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The Reformation, a Tragic Necessity

By Timothy George


Jaroslav Pelikan (1923-2006) was the greatest historian of Christian doctrine since Adolf von Harnack, and he was both more comprehensive and more sympathetic to the tradition he studied than was the great scion of German liberal Protestantism. Pelikan also had a knack for framing profound and complex issues in short, memorable statements. “Jesus Christ is too important to be left to the theologians,” he once wrote. Again, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” In 1959, on the eve of the Second Vatican Council, he coined another phrase of continuing relevance when he wrote of “the tragic necessity of the Reformation.”

That phrase appeared in a book titled The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, published while Pelikan was still a Lutheran. Much later in his life, in 1998, he was received into the fellowship of the Orthodox Church in America. This decision represented an Eastward tilt in Pelikan’s own spirituality that had been long in the making. But he continued to believe that the great religious upheaval in the Christian West at the dawn of the modern era had involved both the necessity of reform and a division at once scandalous and tragic.

It is not hard to find champions on one side of this antinomy or the other. The tragic side of the Reformation is obvious to those who care deeply about the unity of the church and who feel keenly the dys-evangelical impact of a fractured Christian community and its muted witness in our world today. All Christians repeat Jesus’s prayer for the unity of his church, and yet who can deny the open scandal of the followers of Jesus excluding one another from the Lord’s Table, all the while proclaiming “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)?

But the necessity of the Reformation is also evident to those who hear in the teaching of Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin, Cranmer, and others the good news of God’s free and unfettered grace. The Pauline-Augustinian message of grace found expression in the doctrine of justification by faith alone—not “alone” in the sense of being divorced from a life of holiness and love, but “alone” in the sense of unmerited, “apart from the works of the law.” Necessary too was the recovery of Bible-based proclamation at the heart of the church’s worship, for as the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 puts it, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”

This perspective, however, is not shared by all. In some ecumenical discussions it is tempting to pass over the Reformation altogether. Many want to get back as quickly as possible to the early church to reclaim a common patrimony for all Christians in the fathers and mothers of the church of the first few centuries. As attractive as this may seem however, it is a luxury that Christians, especially in the West, can ill afford. It reflects the same reductionist impulse of those Christians who transmute the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (scripture as the highest authority) into nuda scriptura (scripture as the only authority), and accordingly read the Bible as though the ancient councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, or Chalcedon had never happened. “No creed but the Bible” is their slogan. However well-intentioned this impulse might be, an ecumenism that proceeds on the basis of forgetting earlier periods of church history is theologically suspect. We need an ecumenism of remembrance, not an ecumenism of amnesia.

This approach also ignores the fact that the Reformation itself was an age of great patristic ressourcement, to use a phrase often associated with the Second Vatican Council. In that first age of printing, we have not only the first critical edition of the Bible, Erasmus’s Greek New Testament of 1516, but also the first critical and printed editions of the church fathers. These include the magisterial editions of Augustine, Jerome, and Origen, edited by Erasmus himself, as well as numerous other editions by Protestant and Catholic scholars alike. Philip Melanchthon was one of the great patristic scholars of the age, and John Calvin was not far behind him. In some respects, the Reformation was as much a debate about the church fathers as it was about the Bible itself: “Whose Cyprian?” “Which Augustine?” “My Chrysostom, not yours!”

The retrieval of patristic sources in the sixteenth century was not merely the happy product of Renaissance humanist learning, although of course it was that as well. It shaped the way in which the great tradition of Christian believing was received, repackaged, and reformulated in the confessions and liturgies of the Reformation itself. Pelikan summarized the Protestant way of putting the argument: “If the Holy Trinity was just as holy as the Trinitarian dogma taught, and if original sin was as virulent as the Augustinian tradition said it was, and if Christ was as necessary as the Christological dogma implied, then the only way to treat justification in a manner faithful to the Catholic tradition was to teach justification by faith.”

In John 4, which depicts Jesus traveling from Judea to Galilee, we read: “And he must needs go through Samaria” (John 4:4, KJV). Today, in our desire to recover what the seventeenth-century Puritan divine John Owen called “the old glorious beautiful face of primitive Christianity,” we “must needs” go through Wittenberg, Strasbourg, Geneva, and Canterbury, not to mention Louvain, Avila, and Rome. As Protestant historians Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll have written: “In the light of 2017, it seems to us that Protestants are duty-bound to try to understand the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. . . . At the same time, Catholics should make the same effort to grasp why Protestants, then and now, felt that the Reformation was necessary.”

Later this year, on Reformation Day, October 31, 2016, Pope Francis will visit Lund, Sweden, to participate in an ecumenical service at the start of a year of activities marking the quincentennial of the Reformation. Several years ago, speaking to members of the Lutheran World Federation, the Pope framed the continuing encounter of Protestants and Catholics in this way:

I believe that it is truly important for everyone to confront in dialogue the historical reality of the Reformation, its consequences, and the responses it elicited. Catholics and Lutherans can ask forgiveness for the harm they have caused one another and for their offenses committed in the sight of God. Together we can rejoice in the longing for unity which the Lord has awakened in our hearts, which makes us look with hope to the future.
Published at First Things, 07.11.16

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. Adapted from “The Reformation and the New Ecumenism” in Protestantism after 500 Years, eds. Thomas Albert Howard and Mark A. Noll (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).