After Lund, What Remains of the Protestant Reformation? A Response to Dale M. Coulter
While Pope Francis was taking part in the ecumenical events in Lund and Malmoe commemorating the Protestant Reformation, the giant screens in St. Peter’s square – the heart of the Roman Catholic Church – invited all to assemble around the statue of St. Peter to recite the Holy Rosary. Mere coincidence? Perhaps. It is striking, though, to notice that in Lund the intention was to bridge over the distance between Rome and the Protestant Reformation, while in Rome the clear indication was of a strong commitment to the Marian and Petrine marks of the Roman Church, that in modern times have been defined in light of all that the Reformation stood for. In assessing the ecumenical scene, the risk of looking at Lund without being aware of what happens in Rome is real. Yet both belong to the ecumenical landscape of our time.
So, after Lund what remains of the Reformation? The document “Is the Reformation Over?”, signed by dozens of evangelical theologians and leaders around the world, clearly suggests that the Reformation is in fact not yet over. The question is open though. In a pointed article in First Things, for instance, Dale M. Coulter criticized the statement of being theologically outdated and typifying an unhelpful bunker mentality. According to him, the document “seeks to define Protestantism over against the Catholic Church out of a concern that evangelicals do not have a clear view of Catholic teaching”. In doing so, “It simultaneously sets forth a misguided view of sola scriptura as implying that tradition has no role to play in Protestant understandings of authority and interpretation, and a reductive view of Catholicism that extracts papal infallibility and Marian dogma out of the hierarchy of truths and the structure of Catholic teaching within which they fall”.
The reality is that the document affirms that the main thrust of the Reformation was mainly theological and in essence centered on the recovery of the authority of Scripture and the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone. These two pillars of the Christian faith are its standing legacy after 500 years. This is the theologically positive thrust of the Reformation, both then and now. As a matter of fact, to be protestant does not primarily mean reacting against something but standing for something. In the XVI century pro-testare meant testifying to the truth of the gospel. The Reformation was a positive affirmation of what the church needs always to be reminded of: God’s written Word is the supreme norm for the whole of life, and salvation is a God-given gift from beginning to end. The word protestant, therefore, has a theologically positive tone. In this sense, all Christians need to be protestant, i.e. affirming, witnessing, and publicly heralding the gospel.
With various degrees of theological consistency, the Reformation tried to define itself according to the teaching of Scripture. At least in principle, it was Scripture that determined what was acceptable and what was not acceptable in the Roman Catholic Church of the time. The Reformation did not pit the Bible against tradition in abstract terms, but being fully aware of the unavoidable role of tradition anchored it to the sure foundations of the Bible. For the Reformers sola Scriptura was an issue of authority, not of hermeneutics. They accepted tradition and practiced it insofar as it was under God’s written Word. This is its standing legacy. It is also the vantage point from which all churches and traditions ought to critically assess themselves in light of Scripture. That is, “Is the Reformation Over?” document does not attempt to defend the Protestant Reformation per se. Instead it simply seeks to re-affirm in our age the two main commitments which are integral to the Christian faith.
The Council of Trent provided alternative accounts of the authority of Scripture and salvation by faith alone and condemned Protestant positions. The reverse was true as well. Protestant confessions condemned Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Since then, however, much water has flown through the Tiber River. It is a given, though, that the three Roman Catholic modern dogmas (Mary’s immaculate conception, 1854, and bodily assumption, 1950, and papal infallibility, 1870) rest on tradition as their supreme authority, thus running the opposite direction than that of the Reformation. Tradition has become magisterial rather than ministerial.
The post-Vatican II Roman Church, while being more open and nuanced (might we say more ambiguous?) towards biblical authority and salvation by faith alone, still retains a significantly different theological orientation from the classical understanding of Scripture and salvation of the Reformation. Dei Verbum (the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation) is a masterful exercise of theological aggiornamentoaccording to the “both-and” pattern of Roman Catholicism at its best. Still, it’s not what the Reformation understood concerning Sola Scriptura. The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, comes close to what the Reformation stood for in recovering the good news of salvation as a Christ-given gift, but it tends to blur lines on significant points. As evangelical theologian Mike Reeves has shown, in JDDJ “the matter of the Reformation was not accurately addressed there, and still stands: are believers justified through faith in Christ alone, or is eternal life ‘at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits’?” This is why the Reformation is not over.
“Is the Reformation Over?” is a statement characterized by a biblical “parrhesia”, i.e. the bold conviction deriving from being persuaded by the gospel truth which, after all, was recovered at the Reformation. The document reaffirms that on these two issues the Reformers were simply recovering the biblical gospel, and therefore so should we. After suggesting what was at stake during the Reformation and why it is still relevant, the last section of the document “looks ahead” towards better clarification and cooperation on the basis of the gospel, while recognizing the value of respectful and friendly dialogue and even cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church. Contrary to Coulter’s straw man, there is no bunker mentality in the statement, but instead a willingness to engage Roman Catholicism.
Returning from Lund to Rome, pope Francis remarked in his in-flight interview that “In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about. The first is the Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops. The second is the Marian dimension, which represents the feminine dimension of the Church.” The Reformation, on the other hand, would recommend the biblical dimension, and that dimension alone as sufficient. In a nutshell this is why the Reformation is not yet over.
Leonardo De Chirico