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I expect that by October here on The Twelve–and all over the place–we will be writing and reading many’a post on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Half-a-millennium is nothing to sniff at and represents nearly a quarter of church history so it makes sense that this will be treated as something of a big deal. Everything from scholarly conferences to more pop level worship celebrations are in the works. Here at Calvin Seminary we have at least a couple of events planned for October, including a one-day preaching conference to which I have invited my friend Gregory Heille, OP, to reflect on preaching in Catholic and Protestant settings across the last 500 years and especially what is happening in the current day. (I recently noted to Greg that Calvin Seminary just turned 140 years old recently. He smiled wryly and noted that his Order of Preachers just turned 800. Historical perspective is so helpful!)
But when inviting Greg to come, I reminded myself to present the occasion accurately. I mean, if I am going to invite a Roman Catholic brother to a conference, I am not certain that telling him we are “celebrating” the Reformation is the kindest or best way to put it. Can we “celebrate” one of the most severe fractures in the unity of the Church? Even if you agree that biblically and doctrinally Luther had to do what he did, it remains true that the Church universal has never been the same.
I used to tell my 11th-12th grade catechism students at Calvin Christian Reformed Church that they can scarcely imagine what the Church worldwide had been like before 1517. I used to bring the Grand Rapids, Michigan, Yellow Pages (remember those?) with me to the class when we talked about this period of church history and opened it to the “Churches” section. And, of course, what you saw there were scores and scores of denominational sub-headings: Baptists, American Baptists, Southern Baptists, Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America, Methodist, AME Zion, Presbyterian Church USA, Orthodox Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church of America, Protestant Reformed, Netherlands Reformed, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, Wisconsin Synod Lutheran Church, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Episcopal . . . the list stretched on.
So I would tell my students that had there been Yellow Pages in, say, the year 1516, you would have seen exactly two headings (and in most cities really only one probably): Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Most of church history up to the Reformation could be traced along two pretty straight historical lines. But after 1517? Denominations proliferated under the broader “Protestant” heading the way a single crack in your car’s windshield can eventually spiderweb out into dozens and scores of fissure cracks and lines. Whatever else the Reformation yielded, the splintering of the worldwide church is pretty prominent on the list of results.
Half-a-millennium later Protestants of various stripes and Roman Catholics have been working hard to celebrate what we have in common in Christ. As I wrote some while back here on The Twelve, even in my lifetime Catholics have gone from people whose very Christianity people in my circles doubted to being seen as very much sisters and brothers in the Lord. But after 500 years of being apart–and given that there is no longer anything remotely approaching a monolithic identity among non-Catholics–any kind of reunification or reversing of the schism of the Reformation is exceedingly unlikely ever to happen. Protestants no longer get along with each other very well. In my own West Michigan circles I recently had occasion to interact with an offshoot of my own Christian Reformed denomination and I can assure you that we will probably never come back together under even a broader Reformed umbrella. Indeed, there is no appetite for that at all at least from their side–some members of that offshoot denomination refuse even to step into a Christian Reformed Church building for a wedding. It goes without saying we are many light years of distance away from considering hitching back up with Pope Francis and company.
So as we get closer to October 31, 2017, I think honesty and humility compel us to mark the anniversary and give it its historical due. But I also think it’s OK if we have a reserve of sorrow in our hearts that it shook out just the way it did. It makes it hard for even us Christians to spy the unity of the Body of Christ. To most non-believers, we just look like a bunch of balkanized and squabbling folks who do not appear able to rally under the banner of the Jesus we all claim to serve and love. In addition to a bit of grieving for the fragmented Body of Christ on earth, we should also use the occasion of this anniversary to be eager to look for what we have in common. If we want to celebrate something, let’s celebrate that although we have made the Spirit’s work far more challenging the last 500 years, even so the one and same Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is active all over the place, making the best of our scattered status and somehow–despite ourselves–getting a mind-boggling amount of holy work accomplished in believers from every tribe, nation, and denomination.
THAT is a true cause of wonder. And celebration.