Next month, on October 31, the eve of All Saints Day, Pope Francis will visit Lund, Sweden, to participate with Lutheran church leaders in a joint ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation. October 31 is Reformation Day on Protestant church calendars, and this year it will mark the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg. The Pope’s presence at the prayer service in Lund Cathedral (Domkyrka), a church where Christians have worshiped for more than one thousand years, will be followed by a larger gathering at nearby Malmö. This historic occasion, which will launch a full year of Reformation remembrances, will doubtless be the most talked about ecumenical event of 2016.
But why Lund? Luther was German, not Swedish, and the case might have been made for holding this event in Augsburg, where the Joint Declaration on Justification was unveiled in 1999, or in Erfurt, where the Augustinian friary Luther entered still stands and where Pope Benedict XVI preached in 2011. Even more attention-getting would have been the iconic Wartburg near Eisenach, where Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, working furiously for ten weeks in 1522. But Sweden has claims of its own, including the fact that it was one of the first nation-states to adopt the Reformation in the sixteenth century—even though, as in England, there were reasons of state as well as reasons of faith behind this decision. Olaus Petri is called the “Martin Luther of Sweden.” Petri, who became a pastor in Stockholm in 1524, had studied with Luther in Wittenberg, as had his brother Laurentius Petri. Through their work and that of other early reformers, the New Testament was translated into Swedish in 1526, followed by the complete Swedish Bible in 1541.
But more to the point, perhaps, is the fact that the Lutheran World Federation, a global communion of churches in the Lutheran tradition, was founded in Lund in 1947. For the past fifty years, the LWF and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have conducted serious theological discussions, culminating in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) and the recent report From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017 (2013). Three notes resound through the liturgy planned for the Lund commemoration: gratitude, repentance, and common witness. All are found in this prayer:
Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, send your Holy Spirit! Illumine our hearts and heal our memories. O Holy Spirit: help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world. Amen.
In going to Lund, Pope Francis is following in the footsteps of his two papal predecessors, both of whom were deeply committed to the ecumenical pathway set forth in the documents of Vatican II. In 1983, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, Pope John Paul II himself preached at a Lutheran church in Rome and called for a new understanding of the epoch of the Reformation. He referred to Luther as a man of “profound religiousness” who was “driven by the examination of eternal salvation.” At Erfurt in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the Christological center at the heart of Luther’s theology: For Luther, he said, the true and living God is no mere philosophical hypothesis.
This God has a face, and he has spoken to us. He became one of us in the man Jesus Christ—who is both true God and true man. Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
Several generations of Catholic Luther scholars have helped to place the reformer in his proper historical context and to uncover the spiritual roots of his complex and dialectical theology. The Catholic reappraisal of Luther began in earnest with the seminal work of Joseph Lortz and has been refined and extended by Erwin Iserloh, Otto Hermann Pesch, Jared Wicks, and many others. In his The Reformation in Germany (1939), Lortz explained the central dynamic in Luther’s thinking in this way: “Within himself Luther wrestled and overthrew a Catholicism that was not Catholic.” According to Lortz, it was Erasmus more than Luther who precipitated the disruption of Christendom in the sixteenth century.
A better understanding of Luther and his times, however, does not mean that all of the differences which led to the rupture of the church at the Reformation have been happily resolved. It is no service to either the truth of the Gospel or to the unity of the church to claim otherwise. From Conflict to Communion is not guilty of such easy-going ecumenism, but it does challenge Catholics and Lutherans together to emphasize areas of fundamental agreement and to live out their faith as members of the one Body of Christ. The report concludes on a note of admonition and hope:
The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into community with the Lord. Then they will be united in a common mission which the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification describes: “Lutherans and Catholics share the goal of confessing Christ in all things, who alone is to be trusted above all things as the one Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) through whom God in the Holy Spirit gives himself and pours out his renewing gifts” (JDDJ 18).
It is not surprising that, even before taking place, the Lund event has drawn criticism from several quarters. For example, a journal aiming to preserve “our Catholic faith and heritage” has called the joint commemoration of the “Lutheran revolt” the celebration of “an apocalyptic plague.” For his part, the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher expresses befuddlement at the anticipated Catholic-Lutheran rapprochement in Lund: “How can this or any pope do this, or approve of it? It makes no sense to me. It’s as if a man and a wife got together to commemorate the occasion of their divorce!” Add to this the fact that millions of conservative Lutherans are not represented by the LWF. They have their own organization, the International Lutheran Council, which has issued its own response to From Conflict to Communion. The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity has recently begun a separate three-year informal international dialogue with the ILC. All of which is to say that ecumenism, like the Reformation itself, is messy!
As Catholics and Lutherans gather in Lund next month to mark the Reformation, it is good to recall another important ecumenical event that took place in the same city in 1952. This was the Third World Conference of the Faith and Order Commission. A committee of theological stalwarts including Georges Florovsky, Albert C. Outler, Edmund Schlink, Michael Ramsey, and D. T. Niles produced an opening statement titled “Word to the Churches.” This statement included what has become known as “The Lund Principle,” often summarized as “Do everything together as far as conscience permits.” But, as Baptist scholar Morris West has noted, the original context of the statement was not an exhortation, much less an imperative command, but rather a question to be answered. “Should not our Churches ask themselves whether they are showing sufficient eagerness to enter into conversation with other Churches and whether they should not act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately?” This was a probing interrogative to be asked repeatedly and “to be applied to the ongoing, day-to-day life of the churches.”
While there were four Catholic “observers” at Lund in 1952, it would be another ten years before the Roman Catholic Church would fully enter the ecumenical movement at Vatican II—and by doing so transform it. But the question asked at Lund 1952 bears asking again at Lund 2016—not only of Catholics and Lutherans, but also of the Orthodox, the Pentecostals, the Evangelicals, and all other believers in Jesus Christ who know themselves to be a part of the pilgrim church destined for that City with Foundations.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is email@example.com.