Is the Reformation Over?

by Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College

On 30 October last year, Pope Francis visited the cities of Lund and Malmö in southern Sweden for a joint Catholic-Lutheran commemoration of the 499th anniversary of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. This event was significant because Pope Francis was only the second pontiff to visit the Scandinavian country that had played such a troubled role in Protestant and Catholic history.

‘With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality of sacred Scripture in the Church’s life’, the Pope said in a joint declaration. ‘We, too, must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness’, he added.

The pope’s visit is seen as the latest step in the slow rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant Churches.

Is Reformation Over?This year, as Protestant churches across the globe – but especially in Europe – celebrate the 500th anniversary of that great theological, intellectual and cultural upheaval in the 16th century that splintered Catholic Europe, some are asking whether the Reformation is over.

Some leaders on both sides of the divide have answered this question in the affirmative, believing that the controversies that erupted five centuries ago have been largely resolved, given the great strides that have been made in the recent history of Protestant-Catholic dialogue.

Others maintain that Protestants and Catholics should set aside their differences and work together in the wake of the profound challenges that Christians face worldwide, namely, secularism and Islamism. Still others are of the view that while the issues that brought about the great schism in the Western church are doubtless still important, they should not be the basis of division today.

However, these viewpoints in their own ways fail to take the fundamental theological debates between the Reformers and the Catholic Church seriously. In fact, such approaches may betray the hidden crisis of Protestant and evangelical churches in the twentieth century, their subjugation to the modern zeitgeist.

But even those who wish to take doctrinal issues seriously have opined that the Reformation is indeed over. They often cite the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church as the sterling example of what the recent ecumenical dialogue between the two churches has been able to achieve.

So important is this biblical doctrine that Luther declared that justification is the article on which the Church stands or falls (iustificatio articulis stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). If the Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church (approved by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no less) can issue a joint declaration on this all-important article, the Reformation must be surely over, they reasoned.

This, in fact, is the view of the celebrated evangelical historian, Mark Noll, in his 2005 book (co-authored by Carolyn Nystrom) entitled, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism.

While these scholars may be cheerfully optimistic that the Church has entered a new phase, where old quarrels and disagreements have been resolved or set aside, others are not quite so sanguine. They see the question, ‘Is the Reformation over?’ as a placeholder for a myriad of theological issues that still awaits resolution.

For them, the most fundamental question is: Has the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council really redressed the profound theological and religious concerns raised by Luther and Calvin?

While the doctrine of justification by faith is certainly important, there are numerous other theological issues raised by the Reformers that must also be addressed adequately. They include the authority of Scripture vis-àvis the Church, the doctrine of the Church and its sacraments, Mariology, purgatory and papal authority.

These theologians question whether the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which appears to have achieved consensus only on very broad issues, has really succeeded in resolving the centuries-long controversies over the doctrine.

They point out that although the Joint Declaration does signal a more biblical approach to the doctrine, it in fact simply reiterates the position promulgated by the Council of Trent.

They argue that the doctrine of justification cannot be considered in splendid isolation, cut off from the other great theological themes to which it is inextricably related. They further maintain that this doctrine has profound implications for church life, piety and worship.

These are important questions that must not be brushed aside for the sake of a superficial irenics. When they are taken seriously, we are inexorably led to the conclusion that the Reformation is indeed not over.

Even those who think otherwise appear not to be fully convinced of their view. For, as Carl Trueman has argued, if they really believe that the Reformation is over, then they should ‘do the decent thing and rejoin the Roman Catholic Church’.

But if the Reformation is in fact not over, then Catholic-Protestant dialogue must continue in earnest.

There are many excellent examples of such dialogues, the most fruitful of which is arguably the initiative that was started in the early 1990s by Father Richard Neuhaus and Charles Colson called ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ (ECT).

The core affirmation of the ECT statement on ‘The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium’ should set the tone for all such dialogues: ‘All who accept Christ as Lord and Saviour are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and He has chosen us to be together’.

It is perhaps naïve to think that there can be quick or easy resolutions to centuries-long divisions in the Body of Christ.

But as the theologian and Reformation scholar Timothy George has so poignantly put it, ‘Despite setbacks and unresolved theological differences, evangelicals and Catholics are still called to steadfastness in their witness to Christian unity. We know that such unity is not an end in itself, but is always in the service of the good news of God’s overcoming grace’.

Reprinted with permission from the newsletter of TTC, Trumpet (Aug 2017)