent me. We must desire unity and seek unity for the purpose of evangelism. We must draw nearer to each other in fellowship so that the world might know Jesus.
2017 presents us with an opportunity as Protestants particularly pause and reflect on their beginnings to imagine what it might mean to be brethren with the Catholic Church. In the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church revised its attitude and posture toward the Protestant churches, calling them “separated brethren” in the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio. It will not be sufficient either to long for the emergence of one practicing Church or to become apathetic in the face of disagreement and adopt a posture of relativism. For Christ has called us to unity and has planted in us the seeds to make such unity possible. He has also, I firmly believe, in the movement of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church through the ages, revealed Himself in the astounding diversity of His Body, the Church. That Spirit which presided over the emergence of the canon, the creeds, the councils – that same Spirit still guides the Church today. That Spirit, which prompts me in 2013 to urge new (and different) ecumenical dialogue as we approach 2017, is the same Spirit which He promised to send us in the Gospel according to John. While much can be made of the historical accident of Protestantism, and therefore time devoted to searching anew for places of drawing Christ’s Body nearer together, we do not believe the Spirit to be absent even from such floundering human proceedings. Let that mind be in us, also.
Ecumenism in 2017 should not look at Protestantism as a tragedy to undo, even while recognizing that its beginnings are marked as much by human fallibility and stupidity as by doctrine. In our commemorative and ecumenical work, we should give thanks. The Spirit of God is living and active in the Church even as she falters, even as German princes make calculated political moves, even as what might have been reformation within the Church becomes many churches. May we be one, in heart and purpose after God, that the world may know the One to whom all honor, glory and power are due, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.