Terry Smith: The Reformation: Over or to Continue?

The settings and climate might have changed somewhat, but the theological concerns of 16th century Protestants in Europe remain relevant today.

Credit: IStock

by Terry M. Smith
In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Would Martin Luther have signed the statement?

An Anglican professor of mine thought so. Yet it’s said that “more than 45 percent of Lutheran church-bodies in the world did not support the declaration” (LCMS News, Dec. 8, 1999). I suspect Martin Luther would not sign it.

Is the need for the Protestant (Radical) Reformation over? The Roman Catholic Church is a diverse body and changes have happened since Vatican II and, now, with Francis I. What now?

Much can, for instance, be learned from Raymond E. Brown in New Testament study and on social justice from Walter J. Burghardt—both Jesuits. Such examples could be multiplied. Some works of Catholic scholars are within my library and I benefit from them. I am not alone in this among EMC ministers.

Around the world, priests, monks, nuns, and many other Catholics are involved in helpful ministries in ways almost beyond counting. Catholics have suffered and died in many settings because they have followed Jesus. It would be unfair to view their many efforts, motivations, personal theology, and discipleship in simple terms: since some of Roman Catholic teaching is wrong, they can’t really be following Jesus.

Is, then, the need for the Protestant Reformation over? My answer is no. Here’s why in part:

  • An EMC worker in northern Canada says a Bible Club team was “amazed and amused to see the people being pressured into buying their Indulgences now with quick and simple payments from their Visas and MasterCards.”
  • Our EMC cross-cultural workers in various countries encounter folk forms of Catholicism with mixtures of beliefs. A focus on Christ, his grace, and discipleship are key markers for our workers.
  • Indulgences are still being issued.
  • U.S. evangelical theologian Roger Olson recently wrote of participating in Protestant-Roman Catholic dialogues. At one, after suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church needed to become less exclusive and learn from Protestants, he found himself uninvited (see his blog, Is the Roman Catholic Church Catholic Enough? Oct. 27, 2017).

The settings and climate might have changed somewhat, but the theological concerns of 16th century Protestants in Europe remain relevant today.

Others, often Protestants, say, “The Reformation must continue.” How so? If it means that the Protestant Reformation’s concerns must be used today to examine our faith in life, yes, it should continue.

However, “The Reformation must continue” is a slogan that can be used to set aside key doctrines of our Christian faith. Used in this way, the slogan does not adequately respect or continue the earlier Protestant (Radical) Reformation’s focus on Christ, his grace, and discipleship.

Are Christians in Canada today as aware of doctrine as believers were in the 16th century in Europe? A blanket statement seems unhelpful. There are, though, some reasons for concern.

terry-smith

Terry M. Smith

We do well to consider carefully what we think and practice. For instance, some funerals seem to be services of celebration with a confidence that nearly everyone, if not everyone, goes to heaven. A common thought among Canadians seems to be: If there is a God and if there is a heaven, then good people go there and likely all people get there. In what way does this match or contradict biblical and classic Christian teaching?

 

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