What Does the Reformation Mean for Us?
A Roundtable Discussion
Remembering the Reformation and the Problem of Christian Disunity
Thomas Albert Howard   |   all discussants

In A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens ruminates: “A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is ... that profound secret and mystery to every other.” The Psalmist writes, capturing the mystery of our being, “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”

While both passages refer to generic “man,” permit me to borrow their language and ask: who, 500 years after the fact, is “that profound secret and mystery” who we know as Martin Luther, and why and how should we be mindful of him as we mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?

It’s a difficult question, because both Luther and the Reformation beg enormous questions. Protestantism, it should be remembered, has not only been credited for the recovery of religious truth or blamed for church divisions, but in the eyes of historians has been seen as the cause of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, nationalism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, and so much else. As the historian Brad Gregory has observed, “What transpired five centuries ago continues today to profoundly influence the lives of everyone not only in Europe and North America but all around the world, whether or not they are Christians or indeed religious believers of any kind” (Gregory, 1).

In light of such complexity, and given Valpo’s own thick connection to Luther: who, again, is Martin Luther and how should we be mindful of him at this quincentennial moment? I’ve pondered the question quite a bit lately, especially in a short volume that I wrote on the history of Reformation commemorations (Howard). And what I have for you, I’ll organize in three categories: the bad, the good, and the hopeful. And as a guide for my remarks permit me to invoke the eighth commandment and Luther’s gloss on it in the Shorter Catechism: “Thou shalt not bear false witness” should be the starting point when a church-related academic community remembers events or people in the past; and as Luther glosses: one should even give one the benefit of the doubt and “not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame.”

But not bearing false witness also means remembering the bad. In light of many past highly triumphalist, uncritical remembrances of the Reformation, I think it is incumbent upon us soberly to take stock of the darker sides of the Reformation. The list is well-known to scholars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: vitriolic polemics, civil wars, destructive iconoclasm, confession-inspired executions, and wars of religions that ravaged Europe and were exported abroad by European missionaries. We all might do well at this moment to remember the Swiss humanist Sebastian Castellio’s brief, arresting line: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man.”

And yes, we should remember Luther’s inflammatory rhetoric against peasants, spiritualists, Anabaptists, Ottoman Turks (Muslims), and, not least, Jews. In light of the Holocaust and ongoing tensions in Christian-Jewish relations, it is particularly necessary, I think, to soberly acknowledge Luther’s tract On the Jews and their Lives, in which Luther recommends: “to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and Christendom….I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”

There is also Luther’s escalation of rhetoric against the Pope as the Anti-Christ—rhetoric readily reciprocated from the Catholic side—that has poisoned Protestant-Catholic relations for centuries. For both Catholic and Protestants today, I recommend the theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ line that “if we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate [the] Reformation.” In our own tolerant age, we easily forget how nasty past confessional polemics actually were. Permit me to remind us by quoting the title for a lecture series established at (then-Protestant) Harvard University in the eighteenth century. The series was to be devoted to “the detecting & convicting & exposing the Idolatry of the Romish church, Their Tyranny and Usurpations, damnable heresies, fatal Errors, abominable Superstitions, and other crying Wickednesses in their high Places; and Finally that the Church of Rome is that mystical Babylon, That Man of Sin, that apostate Church spoken of in the new Testament.”

But not bearing false witness also means not interpreting historical actors exclusively through the lenses of their most reprehensible words, of taking the easier path of denunciation over the more difficult one of discrimination. On this point, permit me to appeal to the Roman virtue: pietas, loyalty to one’s kin, a duty and devotion to the past, our past, Valpo’s past, that, while sensitive to the negative, does due diligence in seeking out the positive, the praiseworthy. Any memory of Luther and the Reformation—among Protestants especially but others too—that only deplores the blemishes—that in fear of the bathwater of traditionalism throws out tradition too—does a disservice to both past and present. So, yes, let J. S. Bach be praised in 2017. Protestants, and Lutherans in particular, have good reason to delight in the memory of many things: the sixteenth-century recovery of a theology of the laity; the ordinary saints in the teaching of the “priesthood of all believers”; in truly extraordinary hymnody; in the searching catholicity of the Augsburg Confession (1530); in the educational legacy of figures such as Philip Melanchthon; in Luther’s dual emphasis on the free and serving nature of the devout life; and, not least, in Luther and other reformers’ accent on call or calling (vocatio, Beruf)—an idea that has proven enormously fruitful in recent years for re-envisioning church-related higher education—particularly here at Valpo.

Finally, my last category: the hopeful. Any Christian body or institution commemorating the Reformation in 2017 ought to reckon with the far-reaching implications of the Ecumenical Movement of the twentieth century and the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), along with Pope John Paul II’s historic encyclical on Church unity, Ut unum sint (1995). The topic of ecumenism or Christian unity is of vital importance for Christianity today—and especially to Protestant bodies, who, sadly, have made an art form of sowing divisions, whether over doctrine, practice, race, or other issues. Where “two or three have gathered in My name” often means two or three separate churches, each persuaded of its own righteousness and of their former co-religionists’ dereliction.

But the imperative of Christian unity flows directly from the words of Christ in the Gospel of John: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). And also from the pen of Paul: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that . . . there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose (I Corinthians 1:10).

What is more, fraternal relations among Christians, Scripture and church tradition hold, ought to be a model for human cooperation and good will in general. Regrettably, Christian practice has seldom lived up to Christian principle on this score, and, in fact, the latter has often gravely contradicted the former. But remembrance of the Reformation in 2017 just might provide impetus for narrowing the gap between the two, if the right conciliatory habits of the heart and mind are cultivated. How so?

It is theologically important to regard the Reformation in historical terms and not in theological ones alone. As the best scholarship on the sixteenth century makes clear, the Reformation occurred as a bewilderingly complex, confusing set of historical events, not as a checklist of doctrinal principles that dropped from the sky after 1517. Multiple problems come from looking at the Reformation era strictly from a doctrinal or theological standpoint. They include a temptation for partisans to regard the conclusions and condemnations from this era as timeless and above criticism. They also encourage over-simplified stories of this period’s place in church history that conveniently lends credence to one’s own religious standpoint. By contrast, an honest appraisal of the contingency and messiness, the unexpected sources and ironic outcomes, of the Reformation—something too often overlooked in past commemorations—might help one step back, gain perspective, and regard the conclusions of this era as important, to be sure, but not necessarily set in stone. Christians confess Christ and Him crucified, not Luther and him pedestalized.

Attention to the historical accidents of the Reformation—particularly attention to the fact that many of the condemnations and doctrinal statements of this era, whether Protestant or Catholic, issued from a highly propagandistic, polemical, and politicized atmosphere—has been one of the key factors allowing for significant ecumenical progress in recent years. With a more sensitive approach to history, divided Christians today have been creating areas of common ground where none seemed to exist beforehand. Taking stock together and repenting of painful memories, not historical ignorance, or affected amnesia, marks out the royal, arduous road toward unity, according to Pope John Paul II in Ut unum sint:

[T]he commitment to [Christian Unity] must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to re-examine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today.

For a concrete example of what this might entail, we might consider the path laid down by the Lutheran-Mennonite dialogue, whose first-ever, jointly-written history of Lutheran-Anabaptist relations in the sixteenth century paved the way for a public declaration of repentance and request for forgiveness on the part of the Lutheran World Federation in 2010, which was met with a full declaration of forgiveness on the part of the Mennonite World Conference. As the Lutheran-Mennonite joint report movingly recorded: “The past cannot be changed, but we can change the way the past is remembered in the present. This is our hope. Reconciliation does not only look back into the past; rather it looks into a common future.”

The prospects of one’s imminent death, Samuel Johnson famously said, “wonderfully concentrates the mind.” The same might be said of preparing for, reflecting on, and observing a major commemorative date—such as October 31, 2017. To be sure, there is something naggingly arbitrary about large centennial numbers such as 500. But why not make a virtue of necessity? Insofar as they have the capacity to focus attention on the past that is inevitably constitutive of our present, marking them has the potential to foster reflection and self-examination and—with respect to painful and divisive memories—perhaps change for the better “the way the past is remembered in the present.”

Sadly, this potential has not always been realized at past anniversaries and centennials, as I can attest. Instead, partisan, xenophobic, and narrowly time-bound concerns too often have prevailed. True enough. But the past is not necessarily prologue to the present, and, therefore, equipped with retrospective insight and the virtue of hope, one might be forgiven for believing that this time ‘round, now in 2017, that things might be different …that unity will ultimately prevail over division, trust over fear, and, not least, love over hate.

Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard is professor of history and the humanities and holder of the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. His recent publications include God and the Atlantic: America, Europe, and the Religious Divide (2011), and The Pope and the Professor: Pius IX, Ignaz von Dollinger, and the Quandary of the Modern Age (2017).

Works Cited

Gregory, Brad S. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Cambridge: the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.

Howard, Thomas Albert.  Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Luther, Martin. The Shorter Catechism.

Luther, Martin. On the Jews and their Lies, accessed at http://www.awitness.org/books/luther/luther_jews/15_treat.html (31 October 2017).

Hauerwas, Stanley. Sermon on Reformation Sunday, http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/10/stanley-hauerwas-on-reformation-sunday/ (accessed on 31 October 2017).

John Paul II, Ut Unam Sint (1995).


Read more from other Roundtable participants:

Brian T. Johnson: Setting the Stage
Ronald K. Rittgers: Loving the Unlovely
Alissa Kretzmann: An Encounter with Grace
David King: Freedom Under the Cross
Nura Esther Zaki: Honoring Our Heritage
David Rojas Martínez: The Chapel of the Resurrection as a Pilgrimage Site
Katie Benjamin: Screwups and Saints
Amelia Schroeder: Moving Beyond Disagreements


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