Celebrating Reformation?

Celebrating the Reformation?

By Neville Callam/ General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance

Some people regard the 16th century reformation as one of the great irruptions in history that had deleterious consequences for the visible unity of the church and wonder whether it should be celebrated.  They argue that those who shared in the doctrinal disagreements of the day felt convinced they had discovered the mind of Christ around the matters that lay at the heart of the controversy. On account of this, they were steadfast in holding to their convictions, whatever the cost.

On the one hand, Martin Luther, a former Roman Catholic monk, spoke against works-righteousness and trumpeted, with fierce determination and insuperable courage, the doctrine of the primacy of grace. Salvation, he said, was not to be understood as the result of human merit.

On the other hand, the Council of Trent, convened by Pope Paul III in 1542, issued its own declaration: “Faith is the beginning of human salvation … without which it is impossible to please God… Faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites one perfectly with Christ, nor makes one a living member of his body.” A conventional reading of the statements of Luther and the Council regards them as expressions of a classic doctrinal disagreement.

How often do protagonists in heated argument fail to hear each other’s claim clearly? Often, it is only after much time has elapsed that those examining great debates over matters of faith are able to take a careful look at the issues that caused division and gain a clearer perspective on what often found expression with the aid of acerbic language.

We owe a debt of gratitude to scholars of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation who revisited the arguments employed in what has been called the continental reformation. Much time needs to be spent studying the result of their work that culminated on October 31, 1999, in their signing and issuing the Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith (http://www.cin.org/users/james/files/jddj.htm).

The Declaration does not claim that all the thorny theological problems debated at the time of the reformation have been settled. The very format of the Declaration makes clear that certain issues remain for ongoing dialogue with the goal of achieving full consensus. However, anyone who reads the Declaration closely will notice the extent to which Catholics and Lutherans say they agree on some basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification. Let the Declaration speak:

Together, we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works…

We confess that persons are justified by faith in the gospel apart from works prescribed by the law… We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also.

The framers of the Declaration make the amazing claim that their “common way of listening to the word of God in Scripture … led [them] to … new insights” and they conclude that “the remaining differences [around their understanding of the doctrine of justification] are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” Since they signed theDeclaration in Augsburg, Germany, many have praised the achievement; others have disputed the claims made in the agreement and still others have retreated from an earlier enthusiastic approval of the agreement itself.

Not so the churches of the World Methodist Council. After careful study of the document, they decided in a meeting in Seoul, Korea, in July 2006, to associate themselves with the affirmations made in the Declaration. The Methodists affirmed “the common understanding of justification as it is outlined in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification … corresponds to Methodist doctrine.”

On October 30, some churches, including some Baptists, will mark Reformation Sunday. If we still maintain that observance, have we taken carefully into account the outcome of many years of patient dialogue that yielded the Joint Declaration and considered how to nuance the presentation of the issues of the Reformation in the light of this development? Or do we resolve that, because it was a quest for faithfulness to the Gospel that led to the breakdown of visible church unity, the reformation should still be observed?

© Baptist World Alliance

October 28, 2011