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Thomas Albert Howard

Preparing for 2017

How should we commemorate the Reformation?

The world lumbers toward an epochal date: October 31, 2017, the quincentennial of the Protestant Reformation. Countries, churches, universities, seminaries, and other institutions shaped by Protestantism face a question: how best to commemorate the Reformation 500 years after the fact? Like the marking of Columbus' voyages in 1992, 2017 will bring into public view longstanding scholarly debates, interpretations and their revisions—along with lingering confessional animosities and more recent ecumenical overtures. For Western Christianity, a moment of historical recollection on this scale has not presented itself in recent memory.

But how does one commemorate a historical juggernaut of such immense and far-flung influence? Protestantism, it should be remembered, has been credited (or blamed) for the rise of the modern nation state, liberalism, capitalism, religious wars, tolerance, America, democracy, individualism, subjectivism, pluralism, freedom of conscience, modern science, secularism, Nazism, and so much else. Interpretations of "1517" make up a veritable palimpsest of modern Western intellectual history. Moreover, the observances in 2017 will take place in ecclesial settings marked by the modern ecumenical movement and the Second Vatican Council (the fiftieth anniversary of which will be marked between 2012 and 2015) and in light of the explosive worldwide growth of forms of Protestantism that 16th-century reformers could hardly have imagined: evangelicalism and Pentecostalism.

Where to begin? Fortunately, Germany, where it all started, has been pondering and preparing for this event for some time. In fact, the decade from 2008 (Luther first arrived in Wittenberg in 1508) until 2017 has been officially proclaimed the "Luther decade," with each year marking something of importance in Luther's life or in the movement associated with his name.[1] 2012, for example, is dedicated to the "Reformation and Music" and will witness a busy schedule of Telemann, Bach, ...

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