Magazine article The Christian Century

Luther's Legacy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Luther's Legacy

Article excerpt

LUTHERAN theologian Carl Braaten once lamented that while Roman Catholics do not understand why the Reformation was necessary, Protestants do not understand why it was tragic.

It's taken me many years to appreciate the tragic consequences of the Reformation--that it led to disunity as well as to needed reform. Perhaps I understand this better these days because the unity of my own Presbyterian family has become fragile, with some congregations resigning from the denomination and starting a new one.

It's impossible to read the New Testament and not conclude that some kind of unity is at the heart of the matter: unity between strangers and adversaries, races, genders and even religions. At one point St. Paul suggests that the unity of the whole creation has been God's agenda from the beginning. So on at least one level the Reformation is a tragedy.

On the other hand, however, the facts of history underscore the necessity of the Reformation. Corruption and the appalling abuse of power inspired courageous Christians, who often paid for their dissent with their lives, to imagine a new and more faithful way of being the church of Jesus Christ. This effort began well before 1517, when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses.

On Reformation Sunday, Protestants used to bash the pope and thank God they were not Catholic. Catholics viewed Protestants with suspicion and fear and were assured that theirs was the only true church. Sadly, that issue has not been resolved. I am still not welcome at the Lord's table in a Catholic church.

Fortunately, ecumenical work proceeds between Catholic and Protestant congregations and individuals in spite of the ravings of the Protestant evangelical right and the refusal of the Catholic hierarchy to acknowledge Protestant churches as churches.

In the August 12 New York Times Book Review, historian Steven Ozment proposes that Martin Luther's thinking continues to influence German society. …

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