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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, and Handel concerts.

The esteemed Berliner Theologische Zeitschrift (Berlin Theological Journal) has provided an important service by dedicating a recent volume to the upcoming quincentenary. In it, scholars, church leaders, and public officials from a variety of backgrounds and points of view take stock of where things stand and offer suggestions to guide "collective memory" as the date approaches. But the title of the volume, Ratlos vor dem Reformationsjubiläum 2017?—in English, "Baffled: Commemorating the Reformation 2017?"—makes clear the difficulty of the task.

Even so, the groping for direction by the various essayists proves instructive. The redoubtable Hartmut Lehmann (former director of the Max Planck Institute of History) opens by considering the "different expectations" awakened by the coming event. The tourism industry in the former East Germany hopes for a boon, anticipating that the devout and the curious will flock to the cities of Wittenberg, Wartburg, Erfurt, and others. (Protestant kitsch has already made its appeal in the form of multicolored "Luther dwarves" for sale on Wittenberg's market square.) The German faithful hope that 2017 will be a missionary moment for what today is one of the most secular parts of the globe. To illustrate German secularity, Lehmann notes that there are probably more active Lutherans in Ethiopia today than in Germany. He laments, therefore, that in planning the "Luther decade" German Protestants did not consult more actively with non-Western Protestants. But the biggest danger Lehmann foresees in the coming commemorations is that Protestant institutions, in a bid to shore up their identities, will "simplify and dehistoricize" Luther, conveniently forgetting about his more "dubious" characteristics, such as his hatred of Jews and Anabaptists, not to mention Roman Catholics. Lessons about what not to do, Lehmann believes, abound from past commemorations, during which a sanitized "heroic Luther" was often offered up as a "herald of freedom" or harbinger of German nationhood.

In fact, several contributors focus on past commemorations in an effort to put the current moment into historical context. It is sobering to consider how much past remembrances have mirrored the mood of the times and served political interests. Prior to the French Revolution, commemorations aimed to fortify confessional identities in the religiously divided Holy Roman Empire. Later, in both 1817 and 1917, liberal and nationalistic themes were added to enduring confessional sensibilities. At the 450th anniversary in East Germany in 1967, the Reformation morphed into a distant prototype of the workers' movements and socialist experiments of the 20th century: 1517 and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 were, in fact, remembered together—the former, clairvoyantly obedient to the socialist World Spirit, preparing the intellectual soil for the eventual rise of Marxism-Leninism.

Another recurring theme: implications of 2017 for ecumenical engagement. Wolfgang Thönissen, a Catholic contributor, quoting the Protestant theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, argues that "the division of the church in the sixteenth century cannot be understood as a success, but as the preliminary failure of the Reformation." Thönissen praises recent Catholic historiography of the 16th century for turning away from polemical motivations to develop more nuanced and accurate views—views, he believes, ultimately helpful to the cause of Christian unity. He also provides guideposts to help Catholics evaluate Luther's aims. Catholics should candidly admit, for instance, the deplorable state of the late medieval church and sympathize with Luther's initial reformist goals. Catholics also ought to esteem Luther's high regard for the Bible and the desire by many (especially Phillip Melanchthon) for a council to pursue reforms. And with respect to the Council of Trent (1545-63), Thönissen feels that Catholics should admit that it over-reacted to the Protestant challenge, producing an overly juridical ecclesiology, overweening clericalism, and polemical theology that only the Second Vatican Council has helped correct. "For the ecumenical reception of events of the year 1517," Thönissen concludes, "it is important to connect the reform impulse of the Reformation with the ecumenical concern of today to reestablish Christian unity in order to overcome the divisions of Western Christianity."

In his contribution, Friedrich Weber examines the ecumenical potential of 2017 from the Protestant side. "Remembering is not easy," Weber makes clear, because both Protestants and Catholics have harbored bitter memories and reinforced them over time, accumulating layers of polemical interpretation. Even so, he believes that 2017 offers Western Christianity an unprecedented opportunity for Protestants and Catholics to engage one another in a spirit of charity, good will, and the mutual search for truth. It will be incumbent on Protestants, he admonishes, not to indulge in historically obtuse celebrations of the event; rather, they should recognize its complexity, including the legacy of bitterness, name-calling, and persecution. In particular, Protestants should remember the guilt they bear toward Catholics and approach 2017 in a spirit of penance, thus bearing out the first of Luther's 95 theses: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ … willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance." "One of the foremost ecumenical tasks of the year 2017," Weber sums up, "is … to come to grips with the conflicts and harsh judgments that were exchanged during the Reformation and which live on today, either underground or openly."

While only scant reference is given to American evangelical Christians—for whom Germans use the adjective evangelikal in contrast to evangelisch, which simply means Protestant—the essays in this volume prompt the question of how evangelicals should approach the quincentenary. The question is at once salient and complicated, because revivalist evangelicals of Anglo-American provenance, as D. G. Hart, Mark Noll, and others have compellingly argued, differ from Continental, confessional Protestants of the 16th century about as much as early Protestantism differed from medieval Catholicism. So the question of how evangelicals will regard this historical marker is, to say the least, interesting.

Allow me to hazard a prediction. In many quarters of evangelicalism, a tendency will arise simply to conflate evangelicalism and Protestantism with "mere Christianity" and thus to celebrate the milestone without too much fussing about ecumenical concerns or attentiveness to historical complexity. The doctrine of sola scriptura will likely receive much attention, as it was the teaching of Luther's most enthusiastically embraced by revivalist Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[2] Much of this will be harmless and done in good faith; we have already seen indications along these lines in the events and publications marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

But one might be forgiven for hoping that more reflective evangelical leaders will approach 2017 with greater insight and circumspection. Three things, in particular, suggest themselves as worthy of attention. The first will likely come easily to evangelicals; the second and third with more difficulty. First, evangelicals should recognize that the current situation of global Protestantism is dramatically different from that of the last centenary, as scholars such as Philip Jenkins and Lamin Sanneh, among others, have made clear. In 1910, for example, only 11 percent of Protestants worldwide existed outside of Europe and the United States. Today, that figure has risen to an astonishing 73 percent.[3] Any remembrance of Protestantism must take this transformed reality into consideration and ask: What hath Wittenberg to do with Lagos, or Geneva with Seoul? What is the relationship, in other words, of 16th-century creedal Protestantism to the many forms of charismatic Christianity flourishing globally today? Ought the latter be considered "Protestant" or do we need new terms? Should numerical, non-Western growth be regarded as prima facie evidence of success or do we evaluate by more elusive theological criteria?

Second, 2017 promises to prompt evangelicals to think more incisively about history and tradition—correcting two oft-noted failings of evangelical theology. The quincentenary will provide a propitious opportunity to illuminate, for example, the relative novelty of some evangelical theological emphases—sola scriptura itself, for instance, or the purely symbolic understanding of the sacraments championed by Zürich's Ulrich Zwingli. Such a recognition will likely abet ongoing efforts among some evangelical theologians to retrieve deeper and more enduring formulations of the faith found in the Church Fathers and in the early ecumenical councils and creeds.[4] What is more, while esteeming the highest and best in the Reformation, evangelicals ought to follow Lehmann's advice and not avert their gaze from its unsavory aspects: religious wars, virulent polemics, the persecution of groups such as the Anabaptists, and the fits of iconoclasm that destroyed sacred art.[5] Soberly assessing the good, the bad, and the ugly—in contrast to obtuse triumphalism—might not always bolster Protestant or evangelical identity, but it will serve the cause of truth, to which all Christian identities should conform.

Finally, and perhaps most important, 2017 will provide evangelicals with a moment to reflect on recent ecumenical advances along with the enduring, tragic divisions within the church. Indeed, dramatic changes have taken place in evangelical-Catholic relations since the Second Vatican Council and the papacy of John Paul II. The Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative (ECT), spearheaded by Charles Colson and the late Richard John Neuhaus—is one well-known example. Another is the decision by many leading evangelical scholars—Thomas Howard (no relation, but a dear friend), Francis Beckwith, and Christian Smith, among others—to "swim the Tiber" while maintaining gratitude for their evangelical backgrounds.

But a spate of high-profile conversions and an "ecumenism of the trenches," first animated by co-belligerence over social concerns, does not add up to meeting the deeper challenge of Christian unity called for by our Lord. This will require a far more profound and extensive theological grasp of the tragedy of the 16th-century church split. It will require evangelicals to cultivate the capacity to resonate with the words of Karl Barth: "If we listen to Christ, we do not live above the differences that divide the churches but in them …. We should treat [division] the way we treat our own sin and those of others: as sin. We should treat it as part of our guilt …. [We] can only be shocked by these divisions and pray for their elimination."[6] A sense of shock and tragedy about the Reformation, admittedly, might not come easily given the upbeat, activist ethos of American evangelicalism and the thin forms of historical consciousness that have shaped it. But, pray, should the seemingly impossible be allowed to buck the theologically necessary?

Thomas Albert Howard currently holds the Stephen Phillips chair of history at Gordon College.His current book project is entitled "The Pope and the Scholar: Pius IX, Ignaz von Döllinger, and the Quandary of the Modern World."

[1]. For a listing of events, see www.luther2017.de/eng/index.php.

[2]. Nathan Hatch, "Sola Scriptura and Novus Ordo Seclorum," in Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll, eds., The Bible in America: Essays in Cultural History (Oxford Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 59-78.

[3]. Mark Noll, Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011), p. 8.

[4]. See, e.g., D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants (Eerdmans, 1999).

[5]. See, e.g., Carlos Eire, War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

[6]. Karl Barth, Credo: die Hauptprobleme der Dogmatik dargestellt im Anschluß an das Apostolische Glaubensbekenntnis (Munich: C. Kaiser, 1935), p. 168.

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