One challenge of the Reformation is that Catholics don’t understand why it was necessary and Protestants don’t understand why it was tragic.
I couldn’t find this quote exactly from Carl Braaten, professor emeritus at Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, but believe I’ve recalled the essence of it. As we mark on October 31 the 500th anniversary of the start of Martin Luther’s Reform movement, this is an important thought to bear in mind.
By the late Middle Ages, the life of the European Church had degraded in numerous ways. Certainly, not all Catholic leaders were corrupt, but too many were more interested in money or power, and the highest echelons were often caught up in political machinations to the detriment of true faith and ministry.
Luther’s initial challenge to indulgences was a call merely to end a practice of “selling” salvation for the deceased, which he felt undermined what faith in Christ’s saving work really meant. But it became viewed as a challenge to the authority of the Church itself, and a point that even several contemporaneous Catholic theologians agreed with Luther on got mixed in with ecclesial infighting, political unrest and nationalist fervor.
And thus came the tragedy. Instead of working toward reform within the Church, the Western Church ended up fragmenting, and Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and other traditions went their separate ways, creating suspicion, distrust and even decades of persecution and warfare among the different denominations.
Christ, of course, desired none of this for those who would be of his one Body. His last prayer for his disciples, on the eve of his crucifixion, was “that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” (John 17:22-23). The sober reality, though, is that even from earliest times there were divisions in Christ’s Church – consider Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (I Cor 1:11-13)
This is why, after 500 years, this anniversary is not being referred to so much as a “celebration” as a commemoration of one significant change in the life of the whole Church with both positive elements to be acknowledged and negative aspects to be repented on all sides. We embrace our heritage with honor and humility, and remember that Christ is always reforming and renewing his Church, guiding us ultimately toward the fullness of the whole people of God gathered as one in prayer, praise and thanksgiving.