I know we are a few days past the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation; I’ve been reading and processing the many things written noting the milestone. I find myself still at a loss. If you had asked me 10 or 15 years ago what I thought about the Reformation, I would have answered in the positive without hesitation. Of course it was a good thing. Of course it was necessary. Duh. Now, I’m not so sure. My background is completely Protestant, but my journey out of Funda-gelicalism has led me to a bridge sort of theological existence that spans that world and another world–one mostly Anglican and Eastern Orthodox. I’m no longer much of a Protestant.
I supposed if pressed, I would say something to the effect—that—well, the initial event, Luther’s complaints, his points, his hope for a movement within the Catholic Church to reform itself, were probably necessary. Even many Catholic scholars/theologians recognize that many of Luther’s criticisms were valid.
The problem becomes when we think of where the Reformation eventually led and what it produced over time. There are some scholars and theologians who argue the Reformation led to the very secularism Christians (Especially Funda-gelicals) now decry (See here). And scholars like William Cavanaugh (See here) have shown the link between the “Wars of Religion” (A result of the Reformation) and the modern secular state, with its monopoly upon the means of violence and ultimate allegiance (hyper-patriotism/killing in the name of the state—even killing other Christian brothers and sisters). Alister McGrath has even suggested the Reformation open the philosophical door for modern atheism (See here).
And this is to speak nothing of the continuing fracture of Christian community. There are now thousands of different Christian denominations, each autonomous, all certain their interpretations of the Bible are the correct ones and not recognizing the validity of other baptisms, ordinations, or disciplinary actions of other churches.
For further thoughts on the Reformation, I would recommend “The End of Protestantism” by Peter J. Leithart (See here). Leithart’s thesis is based on John 17:21. He writes:
“Jesus prayed that his disciples would be united as he is united with his Father. Jesus is in the Father, and the Father in Jesus. Each finds a home in the other. Each dwells in the other in love. Jesus prayed that the church would exhibit this kind of unity.”
He goes on to note that this is what Jesus wants but such is not what the church is in practice, or visibility. Since the church universal will be (is) unified, eschatologically, since Jesus’s prayer will be answered (and has been), he wants the church to live into that reality. Just as we pray “Your Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven…” even when it is not on earth like it is in heaven (yet), we still pray toward it, into it, and in some mysterious sense the Kingdom does come. So even if it looks like the church could never be unified, or look what like what Jesus prays for in John 17, we must move toward it becoming so, becoming thus.
Leithart hopes we will one day see a “Reformational Catholicism.” While I don’t agree with Leithart at every point, I most certainly agree with his over-all thesis and purpose in writing.
I hope the next 500 years are ones of moving toward continued unity, reconciliation, and deep community, where the terms “Protestant” and “Catholic” are replaced with “Christian” and “catholic” is understood only as “universal.”
Jesus gave his people only one mark, or way, a watching world could recognize them as his disciples: Their love for each other (John 13). It is hard for that love to be visible, or seem true, when the church is so fragmented and has displayed a willingness to use violence against each other historically. It may be that the salvation of the world, the cosmos, is waiting upon a unified church that loves one another more than it loves being right.