This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It is a year of celebration, because the Reformers accomplished what they claimed: They stripped away idolatries that had encrusted and obscured the gospel of grace, and they reformed the Church’s worship and ministry to conform to the good news of Jesus. Luther was a witness to the gospel, and the Reformation was one of the greatest outbursts of the Spirit in human history.
Yet our celebration must be tempered by an unflinching acknowledgement of the tragedy of ongoing division between Catholic and Protestant and among branches of the Protestant movement.
The splintering of Protestantism started early and hardened throughout the sixteenth century. Luther and Zwingli parted ways over the Real Presence at Marburg in 1529, and divergences between Lutheran and Reformed became starker and more numerous as the decades passed. Despite all that Lutheran and Reformed churches shared, fresh battles broke out over the Eucharist, and intense quarrels over predestination, Christology, the role of the good works, and liturgical ceremonies were added.
There were heroes of reconciliation on every side during the sixteenth century. Hermann von Wied, the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne, commissioned John Gropper to write an irenic treatise on justification and invited Bucer and Melanchthon to help him formulate a program of Catholic reform. Bucer, Melanchthon, and others worked tirelessly to heal relations between German and Swiss Protestants.
Lutherans successfully repaired their internal divisions with the 1577 Formula of Concord, and the Reformed created an international network of churches. But other early divisions remained. The Council of Trent defined Catholic doctrine with sharp anti-Protestant precision, and Protestant regimes erected and policed confessional barriers against Catholics and each other. By 1570, the fluidity of early Protestantism had congealed into “fixed identities and systems of beliefs for separate churches” (Diarmaid MacCulloch), identities that could fuel hatred and violence.
The catastrophic effects of these divisions rippled out into European culture, society, and politics. They’re rippling still. Worse, the fragmentation of the Church undermined the evangelical aims of the Reformers. By its sibling feuds, the Reformation quenched the very Spirit it had unleashed.
Protestants were not solely responsible for the division of the Church. Catholic intransigence and treachery silenced prophetic voices and delayed and prevented the deep self-examination the Church needed. Yet Protestants were responsible, especially for the divisions within the Reformation’s own ranks.
Five hundred years on, how do we Protestants shoulder that responsibility? We cannot reduce sixteenth-century controversies to temperament or circumstance, nor dismiss their intense debates with a shrugging postmodern Whatever. We may in the end discover that our differences need not divide us, but to achieve lasting reunion we must attend closely to the reasons we separated in the first place.
Neither Luther nor Zwingli was simply being ornery at Marburg. Zwingli feared that Luther’s insistence on linking Christ’s presence to physical bread and wine was a reversion to medieval superstitions regarding relics, images, and the consecrated Host. Luther thought Zwingli was playing loose with the straightforward words of Jesus and undermining simple faith in the promise of God.
Still, evaluating the Reformation with historical sensitivity doesn’t mean that the Reformers are above criticism, nor that we defend “our side” no matter how bull-headed they were. Some within the Protestant movement were ornery. Henrich Bullinger of Zurich and John Calvin of Geneva had their differences, but they put them aside to formulate a unifying confession for the Swiss Protestants, the Consensus Tigurinus. But what unified one side widened the divide on the other. The Lutheran pastor at Hamburg, Joachim Westphal, attacked the Consensus, mockingly labeling Calvin das Kalb (calf) and Bullinger der Bulle (bull). Calvin issued a series of increasingly irritated rebuttals to Westphal. And the fallout of the “Supper-strife” wasn’t only theological. Danish Lutherans were inhospitable to English Protestants fleeing Bloody Mary because they considered the English to be adherents to the hateful Consensus.
When Bucer met von Wied at the Imperial Diet of Regensburg (Ratisbon) in 1541, he confessed: “Both sides have failed. Some of us have overemphasized unimportant points, and others have not adequately reformed obvious abuses.” We Protestants best take responsibility for the Reformation by allowing Bucer’s humility to temper our enthusiasm during Ref500.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.