The recent visit of Pope Francis to the Cathedral of Lund was an historic occasion. The Holy Father joined the Lutheran World Federation’s president, Bishop Munib Younan, and the General Secretary, Rev. Martin Junge, as part of a joint commemoration that celebrated the Reformation. Both in Junge’s homily and the statement signed by Pope Francis and Bishop Younan, there were calls to push forward in the dialogue with the goal of a common Eucharistic table, even if both sides recognized the ongoing obstacles to attaining it. While the choice of Lund was related to its being the place where the Lutheran World Federation began in 1947, the celebration set in relief just how deep the ecumenical challenges are.
It is interesting to juxtapose the Lund event with Awakening Europe, a large gathering of Neo-charismatics and evangelicals in Friends Arena in Stockholm from October 28 to October 30. Exact figures for both events are hard to come by, but there was an estimated crowd of 10,000 who watched a live stream of the service at the Cathedral of Lund in Malmō Arena and a further estimated 15,000 who attended the papal mass at Swedbank stadion in Malmō. Compare this to estimated total crowds of around 20,000 for the Stockholm gathering, according to Dagen. The fortuitous proximity of these two events has invited comparisons and deeper reflections on ecumenism and the Protestant Reformation that highlight at least two ongoing challenges.
First, there remains the problem of Protestant identity, which Peter Leithart has recently re-examined in his essay and book on The End of Protestantism. Is Protestant identity bound up with protest or is it much more than that? Leithart is correct to note that there remain those who perceive Protestant identity negatively, especially in the evangelical world. One can see this in the recent declaration, “Is the Reformation Over?: A Statement of Evangelical Convictions,” which was released just a few days before Pope Francis’s visit. The statement came from the Reformanda Initiative and has been signed by a number of prominent evangelicals in Britain, the United States, and Europe. In his response to Pope Francis’s visit, Stefan Gustavsson, Secretary General of the Swedish Evangelical Alliance, cited the statement, noting that the reason he signed it was because of a need to set forth clearly the issues at stake between Catholics and Protestants.
While I respect and know some of the signatories, this statement strikes me as moving in the wrong direction. It seeks to define Protestantism over against the Catholic Church out of a concern that evangelicals do not have a clear view of Catholic teaching. It simultaneously sets forth a misguided view of sola scriptura as implying that tradition has no role to play in Protestant understandings of authority and interpretation, and a reductive view of Catholicism that extracts papal infallibility and Marian dogma out of the hierarchy of truths and the structure of Catholic teaching within which they fall. Ultimately, it reinforces the bunker mentality within apocalyptic strains of evangelicalism.
Leithart is correct that this approach to Protestant identity must be abandoned. Instead, the ecumenical movement has advanced on the basis of a theology of gifts. As part of the reform of the church catholic, Protestantism must be viewed positively for the gifts it has given to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. I celebrate the Protestant Reformation in the same way that I celebrate the Council of Chalcedon even though I lament the fractures that both produced. One need only look at the numerous jurisdictional claims to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, etc., to see the legacy of Chalcedon. This happened without Protestantism and it exists as an ecumenical problem without regard to Protestantism.
Second, there remains the challenge of the political legacy of medieval Christendom. From the perspective of dissenting Protestantism, where freedom of conscience has been central to notions of authority, establishment Christianity is a relic of medieval Christendom that must be overcome. And, it is not a large stretch to claim that the American Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray would probably agree.
This continuity between medieval and Reformation Christianity can get lost amidst the new Catholic historiography, in part due to a concerted effort to argue for the vibrancy of medieval Christianity coupled with an intense investigation of the consequences of Protestant reforming measures. While one can see this in the work of John Bossy, Eamon Duffy, and possibly Carlos Eire (if Duffy’s intuitions of the implications of Eire’s Reformations are correct), it is Brad Gregory who most thoroughly has argued the case.
For example, Gregory lays the blame for the development of cuius region, eius religio on a series of developments in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including the need for political approval of doctrinal positions that grew out of Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic continental reforms. This ignores the basic governing structure of medieval Christendom as largely an agreement between political and religious authority behind the metaphor of the two swords. The church excommunicated while the state handed out civil penalties. Despite the Gregorian reformers' efforts to test the boundaries of such agreement by pulling more authority back toward the church, this fundamental structure remained, whether the Holy Roman Emperor was against the pope or supported him.
It is this structure that lies behind some of the concerns of Swedish evangelicals, especially Baptists and Pentecostals. Both groups are congregational in their ecclesiology in part because of the need to emphasize religious freedom and conversion in the face of state-sponsored Lutheranism. It was only in 1951 that religious freedom was established in Sweden as a legal right. The theological drift to the left of the Lutheran Church of Sweden does not help, especially given that fact the Church of Sweden’s own reports that around 2 percent of its members actually attend services. It fuses together nominalism with establishment Christianity, thereby providing an even greater rationale for events like Awakening Europe.
These two challenges reveal an important gift of medieval and Reformation Christianity, one that is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. The church must always be reforming. Pope Francis acknowledged this gift in his interview with Ulf Jonsson in Dagens Nyheter. Indeed, Western Christianity as a whole has retained its vibrancy through constant reform, renewal, revival, and renaissance, all of which trade on the restoration of structures that have fallen into disrepair. It must learn how to reform without further fracture. The Gregorian reforms began with Leo IX’s emissary Cardinal Humbert initiating a schism with Byzantium—in the same way that the Protestant Reformation began with Luther’s departure from Rome.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.