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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

It’s Not About Luther, It’s About the Gospel

Upstaged by Halloween, October 31 is also Reformation Day. As Protestants mark the 490th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, how has the landscape changed? No longer issuing papal bulls for the excommunication, arrest, and even death of Martin Luther, the Vatican has been engaged in charitable conversations with the Lutheran World Federation as well as the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). According to many, especially mainline Protestants-but also evangelicals, the Joint Declaration on Justification (1999) settled the centuries-old dispute. A decade of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” widened the era of good feeling. So it’s no wonder that many evangelicals as well as mainline Protestants were wondering with Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? (2005).

You can listen to our interview with Mark Noll about this book here:

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It will come as no surprise to our readers that we dissent from this widespread opinion. There has been no material change in the Roman Catholic position on the issues that led to the excommunication of the Reformers. Even the Joint Declaration overcame the central doctrine of controversy only by embracing a Roman Catholic definition of justification as forgiveness and actual transformation (i.e., sanctification). See the excellent article by church historian Scott Manetsch, “Is the Reformation Over?” Manetsch nicely summarizes the points of controversy and concludes that these remain crucial divisions.

There has indeed been movement in terms of faith and practice, but it has been Protestants who either no longer agree with the Reformation answers or don’t think that they’re important anymore. (Presumably, the question of how sinners are justified before God is no longer relevant in the context of twenty-first century culture.) The Vatican is much kinder and gentler. The Vatican II rhetoric of “separated brethren” sounds a lot better than “pernicious and heretical sect,” but when it comes to the material issues at stake, nothing’s changed. The worship remains corrupted with human inventions that bury God’s Word; the authority assumed by the magisterium assaults the majesty of the church’s King to rule by his own Word and Spirit, and most significantly, Rome continues to reject in no uncertain terms that we are justified by grace alone in Christ alone through faith alone. As Calvin put the matter in his generous appeal to Cardinal Sadoleto, justification is “the first and keenest subject of controversy between us.” After all, “[w]herever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown.” Were the Reformers right when they said such divisive things? Is it possible that they were correct then, but not now? What has changed since the sixteenth century with respect to God’s way of saving sinners that would cause us either to give a different answer now or to dismiss the question as irrelevant today?

Aside from the material questions, it’s a combination of tragedy and comedy to watch Protestants fall over themselves to curry papal approval. On his visit last month to Germany, Pope Benedict was greeted with gushing praise for saying a few kind things about Luther (see here). After the pope visited the monastery in Erfurt where Luther resided, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Church of Germany announced to journalists that “Luther has experienced a de facto rehabilitation today through this appreciation of his work.” “We heard this very clearly from the mouth of the pope,” he said. “What follows now formally is another question … but that’s not so important for me.” However, as the Reuters report cited above observes, “Vatican spokesman Rev Federico Lombardi begged to differ on Saturday. ‘To say that would be exaggerated,’ he told journalists in Freiburg, the last stop on the pope’s four-day tour of his homeland. ‘What this is about is having deep faith and I think it emphasises the commonalities we have in our love of faith.'” Wow. It sounds like the story of a water boy who publicly professes his infatuation with the star cheerleader only to be told, “Let’s just be friends.”

Yet all of this unrequited love swirls amid busy preparations to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s church-dividing theses in 1517. We see that as well in the recurring announcements of Protestants (the Vatican itself being curiously silent) that the rift is overcome-because Rome no longer thinks Luther is a heretic. The gospel is apparently no longer at issue. Rather, it’s Luther. Do you like our Reformer (i.e., us)? “‘It would be nice if they could declare him a doctor of the Church,’ Erfurt’s Lutheran Bishop Ilse Junkermann told Reuters.” It’s sad to watch, just from a human-interest point of view.

No changes to the current Catholic Catechism? No papal pronouncement at least opening conversation to the possibility that the positions promulgated since the Council of Trent might contradict Scripture? Again, unrequited love even on this score, as the same post reports: “Vatican officials have suggested in the past that no official rehabilitation was needed because the ban expired at Luther’s death. ‘One cannot do anything for Martin Luther now because Martin Luther, wherever he is, is not worried about these condemnations,’ Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then the Vatican’s top ecumenical official, said in 1999.”

I like Luther a lot. I look up to Calvin as a mentor through his writings. But do I really care what Rome thinks of “my guys”? No, not really. It’s not about them. It’s about the gospel and the wider issues connected to it concerning authority, superstition, and idolatrous worship.

The Reformation isn’t over. Not by a long shot. What we need most right now is not the rehabilitation of Luther, but the rehabilitation of true proclamation. We need it now, even in Protestantism-perhaps especially in Protestantism, more than ever.