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Christian Unity: Reflections Beyond the Reformation (Or Can’t We All Just Get Along?)

October 24, 2016


October 31st is Reformation Day, the day that Christians all over the world remember the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. It seems like an odd time to be thinking about unity in the church. After all, a firestorm of protests and defections from the Catholic Church began with Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. Yet, it’s the perfect time to think about the issues that divided the church in the 16th century and to reflect on whether we have made any progress in the last five hundred years to heal the rifts.

Luther’s Intention Was Only to Stimulate Debate

That Luther possessed a formidable intellect and many other talents is not seriously disputed. But his students, not Luther, are generally considered to be responsible for the dissemination of his Theses. Luther, an Augustinian monk at the University of Wittenberg, wrote his objections in Latin, the language of scholars, and posted them on the door of the church (akin to a university bulletin board or a blog), to stimulate debate of the issues by scholars and theologians.

He also sent a copy to the local archbishop responsible for the sale of indulgences, and a copy to the bishop. Three months later, Luther’s Theses were translated into German, printed on the recently invented Gutenberg printing press (the 16th century version of the internet), and were widely disseminated throughout Europe.

Despite Luther’s objections to the sale of indulgences and other practices, it was not his intention to leave the Church.

Catholic Theologians Agree That the Sale of Indulgences Was Wrong

Luther’s main objection was to the Church’s permitting of the sale of “indulgences”—the sale of forgiveness of sins for a fee. This practice was typified by Johann Tetzel, a priest who used this slogan to boost sales: ” As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs.”

According to Peter Kreeft, a respected Catholic theologian, “The Church soon cleaned up its act and forbade the sale of indulgences at the Council of Trent, agreeing with Luther on this point.” (Fundamentals of the Faith, Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 278). Kreeft goes on to say this about the Reformation:

“How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that justifies, or is it faith and good works? Very simple. No tricks. On this issue I believe that Luther was simply right; and this issue is absolutely crucial. As a Catholic I feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity, because the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was failing to preach the gospel. . . Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up with Luther; and, for that matter, much of Protestantism has regressed from him.” (Fundamentals of the Faith p. 290).

Several years after Kreeft wrote these words, he “put his money where his mouth was” and in 1994, with other Christian theologians, signed a document called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. ” Based on Biblical truths, the Trinitarian doctrine and the Nicene Creed, the purpose of the document was to point out the need for Protestants and Catholics to exhibit a common Christian witness to the modern world.   Evangelical signatories included Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, Os Guinness of the Trinity Forum, Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, Mark Noll of Wheaton College, J. I. Packer of Regent College, and Richard Land of the Christian Life Commission. Other Roman Catholic signatories included bishops Francis Cardinal George, William Murphy, Carlos Arthur Sevilla, George Weigel, Mary Ann Glendon, Michael Novak and others.

A few years later in 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was created and agreed to by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation, stating in sum, that both faiths share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.”   For many, this document appears to resolve the root cause of the conflict that started the Reformation.

The Future

While significant steps have been taken to resolve some of the causes of conflict identified by the Reformers, it would be simplistic and inaccurate to state that all of the differences between the Catholic Church and other Christian churches have been resolved. Yet, from the perspective of this layperson, the re-unification of the church under one roof seems less important than the acknowledgment of our common beliefs as expressed in the documents referenced above. It is time to embrace our fellow sojourners in faith, and to enjoy fellowship with each other.

Peter Kreeft observes that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying in the name of the whole church:

“One of the greatest of all mysteries is contained in that first little word, our. It is the mystery of solidarity, the mystery of the Mystical Body. Each individual who prays this prayer is to call God not only “my Father,” but “our Father.” Each individual is to pray in the name of the whole church. When you pray the Our Father, all the presence and power of the Mystical Body of Christ is praying with you, helping you. God sees you praying alongside the Pope and Mother Teresa and Jake Grubb (never heard of him? God did!) and Saint Francis and Saint Augustine and Saint Peter and the Blessed Virgin Mary herself. . . Solidarity is a fact, not an ideal.” (Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith, pp. 191-192).

Dallas Willard echoes Kreeft’s words in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (1998): “[W]e will see ourselves situated in the family of God across time and space, as we pray ‘our Father,’ and we will see God as our Father . . .”

Luther, in his Small Catechism, explains the meaning of “our” in “Our Father”: “In Jesus all believers are children of the one Father and should pray with and for one another. Eph.4:6: [There is] one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all; Gal. 3:26: You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”

When I think about how Christians of different denominations, and Christians within the same denomination (hello, fellow Lutherans) sometimes create and prolong rifts between us, I want to shout: “Can’t we all just get along?” echoing Rodney King’s statement during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. We all have the same core belief that the only really important thing is Jesus Christ crucified; that he died for our sins so that we can live with him forever. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. Yay! That is good news!

Catholics, Lutherans (of all synods!), Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, denominational and non-denominational believers-–all believers in Christ–-are children of “our Father.” That makes us siblings. In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen wrote: “The Church as the body of Christ, as Christ living in the world, has a larger task than to support, nurture, and guide its own members. It is also called to be a witness for the love of God made visible in Jesus. . . Part of the essence of being the Church is being a living witness for Christ in the world.”

May the world witness our love as we interact with each other as loving siblings in Christ.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

( A version of this essay was originally published in 2011)


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