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Scholars Suggest How to Remember the Reformation

Seven scholars, pastors and musicians discuss how Protestants and Catholics can and should together observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

In 2017, churches around the world, Protestant and Catholic alike, will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Before a panel discussion on this topic at the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship, John Witvliet said, “How we mark this milestone will say as much about us, and our own sense of identity, as it does about the events of five centuries ago. Since Vatican II, there have been remarkable conversations, convergence and, increasingly, communion—at least small “c” communion—between Catholics and Protestants in a variety of contexts.” Witvliet is the director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Witvliet moderated a symposium panel on observing the Reformation. The following is edited from panelists’ written responses to these questions:

  • What is your vision for how churches (Protestant and Catholic) might commemorate the Reformation in 2017?
  • What should we avoid? What should we embrace?
  • Are there specific ways these might be reflected in our worship life?

Click on photos to read responses.

Bob Batastini Peter Choi Karin Maag
David McNutt Mark A. Noll Lisa Weaver
Joyce Ann Zimmerman

Bob BatastiniRobert J. Batastini is a retired vice president and senior editor of GIA Publications in Chicago, Illinois. He is also a composer and arranger and has served in parish music ministry for 60 years.

Vision: Not being a church historian—or a scholar of any description for that matter—my knowledge of the Reformation and the specifics surrounding it are probably in line with the average reasonably informed Christian. My strongest sense of its effect on the Christian body is most informed by the experiences of my own lifetime.

As a child, I was led to understand that I belonged to the true church, and that all other Christians had gone astray. This was symbolized by the strict caution warning that Catholics risked their spiritual well-being if they participated in the worship of a non-catholic [sic] church. This lasted until my 22nd year, when the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council was convened.

Avoid/embrace: I have long felt that Vatican II was the Roman Church doing some catching up with the Protestant Reformation. It dramatically changed the way Catholics worshiped—by introducing such "Protestant" concepts as worshiping in the language spoken by the community. It also changed the ways in which Catholics related to Protestants. The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council emphasized the common baptism of Christians as that which binds us together as the body of Christ.

In its wake, ecumenical prayer experiences became, what I today almost feel the need to label as, a fad. It was wonderful. Christians of many traditions gathered on special occasions to join in common prayer. By every measure I can personally cite, the experience succeeded in convincing a lot of Christians of varying traditions that it was not only okay to pray together, but it was actually fulfilling God’s plan. Today, almost no thinking Catholic feels restrained from participating in the worship of another denomination as a welcomed guest, although some exceptions remain.

But the fire is gone from the furnace. While it is a good thing to pray together, today we don’t seem to make much of an effort to cause it to happen on any sort of a regular basis. Ecumenical prayer seems to be reserved for special occasions.

Worship practices: I have a personal longing for somewhat regular non-denominational Christian worship. This would be similar to the way individual households within a clan gather occasionally to visit and share their kinship. These non-denominational gatherings would not supplant life in the individual households (parishes), but be in addition to regular Saturday or Sunday worship.

To dream a bit: perhaps in a rural town or city neighborhood, clergy of various traditions could work to establish a weeknight worship service. It would use common elements of song, scripture, prayer and homily. Perhaps the service would move every month to another hosting church. Already in communities throughout the country, regular Taizé prayer has sprung up, and it functions in a similar way. Taizé prayer, however, incorporates some elements that do not necessarily have as abroad appeal as might something less structured.

As John 17:21 reminds us, we Christians are joined to one another as one family in Jesus Christ by our common baptism. We desperately need to have the occasional family reunion.

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Peter ChoiPeter Choi is a pastor at City Church in San Francisco, California. He is a senior fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a member of the Newbigin Faculty at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Vision: My vision for commemorating the Reformation in 2017 is that we would recapture an old image the apostle Paul uses in several places (Eph. 4 and 1 Cor. 12): the church as an organic body growing toward maturity, which often for Paul includes unity.

Avoid/embrace: This image of a growing body may help us to avoid viewing the notion that the Reformation was a Golden Age to reclaim or return to. Sober reflection rather than nostalgia should characterize our memory of the Reformation.

At the risk of pressing the organic growth metaphor too far, Bruce Hindmarsh’s words about the young George Whitefield might be instructive here. Keep in mind that Whitefield, also known as the Grand Itinerant, was an incredibly successful, though young and precocious, revival preacher who sparked as many church conflicts as revivals. Hindmarsh helps us to remember the human side of Whitefield when he writes: “Placing some 600 pages of autobiographical prose on public record while still in one’s twenties leaves plenty of time to repent one’s mistakes.”

In the same way that a young child (and a young, successful preacher like Whitefield) has growing up to do, the Reformation legacy has had not only its own share of high points but also bouts of immaturity. Five hundred years later, we have a better view of the unintended consequences that flowed from the Reformation. Hindsight should move us to humility and even repentance on some points. There is much to regret, for instance, when we consider the impact of the Reformation on the visible unity of the church.

In light of the best assessments we can muster today about our past, the church should embrace our manifold diversity as a steppingstone to maturity. Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting we gloss over our differences. Instead, we might begin by appreciating difference not as an occasion for division, but as an opportunity to grasp the rich complexity of the church as one body. And then to use this image of the one body not simply as a sentimental wish but a mandate and, more than that, a template for reimagining and even reconstituting ourselves.

I believe this is what Jaroslav Pelikan meant when he argued, “the historical process [by which he’s referring to change & difference in Christian doctrine over time] needs to be seen by Christian theology as a medium of growth, not as a source of embarrassment.”

In this way, we might more deeply understand, or at least begin to rightly apprehend “a God who,” in the words of Willie James Jennings, “surprises us by love of differences and draws us to new capacities to imagine their reconciliation.”

Far from minimizing serious disagreements, we might begin to remap a hierarchy of beliefs and convictions where the biblical image (more than that, the teaching and, even more than that, the imperative) of unity in Christ’s body figures higher than a number of important yet speculative points of theology.

Along the same lines, Andrew Walls’ description of the Ephesian Moment of the church today might serve as an uncomfortable yet much-needed exhortation. I think he offers wisdom that deserves a place close to the center of how we mark 2017 when he writes: “We need each other’s vision to correct, enlarge, and focus our own; only together are we complete in Christ.”

Worship practices: We should practice humility and patience. Given our current awareness of breathtaking diversity and global interconnectedness in world Christianity, we might begin to see the 16th century Reformation in proper historical perspective as a northern European phenomenon. If that is the case, new questions come into focus. What can new and emerging Christian heartlands in Africa, Latin America and Asia teach us about the gospel as a cross-cultural and incarnational message that speaks in fresh ways to new times and contexts? We might be more prone to pick up a book on the history of Christianity in China or read about the life of Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Or better yet, talk to someone or go someplace outside our ordinary orbit. Theological humility may result in a posture of learning from voices in the margins that we have not traditionally accorded authority or legitimacy.

Doing continuing reformational work will require a theology of patience, rooted in honest grappling with the messiness of life together in Christian community. If Kevin Vanhoozer and Daniel Treier are correct that “evangelical theology is an aspiration, not an achievement,” we can reject the hubris of thinking we have arrived. We might see more and more the value of opening up generative space where some of our long-held assumptions are subject to reassessment, where insistence on one’s theological correctness need not be the cause of animosity or division, where we may co-exist in the tension of disagreement.

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Karin MaagKarin Maag is the director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College, one of the world’s foremost collections of works on or by John Calvin. She wrote Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva.

Vision: Anniversaries are wonderful markers that help churches reconnect to their history, but they have to be handled with care. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 is a case in point. Protestant churches should avoid triumphalism and avoid making Luther into some kind of superhero of the faith. Focusing all the attention on Luther could ignore the complex religious, social and political realities of his time and disregard others’ contributions. Furthermore, overly focusing on Luther and his achievements detracts from reflecting on the vital theological questions raised during the Reformation period. Given our sinful nature, how can we ever become faithful followers of Christ? What is the source and foundation of our faith? (Note that Sola Scriptura is not a simple answer!) What role do our deeds or our actions play in our salvation? (Again, the answers are not obvious.) These and other enduring questions are the best possible meeting ground for Protestant and Catholic churches to commemorate this anniversary.

Avoid/embrace: Protestant churches should avoid any sense of superiority. There should also be room for critique within Protestant churches about some aspects of Luther’s legacy. We need genuine repentance for our mindsets and attitudes that contribute to continued divisions in the church.

Some may not want to meet, because they fear challenging conversations or have pre-conceived notions about other confessional groups. Others may agree to meet but then simply skirt deeper, more challenging conversations. My hope is that churches from all branches of the Christian faith will embrace the opportunity to meet and exchange insights with brothers and sisters in Christ on the topics laid out above.

Worship practices: One of the best ways to engage with this anniversary may well be through music. I could imagine special worship services that highlight the ways in which different churches have shaped congregational singing from the 16th century onwards.

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David McNuttDavid W. McNutt is an associate editor at IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press. He is also a guest assistant professor of theology at Wheaton College and an ordained teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA).

Vision: As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and consider how we should commemorate this event in the life of the church, I hope this occasion will enable our understanding of Christian belief and practice in previous generations. I also hope it will encourage the church today to continually renew all aspects of its life, especially worship. The Reformation was an incredibly significant event for the church of the 16th century, but its importance is not relegated to that time. Indeed, its renewing spirit can continue to shape what it means to be the church and a disciple of Jesus Christ today.

Avoid/embrace: We should avoid the temptation to deny the real differences in belief and practice that existed—and continue to exist—between different parts of the one body of Christ, whether between Protestants and Catholics or among Protestants. Yet we should not allow these differences to define us. Ultimately, we are defined—both individually and collectively—by our relation to the triune God through the revelation of God’s grace in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, not by the particular ecclesial body to which we belong. We should also avoid the temptation to glorify the Reformation or the people involved. As much as we might commend how the Reformers, or perhaps specific Reformers, contributed to renewing the church and shaping our particular ecclesial communities, we should acknowledge that neither the Reformation nor the Reformers themselves were without fault. In so doing, we should echo one of their great emphases by giving glory to God alone.

We should embrace what the Reformation sought to do, namely, to renew the church’s theology and practice in light of scripture. We can better discern how to approach current ecclesial challenges by learning from the Reformers how to read scripture, articulate our beliefs in a particular context, serve the church amid difficulty and lead God’s people in faithful worship. Also, remember that the Reformation was not just about the church’s right belief on theological matters such as justification. As significant as such issues were—and are—the Reformation was as much, if not more, about matters of practice, including questions of ecclesial authority, how to live the Christian life and how to worship the living God. Pastors and church leaders can benefit from resources such as IVP Academic’s Reformation Commentary on Scripture project. It provides insight into how the Reformers approached practical tasks such as reading the Bible, interpreting God’s Word faithfully and leading the church in worshiping God.

Worship practices: One simple but significant way to embody the Reformation’s renewing spirit would be to set aside time and space to worship, pray, read scripture and celebrate the Lord’s Supper with Christians from other ecclesial traditions. Protestants should intentionally seek to worship with Protestants from different traditions. Protestants and Catholics (and Orthodox) should also seek to gather together for worship. While it is appropriate to worship weekly within our specific communities of faith, it is also important to live out our calling to unite as disciples of Jesus Christ. Although this raises practical questions and challenges, there is nothing quite like coming together for worship as the body of Christ. And, to my mind, there is nothing that would embody the spirit of the Reformation more than Christians gathering together to worship God.

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Mark A. NollMark A. Noll teaches history at University of Notre Dame. He wrote Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction and co-edited with Thomas Albert Howard Protestantism after 500 Years.

Vision: Reformation commemorations have always worked in two ways. Even as they focus attention on the past, they inevitably reflect preoccupations of the present. So it has gone, century after century, especially for remembering Martin Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Theses at Wittenberg in 1517. Still, other centennial observances have also prompted significant commemorations: 1483, the year of Luther’s birth; 1509, the birth of John Calvin; 1530, promulgation of the Augsburg Confession; 1563, first appearance of the Heidelberg Catechism; and still others.

Avoid/embrace: The soon arrival of 2017 offers yet another opportunity to remember what took place half a millennium ago, but also perhaps to learn something positive from how earlier commemorations played out.

  • In 1617, Europe was far gone in the fractures that historians describe as its “confessional age.” Calvinists used the anniversary to criticize Lutherans for leading church reform astray, Lutherans responded by defending the last jot and tittle that Luther had uttered in his verbose career, while Catholics sniffed in disgust at the spiritual wasteland they saw wherever Calvinists or Lutherans prevailed. Later commemorations have rarely witnessed such intense inter-confessional vitriol, but the contentions of 1617 demonstrate that “remembering the Reformation” might mean sharpening the long theological knives.
  • A different result emerged in 1983 (the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth), as also in 2009, when scholars gathered in Geneva, Seoul, Grand Rapids and other centers of Reformed civilization to celebrate John Calvin’s semi-millennium. In Germany, 1883 marked the inauguration of the great Weimar edition of Luther’s works, which has only recently been completed in 121 volumes. That editorial project set a very high bar for meticulous editorial precision, from which generations of scholars have already benefited. On a smaller scale, the Calvin commemorations of 2009 generated a welcome surge of clear-eyed scholarship on what Calvin taught, how those teachings related to “Calvinism” more generally and how Calvinism had fared in the centuries since. A stimulus for more and better scholarship has been a second result of “remembering the Reformation.”
  • A third has been less propitious. In 1817, Prussian commemoration produced a bold idealization of Deutschtum [German nationalism] as the climax of Europe’s intellectual and cultural evolution. Identifying Luther as the authentic voice of das Volk pushed theological concerns aside as the Reformer drew praise for anticipating later national greatness. A century later, Germany’s opponents in the First World War also spotlighted Luther’s legacy, only this time with judgments that chastised, rather than celebrated, the path on which Luther had placed the German-speaking peoples. In a word, commemorations of Reformation events have all too often propelled history in service to national self-congratulation or, conversely, fueled propaganda aimed at national enemies.
  • A fourth result of these commemorations, witnessed most often in the recent past, has been productive ecumenical encounters aimed at learning from the divisions of the 16th century so as to transcend those divisions. A prime instance comes from those who have traced the pre-history of the landmark 1999 joint Lutheran-Catholic declaration on justification by faith. In at least some accounts, the seeds that blossomed as that significant theological breakthrough were planted in 1980 and 1983 when leading Catholic voices, including Pope John Paul II, went out of their way to praise the Lutheran Augsburg Confession on its 450th anniversary and to say respectful things about Martin Luther on the 500th anniversary of his birth.

Worship practices: Today there are intimations that 2017 might be exploited for blatantly commercial purposes, which might represent a fifth way to remember the Reformation. (“Hoist your own stein with Brother Martin!”) The commemorations of 2017 will, however, more faithfully reflect the aspirations of all major figures from the 16th century—Catholic and Reformed as well as Lutheran—if careful scholarship and ecumenical soul-searching win out over nationalistic hubris, inter-confessional warfare or the desire to make a quick Euro.

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Lisa WeaverLisa Weaver is a doctoral candidate at the Catholic University, Washington, D.C., and an ordained pastor in the American Baptist Churches USA. She serves on the Vital Worship Grants board for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Vision: Local churches could partner with other local churches of different traditions to share in meaningful discussion about the common heritage we have as Christians. This is not an attempt to dismiss the particularities of denominations and traditions. Rather, it is to foreground what unites Christians as one body in Christ while placing in the background the particularities of belief and expression indicative of denomination and tradition. One of the simplest articulations of our common Christian heritage is found in the Bible: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Ephesians 4:4-5.) One baptism. One body. Our common baptism unites Christians as one body in Christ. In a way, the oft-heard articulation of “Protestant Church” and “Catholic Church” is theologically antithetical to the reality of all Christians comprising one body. As a result, I think there could be more unity (in both fact and spirit) if Christians focused more on being members of the body of Christ and household of faith rather than two separate churches.

Avoid/embrace: Identifying what to avoid requires individual and collective inventory of our pre-conceived notions, judgments and biases about sisters and brothers in the “other” tradition. These often find expression in misinformed statements and language that separates us. We should avoid trying to “evangelize” and “convert” the other. We should purge the need to belittle, disparage or castigate our sisters and brothers for where God has called them to live out their Christian lives and witness. Nor should we fight theological battles that serve no unifying purpose. Yet we should not avoid the difficult work of ecumenical dialogue, fellowship and worship—even though we’re tempted to retreat to the comfort of the familiar, resign our holy responsibility for working toward Christian unity and contend that it is the work of the next generation. The work is ours, and the time is now. We need to abandon our fears and our egos, along with spiritual snobbery and elitism that feeds schism and starves fellowship.

We need to embrace the holy work of unity so the body of Christ can be made manifest. We need to look one another in the eye, see one another, see the imago dei in one another and embrace one another as sister and brother. We should embrace the gifts and particularities that each tradition brings to worship in the body of Christ and witness of Christ in the world. Finally, we need to embrace the hope that we have in Christ that these things can be accomplished.

Worship practices: One way that churches can commemorate the Reformation in worship is to intentionally include language about our sisters and brothers from different Christian traditions within our liturgy. We might include in the morning/altar prayer (aka general intercessions in the Catholic tradition) explicit prayers for our sisters and brothers in the other tradition. We might plan joint “times of prayer” that bring together both traditions in corporate intercessions around common concerns. We might consider planning a prayer service that incorporates elements that reflect both traditions. I would love the celebrations to be called RE-formation celebrations—reforming our hearts, minds, attitudes and dispositions towards one another so we grow in the unity that God intends for God’s people. We are to be a people not separated by schism but united in love.

Also, a cohort of Protestant and Catholic churches in a given area could come together and plan something like “Liturgy Learning Lunches,” a series of lunchtime gatherings, or “Evening Embrace,” a series of after-work gatherings. These events would help Catholics and Protestants commit to “embracing” one another despite theological and liturgical differences as they share meals and discuss commonalities. These learning sessions could culminate in sharing liturgically in things both traditions hold in common, such as prayer and song. However, all of the above require a deep individual and collective inventory, introspection and acknowledgement of judgments and misunderstandings that would impede the aforementioned kinds of discussion and sharing. Currently, as the post-Reformation body of Christ worshiping in two separate streams of tradition, we live out the consequences of ecclesiastical decisions that predate all of us. And, at the same time, we too often (and often to our spiritual detriment) continue to live and operate out of the very judgments and misunderstandings that created the situation in the first place.

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Joyce Ann ZimmermanJoyce Ann Zimmerman is director of the Institute for Liturgical Ministry in Dayton, Ohio. She frequently facilitates workshops on liturgy, is an adjunct professor of liturgy and author of Worship with Gladness: Understanding Worship from the Heart. She serves on the Vital Worship Grants board for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Vision: While all prayer/worship has at its foundation tenets of faith/doctrine (the ancient principle, lex orandi, lex credendi), the primary purpose of prayer/worship is not to expound tenets of faith/doctrine but to give God glory, praise and thanks. One way to commemorate the Reformation in 2017 is to make a concerted effort to promote ecumenical worship around themes that are part of significant worship practices for both Protestants and Catholics. These include the power of the word of God, God’s overwhelming goodness to us, the graciousness of creation, the call to holiness, God’s abiding divine Presence and help. An ecumenical prayer/worship celebration focused on our common baptism, celebrating the reality that almost all Christian churches accept each other’s baptisms, would alert us to what we share in common, despite our doctrinal differences: our common identity as the body of Christ.

Another way to commemorate the Reformation is to include prayer for the “other” (Protestant or Catholic) in our petitions/bidding prayers at our regular Sunday worship. By focusing on prayer shared with and for each other, we acknowledge prayer as a great healing agent.

So often our regard for the “other” (Protestant or Catholic) is based on inadequate or incorrect knowledge. For example, Protestants believe that Catholics worship Mary and the saints; Catholics believe that all Protestants regard Holy Communion as merely a symbol and not truly Christ’s body and blood given for us. Both statements are incorrect and need to be greatly nuanced in conversations. Various kinds of education programs could address misconceptions about what each other accepts as true. Panels of both Protestants and Catholics could address misconceptions and encourage all of us to learn more about each other. Sermons could alert us to misconceptions and help us be more open to each other.

There is no simple, singular approach to sacred scripture, our interpretation of it or our carrying forth the good news Jesus came to teach us. Catholic and Protestant worship and doctrine have changed much over the centuries. It is good to admit this.

Avoid/embrace: The first thing to avoid is a “them against us” or a “we’re right, they’re wrong” attitude or approach to dialogue and sharing. No human institution is perfect. Circumstances and the times necessarily shape our vision and articulation of beliefs and practices. We have all made mistakes, dug in to defend our own perception of what Jesus taught, clung to practices that ought to be let go. We should also avoid acting on past prejudices and biases. False judgments easily lead to divisions, hurt and close-mindedness. Third, we should avoid bringing 16th century issues uncritically into 21st century ecumenical dialogue. Instead we should base our relationships and ecumenical dialogue on current reality, such as how we understand “sacrifice” and other terms, translate scripture and worship in the vernacular and view the church primarily as the risen presence of Christ and his baptized followers in our world today.

We should embrace all that is common to us as our primary conversation starter and basis for relationships. We all share in Christ’s mission to bring salvation to all. We need to commit ourselves to growing in the holiness to which we are called. We need to emphasize what is good and shared by us Christians, for example, a commitment to living the gospel, caring for others, regarding others as Christ would. We need to embrace the ecumenical dynamism that has been ongoing for a half century and do so with a genuine will to overcome our differences and heal divisions. We need to embrace the principle that divisions are healed when all understand that everyone must give a little to come to a common agreement. We need to internalize a vision of unity as a valued goal that is achievable. We need to embrace that the other is as good and holy as we are. Perhaps most importantly, we need to embrace openness to what is new to us. God invites us to deepen our relationship to God and others on our journey to the fullness of life.

Worship practices: First of all, we ought to be willing to critique our worship life in a sustained, ongoing and honest way. If any worship practice or language in itself is divisive or hurtful, then expunge it. Make a concerted effort to be ecumenically welcoming and inclusive in our language and practice. When practices honestly clash with tenets of faith/doctrine, we need to be sensitive yet open about it. Our differences don’t necessarily need to be divisive. We might provide our congregants with ecumenical examples of daily personal prayers and encourage prayers for all who share a common baptismal identity. We might include the Our Father or Apostles’ Creed at our formal worship and remind congregants that Protestants and Catholics alike share these.

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