During the past few days many Christians have been participating in January’s annual season of prayer for Christian unity – an important theme for intercession among all believers. In view of this, last week the two most senior bishops of the Church of England (the Archbishops of Canterbury and York), a Protestant and Reformed denomination, took the opportunity in a joint statement to highlight that 2017 also marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So far, so good!
To refresh your memory, on October 31st 1517, Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses at Wittenberg, protesting many of the practices of the Church of Rome. This brave act precipitated a massive and unforeseen cultural and political upheaval, whilst launching a critical renewal of gospel-centred church life across the continent. The subsequent schism in the church led to the translation of Scripture into the vernacular of the peoples of Europe, massive developments in literacy, education, printing, industry, economic prosperity and political liberty. But above all it heralded the repristination of scriptural faith.
In Britain this spiritual awakening assisted the multifarious emergence of the Church of England and forged the Puritan, evangelical movement through disciples of John Calvin like John Knox, eventually shaping the British Empire and Commonwealth with the liberties familiar to us in the English-speaking world – not to mention the Puritan founding of the United States. Moreover, the Reformation laid the groundwork for the greatest mass-movement of Christian missionary activity across the globe that has ever been seen in history, a movement that continues to this day! It seems clear, then, that there is much here to thank God for and celebrate. It is surely right to mark the historic 500th anniversary of this God-ordained elucidation and expansion of the faith.
The immediate context of the Reformation is obviously important for honest efforts at seeking to understand it. Because the late medieval church had brokered for itself a stronghold over princes and emperors in Europe – employing the implicit dogmas of the universal episcopacy of the Pope, the supremacy of the Church’s spiritual authority over secular authority, and the infusion of grace by the seven sacraments – to challenge it as a corrupted purveyor of a distorted gospel in the manner of the reformers was not merely a ‘theological’ act (in a narrow sense) but an inescapably ‘political’ act. The nature of the relationship that the institutional church sustained to political authority made this unavoidably the case. Rome held to the idea of a universal sovereign church institution, with the right to anoint and depose emperors. As far as Rome was concerned, there was one ‘Corpus Christianum’ with a spiritual and temporal head (Pope and Emperor). The idea of national sovereign states and independent churches had hardly cropped up at all in recent centuries. To reform the church was therefore to reform socio-cultural and political life.
Consequently, as with any great socio-political transition, the period of the Reformation was a ‘mixed bag.’ It presaged a tumultuous period attended by some deeply disturbing persecutions and conflicts between emerging Protestant and Catholic states and peoples. Monasteries and abbeys were seized, and in the conflicts many people lost their lives as states and nations lined up on different sides of the politico-religious divide. Yet we must also be mindful that we do not have a ‘God’s eye view’ on history. Many of the motivations and attitudes that prevailed five hundred years ago are not easily accessible to us, and as a consequence the events of the period following the early moments of Reformation are not easy for us to adequately understand.
Of course this great historical upheaval is long since over. No Christian that I know, Protestant or Roman Catholic, is in any danger of slipping into the violent errors or turpitude of some of those caught up in the cultural turmoil of sixteenth-century Europe. Granted, we Christians still have abiding and significant differences regarding certain aspects of the faith and how it is to be expressed, but today, amidst the modern protracted assault of secularism and paganism against the Christian faith, more unites the orthodox Protestant and Roman Christian than divides us as we face a belligerent, common foe. There are many matters upon which we are able to come together in common cause (i.e. beginning and end of life issues, marriage and human sexuality, religious freedom and liberties etc.), whilst respectfully maintaining important distinctives and engaging in robust debate about them.
So despite the admittedly complex and at times tragic fallout of the Reformation period, one would think that the leaders of the largest Protestant church family in the world, with its wonderful heritage in Reformed faith – global Anglicanism – would be highlighting and celebrating the great blessings of the Reformation at this opportune moment. Indeed the 500th anniversary of this biblical reform movement is surely a golden opportunity to encourage the Protestant church to remain true to the Lord Jesus, to Scripture, to justification by faith in Christ alone, by His grace alone, and to the earnest preaching of a biblical gospel in a time of great ecclesiastical and cultural apostasy. After all, the Reformation sought as its core objective to ground authority in matters of the faith upon the testimony of Holy Scripture exclusively.
But alas, the leading Protestant bishop’s pulpit once again makes an uncertain sound. Whilst rather diffidently acknowledging a few blessings to which the Reformation “contributed” (like the availability of the Bible to people in their own language and the preaching of a gospel of grace), the admonishment proceeding from York and Canterbury is most decidedly at pains to highlight an allegedly “lasting damage” the Reformation has apparently done to the unity of the church; supposedly in “defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love.” And yet no mention is made at all about the evils and corruption against which Luther, Calvin and other reformers vigorously protested for the sake of the gospel and Christ’s church. This purposeful obfuscation leads the bishops to their primary exhortation to Protestant Christians, “repent of our part in perpetuating divisions.”
In addition, the heart of the message of the Reformation is simplistically and radically diluted by the Most Reverend Primates Welby and Sentamu to a call for “simple trust in Jesus Christ” – a phrase that seems to take on a wearisome vapidity when issuing from the evasive and compromised corridors of Canterbury. Such a theological reductionism seems as empty of meaningful content as the endless and pointless apologies we have heard from Archbishop Welby for everything from offending women campaigners in the church because of resistance to women’s ordination, to the church’s alleged persecution of sexual revolutionaries – the LGBTQ community! Now, the message for this season to the church on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is again ‘repent.’ In short, apologise and ask yourself the ‘hard questions’ about how this ‘repentance’ needs to be worked out amidst the church’s present divisions.
Exactly what this call to repent means in this context is not at all clear, and the ambiguity of their statement is surely deliberate. Are we being called upon to ‘repent’ of the actions of our centuries-dead forefathers – as if such a thing were not the height of arrogant presumption, or even possible and permissible from a scriptural standpoint (Ezek. 18:20)? Are we to repent of the existence of the Church of England and other Protestant denominations? This would be odd indeed, since that would mean repenting of the continuing office Archbishop Welby holds for Queen Elizabeth II, the political freedoms the Reformation brought us, and the spread of the gospel throughout the world via numerous Protestant church communities, families and presbyteries?
Are Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others being blamed by the Primates for causing the disunity of the church? It seems to be implied but not quite asserted. Or are the Archbishops declaring the magisterial reformers’ actions sinful, and if so, is continuing to uphold reformational principles actually perpetuating division and thereby something to be repented of? One could easily get that impression.
Nonetheless it seems highly unlikely that these clerical admonitions to ‘repent’ really herald a policy of closer union with Rome. If that were the case then the senior bishops have thoroughly undermined their own cause. By ordaining women priests and bishops, being uncritical of contraception and shamefully hand-waving regarding abortion, not to mention taking an increasingly affirming stance toward homosexual behavior, the Church of England has buried any hope of stronger ties between Canterbury and Rome. In fact, clergy and laity within the Church of England have fled to Roman Catholicism on account of these very issues. Seen from this perspective it is the actions of Welby and his predecessors that have been greatly destructive of Christian unity in the truth.
Rather, in light of the current and highly acrimonious conflict in global Anglicanism regarding human sexuality, it seems far more plausible to read this joint statement as an opportunistic and abstruse lecture. In the course of such a lecture, evangelicals in the communion (the faithful children of the Reformation) might be called upon to repent of the ‘divisions’ they are causing today (like their forefathers) by resisting the corruption of the church and her teaching – in this instance by the powerful LGBTQ lobbyists, both lay and clerical. But, the actual meaning remains shrouded in the obscurity of equivocality and plausible deniability!
In these instances what is not being candidly communicated is often most revealing. What is clear, then, is that the statement offers no ringing endorsement of the Reformation; no affirmation of the great Solas that recovered, enriched and then enlivened the church’s gospel fidelity and missionary zeal in the centuries that followed; no celebration of the freedom of conscience, speech and religion that tracked in its wake. There is no overt celebration of the life of faith that thrives in the children of the Reformation today, and there is no call to cultivate the same reformational spirit of standing on the truth of the Word of God in the face of power and opposition – a message that Christians so desperately need to hear in this generation.
The unity that Christ envisions for his church in his high priestly prayer in John 17 is a unity in the truth, “sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” Nowhere does Scripture teach that the ideal condition of Christ’s church is an institutional ‘unity’ under one global episcopacy. The calling is for unity in the truth. The whole chapter of John 17 concerns our preservation in the truth of the Word of God as his people.
As children of the Reformation we must never forget that what the reformers were doing was ‘pro-testing.’ That is, they were testifying for something, not simply against something – that is what the word Protestant means. They were testifying for the catholicity of the faith in terms of the gospel of Christ as revealed in his Word. They were not leaving the church; they were standing up for her with courage and conviction. They were obeying the injunction of St. Jude to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
In this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, because the love of Christ constrains us, let us pray for the courage and conviction of our forebears to stand for truth so that the gospel may be advanced and his people may be one in their witness. Let the bishops apologise all they will – here we stand, we can do no other!
 See the Archbishop’s joint statement, “Reformation Anniversary: Statement from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York,” Archbishop of Canterbury, last modified January 17 2017, http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5826/reformation-anniversary-statement-from-the-archbishops-of-canterbury-and-york.