The Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over? (II)
The 2013 document, signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in preparation for the 2017 Reformation anniversary, indicates the goal of an ecumenical trajectory for the two church bodies.
10 NOVEMBER 2017 · 09:35 CET
Read the part I of this article here.
We will limit our critical evaluation of Schirrmacher-Johnson’s article to two main issues: “Is the Reformation Over?” and “How are we saved? - Justification by Faith Alone.”
1) Is the Reformation Over?
As stated above, Schirrmacher-Johnson propose seven statements that they believe the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement affirms or assumes. The rest of their article then seeks to show why each of these statements is false.
The first of their summary statements is the following:
A major international discussion is underway in which some serious theologians say that the Reformation is over.[i]
Schirrmacher-Johnson explain part of their reasoning for why they believe this is not true:
We know of no major leader in the Catholic Church, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), or the World Council of Churches (WCC) who believes this.
Their framing of the issue is a classic red herring, which distracts attention from the real issue. What was the actual wording of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement?
After centuries of controversies and strained relationships between Evangelicals and Catholics, the ecumenical friendliness of recent times has created ripe conditions for some leaders in both camps to claim that the Reformation is all but over – that the primary theological disagreements that led to the rupture in Western Christianity in the sixteenth century have been resolved.[ii]
Several issues should be clarified at this point:
1) After centuries of persecution and vilification of Evangelical churches as cults and sects (which Francis has recently apologized for), the Roman Catholic Church has largely changed its aggressive tone and behavior.
It is likely that Schirrmacher-Johnson would acknowledge this point.
2) There is a growing ecumenical friendliness over the last half century, particularly as a result of the Second Vatican Council.
Again Schirrmacher-Johnson would likely agree and have described the recent shift toward ecumenical affability.
3) The “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement explains that some Evangelical and Catholic leaders “claim that the Reformation is all but over.”[iii]
This is where the problem begins. Schirrmacher-Johnson assert that they do “not know exactly what the statement that ‘the Reformation is over’ means.”[iv]
However, immediately after the Statement notes that “some leaders in both camps” have claimed “that the Reformation is all but over” it provides a definition: “that the primary theological disagreements that led to the rupture in Western Christianity in the sixteenth century have been resolved.”[v] The Statement clearly explains exactly what it means by the phrase “the Reformation is over.”
We are left with Schirrmacher-Johnson’s distortion of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s thesis. Schirrmacher-Johnson deny that “A major international discussion is underway in which some serious theologians say that the Reformation is over.”[vi]
At one point Schirrmacher-Johnson also seem to imply that “major leaders” from some of their favorite institutions should be involved for it to constitute a “major international discussion.” [vii]
Observe their false summary of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s claim. The Statement asserts that the friendly ecumenical conditions have led “some leaders in both camps to claim that the Reformation is all but over.”[viii] Schirrmacher-Johnson inflate the statement from “some leaders” to a “major international discussion is underway” by some “serious theologians.”[ix]
Many of the leaders who have been significant in this discussion, and are briefly mentioned below, are historians, bishops, pastors, editors, writers and even Pope Francis himself. Most of the leaders who are actually engaging in this ecumenical process are not ivory tower academic theologians. Think just of Francis. Before becoming Pope, Francis never published a book of theology, and few would describe him as a philosopher and theologian as his two predecessors certainly were. But wouldn’t the Pope be considered a major leader? Schirrmacher-Johnson’s inflation from “some leaders” to “serious theologians” and listing specific organizations is a distortion of the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s more limited assertion.
But it is still important to evaluate if the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement’s assertion is accurate. Are “some leaders in both camps” claiming that “the Reformation is all but over”? This is an empirical question with an empirical answer.
“Is the Reformation over?” is not a novel question, as Schirrmacher-Johnson believe. Since the publication of the book Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom in 2005, the question has been debated and has generated a lot of interest. Although Noll and Nystrom acknowledge that certain issues still divide Evangelicals and Catholics, they conclude, “If it is true ... that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over.”[x]
Richard Neuhaus, the founder and long-time editor of the influential journal First Things, was a persistent advocate for the idea that the Reformation is (or should be) over. Neuhaus converted to the Catholic Church from Lutheranism, and like most zealous new converts, was very interested in trying to help his fellow Protestants find the path home to Rome. During his time as the editor of First Things, the majority of relevant articles and editorials reflected his strategy to identify and remove roadblocks to a closer relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals.
Neuhaus himself was also the co-founder and dominant leader of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) project, which issued a series of statements seeking to articulate areas of common conviction between Evangelicals and Catholics. Twenty years ago, Evangelicals and Catholics together addressed the question of justification in the statement, “The Gift of Salvation.” ECT participant and Evangelical leader Timothy George was effusive in his praise of “The Gift of Salvation”: “We rejoice that our Roman Catholic interlocutors have been able to agree with us that the doctrine of justification set forth in this document agrees with what the Reformers meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”[xi]
Neuhaus summarized the issue:
The 16th century Reformation claim was that the doctrine of justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls. The Joint Declaration between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican, plus the statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), “The Gift of Salvation,” claim that church-dividing differences on justification have been resolved. If so, the title of the book by evangelicals Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over?, naturally follows.[xii]
Neuhaus wrote this in the leading English-language journal on religion in public life 12 years ago. Recently, Presbyterian Peter Leithart has also advocated the idea that the Reformation is over in both a series of articles and his book, The End of Protestantism.
On a more global scale, the 2013 document “From Conflict to Communion. Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017”, signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in preparation for the 2017 Reformation anniversary, indicates the goal of an ecumenical trajectory for the two church bodies. “From Conflict to Communion” is a summary statement that envisions overcoming the theological and ecclesiastical disagreements originating from the Reformation. While acknowledging the reality of existing points of difference between Catholics and Lutherans, the document agrees with the definition offered by the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement that the “primary theological disagreements that led to the rupture in Western Christianity in the sixteenth century have been resolved”[xiii] For example we can see this emphasis on the idea that the primary theological disagreements of the 16th century have been resolved in paragraphs 1, 2, 25, and 239 of “From Conflict to Communion.”[xiv]
There has also been a massive change in Pope Francis’ own attitudes and beliefs about the Reformation over the last three decades. In 1985, Francis published a lecture on the history of the Jesuit order in which he depicted Martin Luther as a “heretic,” John Calvin as a “heretic” and “schismatic” who brought about “Calvinist squalor” in society, and Protestantism as the source of the evils of the modern world including nihilism, relativism, and general cultural decay.[xv]
But now Pope Francis explains Luther’s work in a positive way, celebrates the Reformation, and, as Schirrmacher and Johnson admit, has said that “‘Luther’s Protest’ is over”.[xvi] According to Schirrmacher and Johnson, at the Lund ceremony, an important ecumenical gathering which celebrated the Reformation, both Catholics and Evangelicals prayed together, “Thanks be to you, O God, for the many guiding theological and spiritual insights that we have all received through the Reformation.”[xvii]
Admirably, some Catholics are open and honest about this change in understanding. Catholic Herald published a fascinating article in July 2015 entitled, “The Pope’s Great Evangelical Gamble,” to explain what the Pope is doing.
Somewhere in Pope Francis’s office is a document that could alter the course of Christian history. It declares an end to hostilities between Catholics and Evangelicals and says the two traditions are now ‘united in mission because we are declaring the same Gospel’. The Holy Father is thinking of signing the text in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, alongside Evangelical leaders representing roughly one in four Christians in the world today.
Francis is convinced that the Reformation is already over. He believes it ended in 1999, the year the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint declaration on justification, the doctrine at the heart of Luther’s protest.[xviii]
The article explains the history of the relationship between Francis and Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer, which began when Francis was still in Buenos Aires. Francis became Palmer’s “spiritual father” and discouraged him from converting to Catholicism so he could be a more effective “bridge-builder” between Evangelicals and Catholics. Once he became Pope, Francis called Palmer to Rome and appointed him as an official “Apostolic Representative for Christian Unity.” In this Vatican role, Palmer wasn’t hesitant to confront Evangelicals about holding on to their Protestant identity: “It’s like saying you’re racist even though you’re living in a country that no longer has an Apartheid system in place.”[xix] It is worth repeating to note that Pope Francis’ appointed “Apostolic Representative for Christian Unity” compared the Reformation to the South African Apartheid and Protestants to racists in his efforts to shame Evangelicals to return to Rome.
Pope Francis sent Palmer to represent him at a conference of Evangelical leaders. Palmer challenged the audience: “Brothers and sisters, Luther’s protest is over. Is yours?”[xx] Palmer then showed the conference of Evangelical leaders a video he recorded on his iPhone of Pope Francis’ personal greeting to them: “Let’s give each other a spiritual hug and let God complete the work that He has begun. And this is a miracle, the miracle of unity has begun.”[xxi]
It should be obvious by now that some Evangelical and Catholic leaders are describing the Reformation as “all but over.” This is exactly what the Statement claims.
Let us be clear. This does not mean Francis is operating in bad faith or was dishonest. Francis appears to genuinely believe that the 1999 statement has largely bridged the divide between Catholics and Evangelicals, that the 500-year separation between Evangelicals and Catholics can be healed now, and that “the miracle of unity has begun.”[xxii]
But Schirrmacher-Johnson cannot say that some Evangelical and Catholic leaders are not claiming that “the Reformation is all but over.” Both Evangelical and particularly Catholic leaders - including the Pope’s official “Apostolic Representative for Christian Unity” - have been arguing that Luther’s protest is over and Evangelicals should no longer identify as Protestants.
We have established – as the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement asserts – that “some leaders in both camps have claimed that the Reformation is all but over – that the primary theological disagreements that led to the rupture in Western Christianity in the sixteenth century have been resolved.”[xxiii] We next need to briefly summarize why the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement argues that the Reformation is not over. The Statement gives three reasons why profound differences remain between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics:
1) Evangelicals are convinced the Bible is the supreme authority,
2) Evangelicals disagree with the Roman Catholic theological method, and
3) Evangelicals believe that justification through faith alone is still a profound division between the two groups.
We will summarize the first two points briefly here, and the third on justification through faith alone will be addressed in the next section of this paper.
The “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement explains that the Protestant Reformation was a call to “recover the authority of the Bible over the church” and clarified that Roman Catholics believe “the Bible is only one source of authority, but it does not stand alone, nor is it the highest source.”[xxiv]
This is enormously important, because from a Catholic perspective, as the “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement clarifies, “tradition precedes the Bible, is bigger than the Bible, and is not revealed through Scripture alone but through the ongoing teaching of the Church and its current agenda, whatever that may be.”[xxv] Within the Catholic worldview, an idea that may have little to no biblical justification can emerge from the piety and practice of the Catholic Church and over centuries grow in importance and popularity. Like a missile with no self-corrective mechanism, a false idea can be launched and gain growing acceptance over centuries of history if there is no authoritative Bible to correct it. The “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement explained it this way:
The Roman Catholic theological method is powerfully illustrated by Rome’s promulgation of three dogmas (i.e., binding beliefs) with no biblical support whatsoever. They are the 1854 dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception, the 1870 dogma of papal infallibility, and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption.
These dogmas do not represent biblical teaching, and in fact clearly contradict it. Within the Catholic system, this does not matter because it does not rely on the authority of Scripture alone. It may take two millennia to formulate a new dogma, but because Scripture does not have the final say, the Catholic Church can eventually embrace such novelties.[xxvi]
These novel dogmas, which from a Roman Catholic perspective are mandatory for every Christian to believe, are shocking to Evangelicals because they are not found in the Bible. However, Catholics hold to the dogma that Mary was preserved from sin with the same conviction as the belief that Jesus was fully God and fully man. There is no biblical justification for this innovative idea, but this does not really matter from the Catholic perspective because Catholic theology comes also from the tradition and experience of the church.
What is the result? The Statement explains, “Because Scripture does not have the final say, Catholic doctrine and practice remains open-ended, and therefore confused at its very core.”[xxvii] If these Catholic dogmas can be created with no connection to the Bible more than 1800 years later, what new non-biblical doctrine is going to be proclaimed in the next decade, the next century, or the one after that?
As should be clear from this brief survey, the Reformation is not over, and in fact the doctrinal divide between Evangelicals and Catholics has actually gotten wider over the last 500 years.
So how can leaders today honestly believe that the Reformation is over? Their argument hinges on the “1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ) signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
Schirrmacher and Johnson explain that this is just what Pope Francis believes:
What the Pope actually said was that “Luther’s protest” was over and, by this, he clearly meant what he stated elsewhere, that, that he fully supports the definition of justification that was agreed upon between the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican in 1999.[xxviii]
The following section of the paper will briefly evaluate the JDDJ within the larger context of Evangelical conviction on how we are justified by faith alone.
Leonardo De Chirico is the pastor of Breccia di Roma and Vice Chairman of the Italian Evangelical Alliance. He also is the Director of the Reformanda Initiative.
Greg Pritchard is President of Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL) and Director of the European Leadership Forum.
[i] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[ii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[iii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[iv] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[v] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[vi] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[vii] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[viii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[ix] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement; Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
[x] Noll, M. and Nystrom, C. (2005). Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Baker, p. 232. See Scott Manetsch’s detailed review of the Noll and Nystrom book in his essay “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations.” Themelios 36.2 (2011): 185–202. See his assessment of the primary theological convictions that need to be addressed as part of answering this question “Is the Reformation over?” and in particular his use of a close examination of John Calvin as a primary Reformer who clarified the many issues dividing Catholics and Protestants.
[xi] George, T. (1997 December) Evangelicals and Catholics Together: A New Initiative. Christianity Today, p. 35.
[xii] Neuhaus, R.J. (2005, December 26). "The 16th century..." First Things, Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2005/12/rjn-theth-century
[xiii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xiv] From Conflict to Communion. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/lutheran-fed-docs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_2013_dal-conflitto-alla-comunione_en.html.
[xv] Referenced in De Chirico, Leonardo. (2014, June 23). 83. What Francis Really Thinks of the Reformation (and of Calvin in Particular). Vatican Files. Retrieved from http://vaticanfiles.org/2014/06/83-what-francis-really-thinks-of-the-reformation-and-of-calvin-in-particular/.
[xvi] Schirrmacher and Johnson, “Let the Reformation Continue!”
[xvii] Schirrmacher and Johnson, “Let the Reformation Continue!”
[xviii] Coppen, Luke. (2015, July 23). < “The Pope’s great Evangelical gamble.” Catholic Herald. Retrieved from http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/issues/july-24th-2015/the-popes-great-evangelical-gamble/.
[xix] Coppen, “The Pope’s great Evangelical gamble.”
[xx] The Protest is Over… No More Protestant Church. (2014, February 26). <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxup_QnfSHg>, minute 4:11.
[xxi] “2014 SWBC – Trip to the Vatican” video. (2014, July 2). Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zihTk2YAOj4. Pope Francis’ message is translated from Italian at 37:10 in the video.
[xxii][xxii] “2014 SWBC – Trip to the Vatican” video. (2014, July 2). Kenneth Copeland Ministries. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zihTk2YAOj4. Pope Francis’ message is translated from Italian at 37:10 in the video.
[xxiii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xxiv] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xxv] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xxvi] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xxvii] “Is the Reformation Over?” Statement
[xxviii] Schirrmacher and Johnson, Let the Reformation Continue!
Published in: Evangelical Focus - Features - The Need for Clarification: Is the Reformation Over? (II)