Today, we launch a new Protestant confession: The Reforming Catholic Confession. In honor of the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the statement has four aims in view.
First, it underscores a fundamental unity to Protestantism and grounds that unity in a positive statement of catholic Christianity. As a member of the drafting committee, I can attest that everyone worked hard to find language in which we could all see ourselves despite the various theological interpretations of matters such as baptism and Eucharist. The fact that we found such language is a witness to our unity in essentials. It is up to Protestant churches to determine whether this language does indeed reflect them through the process of reception.
Second, the statement reaffirms the important work of the Reformation as a necessary event in the life of the church catholic. To claim that the Reformation was tragic, as Pelikan does, in no way undermines its necessity. There are many events in the history of the church that we wish could have been otherwise. The Council of Chalcedon and the fracturing of Syriac and Greek Christianity comes to mind. Yet, such events do not nullify the good work that flowed from these events. If a council such as Chalcedon can be deemed part of the formal dogma of the church by Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy despite the fact that it resulted in deep fractures that have lasted much longer than the Protestant Reformation, then surely the Protestant Reformation can be seen as an important witness to catholic Christianity.
By recognizing that the primary aim of the Reforms was the preservation and renewal of the faith once delivered unto the saints, the statement places the Protestant Reformation in the context of reform as it unfolded throughout western Christianity. Alongside the Gregorian Reforms, the efforts to renew the churches by new religious orders, and the emergence of conciliarism in the late medieval context, the Protestant Reformation stands as an effort to find the catholic roots of the church. This is the point behind the construction of the famous “solas.”
Closely related to the second point, the statement briefly addresses various arguments that gesture toward Protestantism (whether intended or not) as unleashing the forces that now comprise secularism. The sins of Protestantism are many in some analyses—whether it’s sola scriptura, the priesthood of all believers, or theological innovation and church division. While acknowledging the many sins of Protestants, the statement takes a page out of the Catholic and Orthodox playbooks by differentiating between formal (“mere”) Protestant teaching and the practices of Protestants both during the Reformation and since then.
Just as Catholic teaching differentiates between the actions of individual popes and the papacy, so Protestants differentiate between the actions of Protestant Reformers and Reform. The statement laments the many sins of Protestants, including divisions among churches, race and ethnicity, and class. Such forms of worldly behavior call for repentance. Yet, this does not touch formal Protestant teaching, which does not divide scripture from tradition and sees the community of the church as all those who together hear the Word. Indeed Protestants sought to recover the prophetic role of the church as part of its catholicity. This is in keeping with the way Ambrose called the emperor Theodosius to repentance for his part in the massacre at Thessalonika, the way bishops called Louis the Pious to public penance for his actions that caused his own sons to rebel against him, or the way Gregorian popes and bishops withstood emperors and kings.
Finally, the statement acknowledges the many divisions within Protestantism and calls for a return to its catholic roots. In this sense, it is a “reforming” statement because it remains connected to the reforming impulse within Protestantism and calls for all Protestants to find their common ground through reforming measures. There is a common spiritual tradition at the heart of Protestantism—although it has been choked out by the accretions of local traditions that were equated with mere Protestantism. The statement concludes with a call for dialog around the table of our Lord as the way to move beyond local traditions. The point is not to remove denominational diversity or replace the various streams within Protestantism, but to call all Protestants back to the catholic spirit of the movement and to resist the temptation to further division.
I was glad to be part of the drafting committee for the Reforming Catholic Confession. As with so many other statements, this one came about because of a conversation between Jerry Walls of Houston Baptist and Kevin Vanhoozer of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. From that conversation, the project was launched and the rest, as they say, is history. While the statement will no doubt be critiqued in the spirit of “reform,” our hope moving forward is that Protestants will receive this confession as a formal expression of “mere” Protestantism, that is to say, of Reformational Catholicism.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.