As part of the lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, an ecumenical working party of Lutherans and Catholics has been planning a program of projects and events to jointly commemorate the occasion. One project is a series of articles, written by Lutheran and Catholic authors from around Australia, to be published in both Lutheran and Catholic publications. The third article in our series of six is by Rev Dr Stephen Pietsch, lecturer in pastoral theology and homiletics at Australian Lutheran College, Adelaide.
Now, please do not get the wrong idea! I fully intend to mark this event and give thanks for aspects of it. I am enthusiastic about Luther and his legacy to the church. But I will not be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
For many centuries the western church has been divided and its catholic and apostolic integrity has been fractured. Its testimony to the world has been damaged. On the Lutheran side, some have fashioned a ‘hero-protestant’ Luther, who ‘refounded’ Christianity. The Reformation was seen as a renewal almost as profound as Pentecost.
On the Catholic side, Luther has been seen as the ‘wild boar who was let loose in the vineyard’, who brought sectarian schism and mayhem not only to the church, but to all of society.
Both mythologies are well off the mark. It is now widely realised that the tragic split of the church was neither inevitable nor necessary. In his fascinating 1996 article, The Catholic Luther, Luther scholar David Yeago observes:
…the Reformation schism was brought about … by contingent human choices in a confused historical context defined less by clear and principled theological argument (though that of course was present) than by a peculiar and distinctively sixteenth-century combination of overheated and ever-escalating polemics, cold-blooded Realpolitik, and fervid apocalyptic dreaming.
Human weakness resulted in what might have been a true reformation becoming a deformation.
So what can be salvaged from this terrible separation? I believe God has already begun his healing work. Common theological understanding is slowly being rebuilt through receptive ecumenism, dialogue and joint participation between Catholics and Lutherans in Australia and throughout the world.
What has come to light for Catholics and Lutherans is shared joy; joy in Jesus Christ and his reconciling grace. The writers of the joint Lutheran-Catholic document entitled From Conflict to Communion observe:
To this joy also belongs a discerning, self-critical look at ourselves, not only in our history, but also today. We Christians have certainly not always been faithful to the gospel; all too often we have conformed ourselves to the thought and behavioural patterns of the surrounding world. Repeatedly, we have stood in the way of the good news of the mercy of God.
It is a time not for celebration, but for humble, sober and hope-filled repentance. Ironically, the first of Luther’s 95 Theses begins with these words: ‘When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance’.
Perhaps, as we come to this 500th commemoration, this word from Luther can serve as a pointer to the healing of Catholic-Lutheran division.
This feature story comes from The Lutheran August 2016. Visit the website to find out more about The Lutheran or to subscribe.