Reformation Day!

The Posting of Luther's 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878
The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

It has become fashionable in some Protestant circles to poo-poo the Reformation or focus only upon its less impressive aspects and results, intended and unintended. And while I certainly mourn the destruction of beautiful Gothic abbeys and, indeed, the suppression of monasticism at large (why not Reformed reformed Benedictine orders?), as well as the unintended splintering of Protestants into a million factions with millions of individualist popes, I would like to focus on the positive aspects of the Reformation in this post. No matter how uncomfortable you may be with things people did in the name of the Reformation (like killing Carthusian monks), if you’re not Roman Catholic or from any of the Orthodox branches of Christianity, you are a child of this movement.

It’s time, then, to focus on the positive, as I said. And I mean positive in two respects. First, of course, aspects of which I approve. Second, however, things about being Protestant that are not simply un-Catholic or anti-Rome. I know I have some Roman Catholic readership — this post is not meant to cast shadows on your expression of the Christian faith but for me to take a moment and celebrate my own:

  • Sola fide. Justification by faith alone is one of the central tenets of Protestant faith, whether Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or places even more radical. This is not the doctrine that it is often derided as being, of course. The foundation for this belief is the recognition that none of our acts can gain merit or favour in the sight of God and thereby our salvation — not even what Late Mediaeval thinkers call ‘condign merit’, where God pretends that our deeds have merit but, really, they don’t. The grace of God alone saves us, and we gain that grace simply through faith in accepting it. Faith means trusting in God, Christ, and the Spirit to save us and make us holy. It does not mean becoming a couch potato Christian with no room for good works. Some of the most robust believers in sola fide have also been some of the most austere Calvinists, so that image is a false appropriation of the teaching (that, sadly, occurs).
  • Sola scriptura. I’ve blogged about this before from the perspective of how I view tradition’s role in the life of the Christian. I take the Anglican line on the Holy Scriptures — they contain everything necessary for salvation. Nothing not in the Scriptures can be imposed on Christians out of necessity. Now, I say that as a consciously conciliar Christian, so how can I reconcile these two facts? I would argue that the Seven Ecumenical Councils are the working out of teachings that can be proven from Scripture — including icons, since the justification for them is rooted in John 1 and a robust, biblical faith in the Incarnation. In tandem with this, I still believe in the importance of tradition for a vibrant and lively faith life.
  • Worship in the language of the people. Now, I know that post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism has English-French-Spanish-Tagalog-what-have-you liturgies. Nonetheless, for 400 years, if a western Christian wanted liturgy in the local language, he or she would have to turn to the Protestants. For Anglophones, the English Bible is also coupled with Reformation (not so for other European languages, as it turns out). The heart of the faith, as expressed in the words of Scripture and tradition available in the Bible and the Prayer Book, is meant to be available to all; this is part of the idea of Common Prayer. This fact also gave part of the educational impetus of Protestants such as John Knox — people have to be literate to read the Bible.
  • Direct access to the Scriptures. Yes, Christ is available to us most especially through the sacraments, and reading the Bible alone in a room is not the same thing at all. But we believe that private reading of Scripture can be blessed and moved by the Holy Spirit in a vigorous way regardless of the official structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, says that the Christian who reads Scripture apart from the magisterium has cut himself off from the authoritative and prophetic voice of the Spirit and cannot rightly interpret the text (as discussed by Miroslav Volf in After Our Likeness). I acknowledge the danger of this approach and wonder if perhaps some middle ground between Protestant muddles and Roman Catholic authority would be best?
  • Married clergy. As the son of a priest, I cannot stress the importance of married clergy enough. 😉 I also believe that married clergy are an important part of the gradual Protestant freeing up of women in the Church. The married priest (and, in Presbyterian circles, Elder) has a woman’s voice in his life — her voice thus enters into the life of the ministry of the Church. Without getting into the thorny issue of women’s ordination, the Protestant woman has had a place of ministry and felt part of the church’s work long before she had access to the priesthood. Again, married clergy = me and my siblings and my dad and his siblings and my cousin (my uncle’s a bishop) and my nieces & nephew (my brother’s a priest) and my granny and my great-granny. My family wouldn’t exist without married clergy.
  • The rebirth of expository preaching. This, I think, is something that ‘Counter-Reformation’ Catholics and Protestants shared, considering the fame of the gospel preaching of some of the Capuchins. So it’s more Reformational than simply Protestant, if we think of reform as cutting across those boundaries. Anyway, I like a good, meaty, expository sermon. Not a big, long-winded one. Nor a short but piquant one. Something that helps open the Scriptures. This is a tradition that, sadly, had dwindled in average parish preaching by the 1500s. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformers helped bring it back into an important place within the local community’s life and worship.

These are just a few of the good results of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation — and one or two that also spill over into the Roman Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’ (it has been argued to drop the ‘counter’ from the term and simply say ‘Catholic Reformation’), even if they had to wait a few centuries for vernacular liturgy. I am sometimes tempted by the Eastern Orthodox, and a Tridentine Liturgy moves me powerfully, and we all know how I feel about San Marco, Venice — but I’m still a Protesant.

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