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The Catholicity of the Reformation
Edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson
Eerdmans, 112 pages, $12

Two visions of the Church struggle for dominance in contemporary American Protestantism. The first view sees the Reformation as a completed fact, a success that has brought us freedom of conscience and worship and the worldly blessings of progress and democracy. Some who hold this view cherish catholic substance, while others argue that the form and tendency of the Reformation warrant continuing reformation away from the catholic tradition. But they all agree that the separation of Protestantism from Rome must be maintained.

The second view is articulated in The Catholicity of the Reformation , a series of lectures delivered in 1995 under the auspices of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology in Northfield, Minnesota. This view is less sanguine about Protestantism. It does not accept the breach of the sixteenth century as permanent or, more important, as good. In this minority view, the value and integrity of the Reformation lie in its continuity with catholic tradition.

The writers collected in The Catholicity of the Reformation are with one exception Lutherans, and they are well positioned to argue that the catholicity of the Reformation is its true genius. While Anglicans might dispute the point, Lutherans can make a credible claim for being the most completely catholic of the Protestant communions to emerge from the sixteenth century. Liturgy, creeds, dogma, iconography, music, and sacramentality all survived the turmoil of the Reformation. The ancient episcopal order did less well, but the Lutherans were always willing to have it and kept it where they could. The struggle for Lutherans and other Protestants is whether the original intentions of the Reformation will shape their future or whether Protestantism will continue to aggravate the division of the Church by unceasing novelties or stubborn reluctance to change.

The essays in this volume present fine examples of the theological work that results when the Reformation’s catholicity and commitment to the unity of the Church are properly valued and when the need for genuine renewal and reform is posited by Protestants for Protestantism. Protestants often use the catholicity of the Reformation defensively”we’re catholic too!”to stave off genuine reevaluation. The authors anthologized by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, however, show what continuing reform and ecumenical seriousness might require.

The opening essay by Jenson and the closing essay by Gunther Gassmann set the whole discussion within an ecclesiology of communio . By thus assigning to the unity of the Church the significance the Creeds and Scriptures give it, and by relating the unity of the Church to the unity of the trinitarian God, they set aside the common Protestant assumption that divisions in the Church are a harmless expression of pluralism. Real external fellowship is necessary, and the scandal must not be minimized to preserve the uniqueness of the divided fellowships. Jenson further concludes that communio requires an ordained ministry that is “fundamentally a ‘ministry of unity.’“ The communio of the Church includes the living and the dead, he points out in a passage of real ecumenical importance: “Insofar as Catholics thus provide a pure example of experienced fellowship with the saints in heaven, Protestants should be moved to its freer practice.”

Gassmann links communio to customary Lutheran language in saying that “communion expresses the corporate ecclesial dimension of justification.” But like Jenson he draws the link to trinitarian theology and the unity of the ministry: “Episcopal ministry is an ecclesiological necessity if we want to move beyond congregationalism.” And with a simple sentence near the beginning of his essay he unhorses any defense of the pluralistic status quo: “The Church universal is not made up of or composed by the addition of local churches.”

Jenson and Gassmann skillfully reveal an ecumenical mandate in their work as Lutheran theologians, and their beginning and ending essays provide a frame for the more specific projects of the essays in between. They also establish an operating assumption that can liberate Lutherans and other Protestants from rationalizing the divisions of the Church by polemical appeal to the real or imagined flaws of Rome.

In “The Catholic Luther” (an earlier version of which appeared in First Things , March 1996), David Yeago continues a crucial project of reinterpretation. At their best Lutherans remember that the Reformation turned away from subjectivity to the objective means of grace, but the modern fascination with interiority, with “the dynamics of faith,” regularly mutes this realization. An essay on the catholic Luther will by definition not make that mistake, and Yeago shows that the young Luther’s quest was more to find the true God for God’s own sake than the gracious God who would appropriately console his conscience. Challenging the dominant theme of much Luther research, he argues that the turn that led to the Reformation was a turn away from medieval interiority. By the summer of 1518, “The public sacramental life of the Church is now seen as the locus of assurance,” and the Luther of the Reformation era is more, not less, catholic than he was before the Ninety-Five Theses. Accordingly, Yeago argues, “there are no historical grounds for believing that the schism was the necessary outcome of Luther’s theology of grace.” Yeago can thus propose the unthinkable: that the schism was not necessary and that some of the fault was on the Lutheran side.

Frank C. Senn’s essay, “The Reform of the Mass: Evangelical, But Still Catholic,” covers territory familiar to those who know church history, but Senn takes his historical lessons and applies them to current debates. There is no disputing the fact that the early Lutherans kept the historic liturgy, and this ought to warn contemporary Lutherans against the temptation to regard liturgy as a matter of indifference.

Carl Braaten takes on the problem of authority, warning against naive pluralism and arguing for the need to name and condemn heresy. He affirms the catholic integration of Church and Scripture against fundamentalism and “modern rationalist historicism.” He describes in characteristically straightforward language Protestantism’s crisis of authority and its need for real shepherds: “The Church must have not only normative sources written down on paper but also authoritative officeholders ordained to teach the whole Church.” At the time of the Reformation, few would have winced at such a statement. The number who now do are an index of the loss of catholicity.

The same theme is continued by James R. Crumley, former bishop of the Lutheran Church in America. He warns against questioning of the “pastor’s liturgical role, teaching capability, . . . and even preaching and sacramental roles.” He reaffirms the “sacramental quality” of ordination and calls upon Lutherans to accept the threefold office and historic episcopacy that their reforming ancestors could take for granted.

The penultimate essay is Robert Wilken’s “Lutheran Pietism and Catholic Piety.” Like’s Senn’s essay on the liturgy, it is a fine historical survey, all the more engaging because of its finding that the Pietists, often condemned or praised for being so thoroughly Protestant, were deeply and consciously dependent on Catholic sources, both patristic and medieval. Wilken sees the Pietists as recovering concerns for the spiritual life, the affections, and the love of God from the “partial and one-sided” feature of the Lutheran Reformation’s “brilliant vision.”

One-sidedness, it might well be argued, is the flaw of all Reformation communions and of the subsequent Protestant families that developed and continue to develop from them. Lutheranism’s one-sided emphasis on the doctrine and experience of justification (though it is not a uniquely Lutheran flaw) has led Lutherans to think they can evade the question ecumenism and modernity have forced to the fore. It is the doctrine of the Church”and with it questions of ministry, sacramentality, and liturgy”that the essays in this short volume address. Born in a brief period of crisis, each Protestant church is tempted to canonize the conditions and questions of its genesis. Biblically and theologically this is untenable and may be simply sinful. Surely its use to rationalize schism is.

Wilken reached the point of leaving Lutheranism for the Roman Catholic Church, but his words to those who continue faithfully within the Protestant churches are still poignant: “The Reformation heritage cannot survive if it ignores the Catholic tradition.” The evidence for the truth of his claim mounts rapidly, and the kind of thinking distilled in The Catholicity of the Reformation is a condition for Protestant survival, to say nothing of faithfulness.

Leonard R. Klein is former Editor of Lutheran Forum and Senior Pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in York, Pennsylvania.