Tuesday, November 1, 2016

For All the Saints: What did the Protestant Reformation Do?

Interior of Castle Church (Formerly All Saints Church) in Wittenberg, Germany

Yesterday, October 31, was Reformation Day. It is the day in history when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. Some will say, Yeah! He NAILED it! (pun intended) Others will say he was a troubled man who launched a divisive movement. The truth usually lies somewhere in between the extremes, and I dare say such is the case here.

Today we often imagine that act of nailing the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg as a radical act of defiance. At the time, however, the church door was something like a community bulletin board. Often important notices were nailed on the door because it was a public place where those announcements could be seen. Luther was stating in that public place that these were things that the church needed to discuss. What ensued in light of those issues was a movement in Germany to completely break away from the Pope in Rome. There followed a breaking away throughout Europe as the newly invented printing press spread the word. 
While Jesus prayed for unity in John 17, so many churches today emphasize their differences. Years ago, I visited an Orthodox Church and after the service a parishioner made sure he pressed the point of that divisive filioque clause that the Roman Catholics put into the Nicene Creed. I thought to myself, “It’s as though the year is still 1055 (the date of the East-West schism between Orthodox and Catholic).” I thought for another minute and realized that when I was a Protestant, we talked about the Catholics and the selling of indulgences in the same way, as if it were still 1517. 
We Protestants seemed to think of the Catholics as being stuck in time. A lot has changed, however, in the years following the East/West Schism and the Protestant Reformation. The fact that Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is in the Roman Catholic hymnal is but one indication that things are not today as they were in 1517. 

Yes, there were many things in the church that needed to be addressed as pointed out in those 95 Theses. Though the Roman Church resisted with its Counter Reformation, there was indeed reform along the way, especially as seen at Vatican II. As Karl Barth said in 1947, ecclesia semper reformada estthe church is always to be reformed.

A Show of Unity
Yesterday was the 500th anniversary of the Protestant split from Rome that separated Lutherans from Catholics. Last year, the Catholics and Lutherans released a "Declaration on the Way" which was stated as a move in the direction of full unity. In a show of unity, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden on Monday for a meeting with the Lutheran World Federation to encourage Catholics and Lutherans to support one another in areas where there is common cause and agreement. (For a report on that meeting and a brief background on the story of the Reformation, see NPR's International Report here). 

My own pilgrimage took me from Baptist to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic, so I have my own perspective on what is happening in the church. I seriously doubt that I could have made the move to the Catholic Church if it had not been for Vatican II. I wrote briefly about my move at the time in my essay, Writing in the Margins. I stated there that much of the important change in the Catholic Church has been in response to the Protestant Reformation. The community of faith is definitely not static – it is a growing, changing environment.

Two Essays

I read two essays online this week that make some good points about the Protestant Reformation:

·        Five Things You Need to Know about the Protestant Reformation, by K. Albert Little clarifies a few things about Martin Luther as well as about Roman Catholics. The author, like me, is a convert to Catholicism, so he has a fresh take on the matter.

·        Seven Points of Contention in Today’s Reformation is written by a Methodist, Morgan Guyton. He points out some of the less glorious results of Protestantism in history as he addresses biblical interpretation, gender, colonialism, capitalism/empire, and the need to recognize sacred space.

Both of these article are worth a read for anyone who is interested in knowing more about our Christian heritage and the faith struggles within our own history.

The Door of the Theses

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Photos:
"View to the altar of Wittenberg Schlosskirche" (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"The Door of the Theses" memorial at All Saints' Church, Wittenberg, Germany (courtesy of Wikimemdia Commons)



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