Repent and Celebrate: The Reformation after 500 Years

By Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky; Howard, Thomas Albert | The Christian Century, July 8, 2015 | Go to article overview

Repent and Celebrate: The Reformation after 500 Years


Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky, Howard, Thomas Albert, The Christian Century


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THE PROSPECT OF one's imminent death, Samuel Johnson famously said, "wonderfully concentrates the mind." The same might be said of observing major commemorative dates.

The world rushes headlong toward one such date: October 31,2017, the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation, the anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. Numerous institutions worldwide have begun planning for the epochal moment.

But exactly how does one commemorate a historical juggernaut of such immense influence and contested interpretation? Protestantism, it should be remembered, has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, and so much else. Interpretations of "1517" make up a veritable palimpsest of modern Western history. Scholars and journalists will revisit many past interpretations as 2017 draws near and thereby add another layer to our collective memory of this historical watershed.

But what duty do Christians have in marking this moment-especially those who care about that most necessary and elusive of theological goals, Christian unity? Commemoration can present a welcome opportunity for taking stock of the "big picture," for stepping back and assessing progress and failure with respect to this goal and many others.

But commemoration can also be a dodge. It is one thing to acknowledge that something very big and important happened 500 years ago. It is another thing to evaluate it conscientiously and then, as a result, either repent or celebrate as appropriate. It will be a mark of the maturity of ecumenically minded Protestants if, in 2017, they prove able to repent and celebrate in appropriate degrees--not just choosing one at the expense of the other--and likewise if Catholics prove able to celebrate anything at all.

To be sure, different denominations will have different reasons and resources for commemoration. And diversity in marking the event promises to be a healthy thing.

At the same time, we believe that all parties, Protestant as well as Catholic, should keep several key points in mind as they prepare for the milestone.

First, all should recognize the hostility and spirit of recrimination that shaped much confessional theology in the post-Reformation era. We would like to see clergy and theologians on all sides take up the reconstructive task of disentangling the hostility from their churches' respective theologies and reimagining, counterfactually and irenically, what these might be like without the hostility written into them.

This approach has been explored to a modest extent. It's a dangerous one, because there's a tendency to see in it an abstract, ecumenical "supertheology" or a lowest-common-denominator theology that is no longer recognizable to either party.

That probably explains the virulent reaction in some quarters toward the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, despite the fact that it carefully outlined the respective emphases of Lutherans and Catholics that were to be maintained, not eliminated, by the newfound agreement on the subject.

What we are looking for is an elimination of the necessity of enemies, not an elimination of the necessity of arguments. We look forward to a multiplicity of purged confessional theologies, maintaining the particular gifts and insights on all sides while remaining open to the truly Christian insight of the other, even of the old enemy. In the words of the Catholic ecumenist Paul Murray, we propose a "receptive ecumenism" and encourage all parties to ask: What can we offer and what can we receive from others to foster a deepened communion in Christ and the Spirit?

At the same time, we would like to see deep and careful historical work examining just how the politics and personalities of the Reformation led to such explosive and enduring results. …

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