Thoughts on Reformation Day, 2017

In recent days, I have seen a spate of articles and op-eds addressing the question of the ongoing value of the Protestant Reformation. There’s often a sense that the Reformation was tragic, that it brought about division within Christianity. I’ve seen terms like “heresy” and “schism” bandied about, by Anglicans and Episcopalians as well as by Roman Catholics. At the same time, Lutherans are celebrating. In an age of ecumenism, efforts of churches and denominations to work together, to come to joint agreements, even to merge, seem to be a step toward the realization of Christ’s prayer in the Gospel of John, “that we all may be one.”

I believe in the ideas of cooperation among various Christian, and interfaith bodies but I reject the notion that Christian unity is something for which we should strive, if by unity we mean unified structures. There are deep divisions among us. Some of those divisions are cultural and historical, the result of different histories and experiences. Some of those differences are theological, based in very different understandings of what it means to be Christian. In some respects, the theological divisions are more easily addressed than other differences, like devotional styles, five hundred years of historical development, or understandings of the clergy and laity, gender, sexuality.

The Reformation was probably inevitable. European society was in the midst of rapid change and as powerful and popular the Church and traditional religion were in 1500, that societal change would have required massive change in the church to accommodate a more literate, more engaged, more powerful laity (note how the Medieval Church responded to the crises of the 12th and 13th centuries). But the deep and lasting divisions of the Reformation might have been avoided if human beings had responded differently to the crises they faced.

The various ways that the Protestant Reformation has played itself out—the different cultural and religious legacies that have come about, are also evidence of the unbounding creativity of the human spirit. Would there have been a Johann Sebastian Bach if there hadn’t been a Luther? Would there have been a Rembrandt without the religious conflicts in the Netherlands, a Rubens without the same, or without the Council of Trent, or that great flowering of baroque art and architecture? Would there even have been the philosophical and political developments that led to the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America?

We may no longer condemn those who belong to religious traditions not our own, but it may be that they still have something to offer us, things from which we can learn, but learn best when it is experienced from the integrity of that tradition, and not by appropriating or adapting it for our own uses. One of my professors used to speak about the “charisms” of particular denominations or faith traditions, gifts that they brought to the larger Christian tradition. I find that a very useful way to think about those traditions, and about the Protestant Reformation itself. Even as we lament its abuses and see it as a failure of a larger goal of unity, it might be that it has offered gifts to Christianity that we might not otherwise have experienced or known. Certainly, Anglicanism is inconceivable without its history in the English Reformation.

As with so many other historical events and movements, there are things in the Protestant Reformation to celebrate and to lament. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this anniversary celebration is a new appreciation for the complexity of the historical moment we are remembering and an appreciation for the diversity to which it gave rise.

Anglicans and Reformation Day

#ReformationDay is trending on Twitter but probably not among Anglicans and Episcopalians. For the most part we downplay our tradition’s roots in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. When we blow our own horns (which we do rather too often) we usually mention something about the via media, seeking (or following) a middle road between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. In fact, among contemporary US Episcopalians, the word “Protestant” may even be something of a negative. We want to distinguish ourselves from those low church folks who emphasize sola scriptura.

The fact of the matter is we are Protestants, even if we want to downplay it. Partly the problem is a matter of definition. What do we mean by the term? If we mean some central doctrinal tenets: justification by faith alone, sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, we have wandered rather far from our roots, which explains why the 39 Articles have been relegated to the “historical documents” section of the Book of Common Prayer. If by Protestant we mean worship styles and forms of devotion, again, most contemporary US Episcopalians are closer to Roman Catholics than were our ancestors one hundred fifty or two hundred years ago.

But Protestant means many things and has meant many things. In the sixteenth century, the very name Protestant came into existence as a result of a political act. Indeed, the most inclusive (and precise) definition of the term for the sixteenth century may simply be those who rejected papal supremacy.

I’ve written previously on Reformation Day here, here, here, and preached a sermon on it here. If you want some ideas on how to celebrate it, Mary Valle offered these tips a few years ago:

  •  Temporarily whitewash an unoccupied stone church—au style de Christo à la Jésus,
  •  Have a wine-into-juice station,
  •  Smash molded-sugar plaster saints,
  • Encourage everyone to bring various theses they might have boxed up in the basement—college, master’s, doctoral—and nail them to a selection of old, warped doors.
  • Rip off  “cassocks,” emerging in layman’s polyester suits.
  • Suggested soundtrack: Anything from the Jesus Music era, Bach, or Mendelssohn. Or no music if you want to go that far. You might!

And an image that captures the heart of Martin Luther’s theology and self-understanding:


Celebrating the Reformation

My twitter and RSS feed gave me links to reflections on the significance of “Reformation Sunday.” One was from Crusty Old Dean; the other from Stanley Hauerwas (a sermon preached on Reformation Sunday, 1995). Both offer insights into this odd event. It’s not commemorated in the Episcopal Church—we’ve pretty much done away with the “Protestant” in our traditional name “The Protestant Episcopal Church.” But our communion partners the Lutherans observe it and rightly so.

Of course, Stanley is right. Reformation Day (or Sunday) celebrates the disunity of the Church. It commemorates Martin Luther’s break with Rome. Over the last almost 500 years, Reformation Day has meant many things—German Nationalism, the triumph of Martin Luther, the victory of the individual over the institution. Like almost every other historical event, it has been invested with all sort of meaning, world-historical significance. But that’s more than a single day, a single event, can bear.

When Luther posted his 95 Theses, he sought debate on matters that he thought were of eternal significance—the significance of the rite of penance. That his theses ended in a major schism within Western Christianity was unimaginable to him in 1517. That he might be excommunicated for his questions and for the ideas that he developed in response to his questions was also inconceivable.

Yes, it’s a tragedy that Luther’s courageous witness ended in schism. It’s a tragedy that the Roman Catholic Church couldn’t find a way to embrace the profound theological insights that Luther developed (as has been documented recently, Luther’s ideas were hardly unique in the early 16th century and there was significant support for much of what he wrote as late as the 1540s). It’s a tragedy that after 500 years we remain divided in so many ways.

On the other hand, Luther’s insistence on the correctness of his theological insight in the face of Papal and Imperial opposition did something else. It provided inspiration to all those who in the last 500 years have sought to follow their vision of God and of Jesus Christ even when the authorities of Church and State have claimed their vision was wrong. It has given voice and power to the voiceless and powerless. It has provided a stance of prophetic opposition to the complacency and power of church and state. It reminds us daily that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not confined to the trappings of papal or imperial power, of state or church, or of institutional self-satisfaction.

For us Anglicans, by the way, who try to avoid the label of “Protestant” whenever possible, Luther and Reformation Day remind us of an uncomfortable historical reality. Without Luther, without his brazen defiance of papal authority, without his appeal to and protection by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, there might not have been an English Reformation. Had he not gone before, had he not shown a way, Henry VIII might not have had the courage to resist Clement VII.

Luther, the Protestant Reformation, remind us of the important role of critique. They remind us that it’s too easy to let the gospel be coopted by power; it’s too easy to compromise to make sure the institution survives. When we remember Reformation Day, when we sing “Ein feste Burg” we are not celebrating the victory of the Protestant Reformation over the forces of evil, we are calling for reformation of ourselves and of our churches; we are calling for transformation: ecclesia semper reformanda!

 Oh, and by the way, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. Start planning your party now!


Reformation Day, October 31

On this day 495 years ago, Martin Luther either did or did not post 95 theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. Whatever the historical reality, this day is celebrated by Lutherans and many other Protestants as Reformation Day. We Anglicans are uncomfortable with it because we’re not sure we’re Protestant (The Episcopal Church removed “Protestant” from its official title some years ago). Whatever.

I preached this sermon on Reformation Sunday at Luther Memorial Church two years ago.

And because I’ve been thinking a great deal about eucharistic theology, a quotation from Luther’s Confession concerning Christ’s Supper (1528):

See, then, what a beautiful, great, marvelous thing this is, how everything meshes together in one sacramental reality. The words are the first thing, for without the words the cup and the bread would be nothing. Further, without bread and cup, the body and blood of Christ would not be there. Without the body and blood of Christ, the new testament would not be there. Without the new testament, forviveness of sins would not be there. Without forgiveness of sins, life and salvation would not be there. Thus the words first connect the bread and cup to the sacrament; bread and cup embrace the body and blood of Christ; body and blood of Christ embrace the new testament; the new testament embraces the forgiveness of sins; forgiveness of sins embraces eternal life and salvation. See, all this the words of the supper offer and give us, and we mebrace it by faith.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 37, p. 388)



How should we commemorate Reformation Day?

Well, we’re Anglican, so it’s “politically incorrect” to do so (“Protestant” was removed from the official name of the Episcopal Church some time ago). But there was a time when I was a scholar of the History of Christianity in Early Modern Europe, so I have a soft spot in my heart for it still. Franklin Wilson from Luther Memorial Church will be preaching at Grace tomorrow and we’ll sing “Ein feste Burg.”

I’ve come across several pieces on the web probing the commemorations. Lutherans have mixed feelings. Craig Schnekloth wants to bury it; Scott Allan disagrees.

Diana Butler Bass urges Protestants to recover the heart of Protestantism, which she defines as:

The heart of Protestantism is the courage to challenge injustice and to give voice to those who have no voice.  Protestantism opened access for all people to experience God’s grace and God’s bounty, not only spiritually but actually.  The early Protestants believed that they were not only creating a new church, but they were creating a new world, one that would resemble more fully God’s desire for humanity.  The original Protestant impulse was to resist powers of worldly dominion and domination in favor of the power of God’s spirit to transform human hearts and society.

That’s a bit too rosy a picture of the Protestant legacy. Whatever protest was at the heart of the early Reformation movements (and remember, they weren’t called Protestants until 1529, twelve years after Luther posted the theses) was theological, not political. Protestants cozied up to power very quickly everywhere; the only exceptions were the Anabaptists, but most scholars agree that their conversion to pacifism was a survival strategy, not inherent in the movement from the beginning. The historical examples of Protestants actually leading protest movements, movements for justice and peace, are relatively rare in the 500-year history of Protestantism–abolition, temperance, civil rights. Much more common has been and continues to be Protestantism supporting the political and economic status quo, sometimes with horrific consequences (the Peasants’ War of 1524-1525; Southern American Christians’ defense of slavery, apartheid, the Nazi rise to power).

It’s fashionable for Anglicans to discount our Protestant heritage, but we should acknowledge the crucial Protestantism had; both in the early years of the English Reformation and in shaping the Anglican ethos in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.

If all that is too confusing as you plan your Reformation Day party, Killing the Buddha offers creative tips on how to commemorate the day.