Two days ago was Reformation Day (and Halloween, of course, but that’s less interesting), and I never did get around to writing anything or throwing in my token of celebration. So I’m taking up a different topic on this later day: the aftermath of the Reformation. I want to offer a few thoughts on the way the Reformation has turned out and what lies ahead. Specifically, I want to highlight some of what I see as the good, the bad, and the hopeful.
- Yay for the abolishment of indulgence sales! Many Catholics took Luther’s critiques to heart. Indulgences still exist, but as more of a formal relic than they did, and they are no longer sold for money and don’t exploit the poor. And of course this whole nonsense has never been a part of the Protestant churches which sprung from the Reformation. By Biblical standards, this was clearly one of the worst and most reprehensible problems with the medieval Catholic church.
- Yay for the rejection of advanced Mariology! I’m not going to say that the official Catholic dogma technically transgresses into idolatry, but in any case I think the fixation on Mary in Catholic theology goes far beyond what is Biblically warranted. The accumulations of doctrines like her immaculate conception and assumption are painful for me to even contemplate. Mary was certainly a good example and should be remembered as such, and she was certainly blessed with a very unique role in redemptive history, but I’m happy that Protestantism is not concerned with thoughts of how Mary could stay a virgin forever, be taken body and soul to heaven, and be preserved from sin through the entirety of her life.
- Yay for the rejection of independent, created grace and human righteousness! While I disagree with many of my Protestant brethren on the precise way that Catholicism went wrong on these issues and the exact way of a Biblical response, the Catholic system, especially in its medieval days, did have serious problems. We depend on Christ alone at every step. Grace is not created into us in some way of generated habits of righteousness. We do not have any hold over God’s grace; it is not an object which can be put in us and which we can then manipulate for better or worse by our wills. The union we share with Christ, by which we are righteous, is personal and alien and Spirit-ually connected at every moment by nature.
- Yay for the rejection of papal and magisterial authority! Whatever role Scripture ought rightly to play in relation to tradition, reason, and experience, the idea that any infallible doctrinal authority might be placed in the hands of a vicar of Christ of a single body of scholars is simply foreign to the Kingdom of God in Christ. In addition to the formal problem of whether such authority is legitimate, much of the doctrine they have propagated from that authority is problematic.
- Yay for the collapse of church/state unity! While the original Reformers continued to unite church and state, it was nonetheless the overall movements begun with the Reformation which eventually toppled this destructive practice. We now (particularly in Baptist circles) strongly resist the idea the Church should make such use of the powers of this age, and even the Catholic Church has come to understand this.
- Boo for the divisions in Christ’s body! While I am glad for the Reformation, and I don’t think we can or should pursue institutional unity between Catholic and Protestant churches at this point in history, I hate the way so many people on each side (especially ours) condemn those on the other. We have serious disagreements that make full unity impossible, but it is to our shame if we refuse to at least be united in love, good works, and our witness to the world and so divide Christ’s Body. (Because, as I have written on multiple occasions before, I don’t believe Catholics are heretics.)
- Boo for the reintroduction of created grace in Protestant theology! After the Reformers rejected so forcefully the idea that God actually creates an independently operating grace in the believer which he can use and manage on his own, modern theologies of regeneration tend to reproduce precisely this error.
- Boo for replacement of magisterium with confessions! Confessions are important, even vital, to establishing certain doctrinal standards and maintaining boundaries of unity. But they are not infallible, and there is not one single confession from the Reformation or any other context which has no errors, no shortcomings, or no room for reformulation (maybe reformation!) as the Church marches on. Yet in many circles, primarily Reformed ones, the classic confessions (particularly the Westminster Confession) are treated as absolutely authoritative. Sure, the people who do this admit they are subservient to Scripture, but they act naively as though any confession repeats univocally the truth of God revealed through Scripture, and thus they create a de facto replacement for the Holy Tradition which so repels them from Catholicism.
- So much work has been done on the topic of justification in the past century (or centuries) that I truly believe a unified doctrine could be worked out, given sufficient effort, in the next century. That will depend on willingness and cooperation, but I believe the theological and exegetical work necessary to do this has already been accomplished. A unified doctrine of justification accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and the Orthodox is a goal visible on the horizon of the Church’s future, if we just reach out and take it.
- Despite the many advances since the Reformation, it is not truly over. Much work still needs to be done, both in places where the Reformation never really took root (like Italy and many South American regions) and in places where people are as Reformed as can be. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda secundum verbi Dei: “the church is Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” The Reformation will, in a certain sense, never be finished even if we one day reach some glorious reunification of a purified Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox Church. Until Christ comes, we will always need to reevaluate, criticize, destroy, rebuild, repackage, rediscover, and relearn how to respond, both theologically and practically, to the truth of the Word of God spoken by the Spirit. Fortunately, I see great evidence that this work is ongoing and will be quite fruitful.
- In the near future, I have hope we may see more interdenominational cooperation between conservative Christians of all traditions as the West becomes increasingly hostile in culture and law to orthodox Christian values and ways of life. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox will all need to work together to do the work of the Kingdom and sustain our Christian witness in the coming dark ages, and I am convinced that many, if not all, will rise to the challenge and make the Church appear more united that it has in a long time.