The first disciples of Christ were only later called Christians. Just so with those who were influenced by Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Only later were they called Protestants. The exact origin of the term protestant is unsure. It may come either from French protestant or German Protestant. What is certain is that both the French and German use of this word was derived from the Latin: protestantem. This Latin word literally meant “one who publicly declares/protests.”  I believe the best way to celebrate the Protestant Reformation (October is the “unofficial birthday”) is to regain this idea of “one who declares.” Let me explain.

Over time the term Protestant was eventually used to describe all groups protesting Roman Catholicism. Since that time, the term Protestant has been used in many different senses, often as a general term merely to signify non-Catholics who belong to neither of the Churches of Catholic tradition or the churches of the Christian East (Orthodoxy). This use still has a place, at least for historical reasons, but as the world is getting “smaller and smaller” these words will likely mean something very different over time.

It is profoundly wrong to think that the Protestant Reformation were merely about the obvious abuses in practice that gripped the Catholic Church in the early 1500s. These abuses had been protested by faithful Catholics for more than a century. And these abuses were, in many instances, corrected a few decades after the Reformation began. Rodney Stark even goes so far as to suggest, rightly I believe, that one of the greatest consequences of the Reformation was that it pushed the Catholic Church into global mission.

But what about the Reformation? What marked it the most profoundly was a “fresh reading of the Bible.” It was not a wholly original movement. Reformers had arisen before but never had their ideas caught on with so many people and church leaders. At its most profound level the Reformation criticized the Catholic import of tradition into the gospel. This challenge owed a great deal to humanism, which allowed the Reformers (and eventually Catholic biblical scholars) to “return” to the original sources and primary documents–namely the Scripture in Greek and Hebrew and secondarily the writings of the church fathers in Latin and Greek. Luther believed man was made right with God (justification) not by human works but rather by faith in the gospel of Christ alone. Our righteousness is thus external, meaning we can never attain right standing with God based on anything inside of us. We can only accept it as a pure gift in Christ. God accomplishes, in the gospel, what he commands. Our role is to believe and respond to his grace.This faith is not a work; it is a gift of God, awakened in us by the Holy Spirit.

Because of this belief Protestantism developed a new understanding of faith. Faith is not primarily assent to the church or its dogma but personal belief in the living Christ. It is a personal bond of trust created by the Spirit. This view of faith is increasingly understood down to the present day as the work of the Spirit makes it evident, to Christians of all traditions and backgrounds who believe on the Son of God as their Savior and Lord.

Tragically Protestantism was forced to break away from the Catholic Church. This break was prompted by serious mistakes on every side. There seems to be little that can be done to “officially” restore these two vast broken communions. For starters, Protestantism divided itself into many state and regional churches and the result was the rise of denominations, sects and even cults. Catholicism, slow to reform itself at times, remains united yet within her communion there are vast differences and distinctions in practical reality. Union may be an ultimate goal but I do not believe union is the actual goal Jesus prayed for in John 17:20–24. What he prayed we would realize is unity in the triune God; Father, Son and Spirit. We can, therefore, embrace the central message of the Reformation on a day like today and at the same time work and pray for unity among all who profess the Lordship of Jesus in the biblical and ancient confessional texts. We can, in other words, celebrate the Reformation while we regret the deep divisions it brought about. The recovery of the gospel was God’s work. The divisions, so far as I understand, were the fault of churches and leaders. The Reformation should be celebrated in the spirit of the original word: “One who declares.” We Protestants should not boast, except in the gospel and in Christ alone. We should not boast because of divisions on this day but because of the recovery of the gospel and the ancient sources of Christian faith. We should then repent humbly of whatever we have done to cause new divisions and seek peace with all men, especially those who live in the household of faith.

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  1. David Rogers October 31, 2012 at 11:22 am

    What if, say, 50% of the German Lutheran Church decided to split paths with the other 50% in order to join up with the RCC. From the Catholic perspective, would they be dividing or reuniting?

    Now, turn the tables. What if Christians, who base their unity with each other on a shared experience of having one’s life changed by the same gospel message; a shared relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; and a shared doctrinal agreement on the essentials of the gospel message, decided to split paths with those who based it on organizational ties, structure, and hierarchy (i.e. monarchical episcopacy and papacy) in order to express their unity in a more informal, organic manner with others who base their unity on a shared experience of having one’s life changed by the same gospel message; a shared relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; and a shared doctrinal agreement on the essentials of the gospel message? Would they be dividing or reuniting?

    From this perspective, I don’t believe Evangelical Christians (in the sense described above) have actually ever divided from the Church of Jesus Christ, but rather have reunited with it.

    Otherwise, Irenaeus and Cyprian were right, the Protestant Reformation was a heretical schism, and we should all submit to the Pope and become Roman Catholics.

  2. Fr. Merrin October 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Please, the Reformation pushed the Church into mission the same way all hereies have pushed the Church to correct teaching. The Spread of this heresy was a coincidence in that it also came with the invention of the printing press, increase in literacy and a general revolt against authority. Luther mangled the Word of God, by removing works, “of the Law” so that Paul was no longer speaking of Mosiac Law but now all works. Luther also added the word “alone” after faith, when the only time alone appears after faith it is precedded by “not by” Which is why Luther tried to remove the book of James from the new testament. Calvin reformed against Luther and Zwingli reformed against them both. And I suppose that you pick and choose what you like from their teaching and one day people will reform from you. The Reformation brought relativism, long before it had a name.

  3. Thomas Masters October 31, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    I read two reflections today on the Reformation, one on the Touchstone Magazine website, and the other on the Focolare website. I’ll paste them both below:

    Good, Enduring Reformation
    Wednesday, October 31, 2012, 7:02 AM
    Jordan J. Ballor
    Today is Reformation Day, and I wanted to pass along a quote that I have found to embody a valuable perspective about the imperative to always be seeking reform of one’s own life and manners, without needing to tarry for broader social or political change.

    The quote appears in the newly-published translation of a work by the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family, which originally appeared in 1908.

    The point of departure is his exploration of the institution of the family and its social significance, but Bavinck’s words apply equally as well to efforts for improving other spheres as well:

    All good, enduring reformation begins with ourselves and takes its starting point in one’s own heart and life. If family life is indeed being threatened from all sides today, then there is nothing better for each person to be doing than immediately to begin reforming within one’s own circle and begin to rebuff with the facts themselves the sharp criticisms that are being registered nowadays against marriage and family. Such a reformation immediately has this in its favor, that it would lose no time and would not need to wait for anything. Anyone seeking deliverance from the state must travel the lengthy route of forming a political party, having meetings, referendums, parliamentary debates, and civil legislation, and it is still unknown whether with all that activity he will achieve any success. But reforming from within can be undertaken by each person at every moment, and be advanced without impediment.

    Here is the second, from the website, which offers excerpts from a talk that Chiara Lubich gave at the Reformed Cathedral of St. Peter, Geneva, in 2002.

    Reformation Day
    Wednesday, October 31, 2012
    As Evangelical Christians are celebrating ‘Reformation Day’, we offer some excerpts from a talk by Chiara Lubich on 27 October 2002 in Reformed Cathedral of St Peter in Geneva.

    On 31 October German Evangelical Christians and Protestants throughout the world celebrate ‘Reformation Day’. It recalls the beginning of the Luther’s reform when in 1517 he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. There will be many liturgical celebrations, Bible readings and concerts to mark the day. In Switzerland, however, the day is celebrated on the first Sunday of November.

    On 27 October 2002 Chiara Lubich was invited to speak in the Reformed Cathedral of St Pierre in Geneva, the cradle of Calvin’s Reformation. She was introduced by Pastor Joël Stroudinsk who at the time was the Moderator of the Reformed Church in Geneva. He said, ‘In a few days Protestantism in its diversity will celebrate the Reformation. Beyond the specific characteristic of Protestantism, it is shared now by other Christian confessions, represented here, this morning in their diversity. The specific characteristic is the passion for the Gospel. It is the will to register the power of a word that transforms the world in its existence and in everyday life, in its many expressions, social, economic, political. This is the challenge that Chiara Lubich … has highlighted. It is with a spirit of gratitude and fellowship that we welcome her this morning to this place.’

    In a Cathedral filled to capacity with more than 1500 persons, Chiara started her talk with these words. ‘On the next 3 November here in Geneva there will be a celebration of the anniversary of the Reformation, a religious festival that I hope will be rich with the best spiritual gifts for all Christians from Churches of the Reform, my beloved brothers and sisters. In that day the word ‘Reform’ will ring out. ‘Reform’, a term that expresses the desire for renewal, for change, almost for rebirth. It is a special, attractive word that means life, more life. It is a word that can stimulate a question: are the noun Reform and the adjective Reformed relevant only for the Church that has its centre in Geneva? Or are they not words that can be applied in some way to all of the Churches? Indeed, were they not always typical of the Church?

    Chiara went on to say, ‘The Second Vatican Council in its decree on ecumenism, says “Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth.”[1] If we observe the history of the Church, and in particular the years when Christians were still united, we see that Jesus, with the Holy Spirit, has always thought, willed, directed his Bride towards a continuous reformation, bringing about in it a constant renewal. For this reason he sends on earth, from time to time, gifts, charisms of the Holy Spirit who has given rise to new spiritual currents and new religious families. And with these he has presented again the vision, in men and women, of a life that is evangelical, totally dedicated and radical.’

    And she concludes, ‘Dearest bothers and sisters, this is what we have understood: the present time demands love from each one of us, demands unity, communion, solidarity. And it also calls the Churches to build up again the unity rent by the centuries. And this the reform of the reforms that heaven requires. It is the first and necessary step towards universal brotherhood with all other people, all men and women in the world. Indeed, the world will believe if we are united. Jesus said it: ‘May they all be one … that the world may believe (see Jn 17:21). God wants this! Believe me! And he repeats it and shouts it in the current circumstances that he allows to exist. May he give us the grace, if not to see this come to fruition, at least to prepare for it.’[2]

    [1] Unitatis Redintegratio, 6.

    [2] Chiara Lubich, Il dialogo è vita (Città Nuova: Rome, 2007), pp.37, 43-44

    More than “Halloween,” today for me is an occasion to enter into and to appreciate the “rebirth” of the Reformation, which is in essence (at least according to Herman Bavinck), is a transformation from within.

    • admin October 31, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      Thank you Tom. We need renewal networks like Focolare, a Catholic movement committed to deep (John 17:21) unity, to help show us the way into the future. I am thankful that I have the privilege of sharing life together with many members of Focolare and hope every reader of this blog will get to know the work and mission of this wonderful global movement.

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