As most of my readers will be aware, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Church in Wittenberg, Germany on this day, five hundred years ago.
No informed Catholic should deny that there were very serious problems in the Church in the time leading up to the Reformation. To see this, we need only read what Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, or any of the other Counter-Reformation saints had to say about the abuses they saw and the opposition they faced when they tried to correct them. We could also look at the reforms of the Council of Trent, or the biographies of Renaissance Popes for examples of corruption within the Church.
On the other hand, no serious Protestant should deny that the Reformation led to a fracturing of the Church and a proliferation of conflicting theologies that none of the original Reformers would agree with. I don’t think many Protestants would want to defend the purity of Henry VIII’s motives in breaking the Church of England away from Rome. And Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli soon found themselves divided against each other almost as much as against Rome.
Also, everyone hated the Anabaptists.
Students of European history will know that for more than a century after the Reformation, Europe was torn apart by wars in which religious conflict and the interests of the emerging nation-states were inextricably linked. These were not religious wars in any strict sense, because Protestant states would ally with Catholic states against other Protestant states when it served their national interest (and vice-versa). But nationalism and religious sectarianism fed off of each other in a tremendously destructive way.
I think anyone who has studied Christian history (or the doctrine of Original Sin) would agree that there was sin, error, pride, and stupidity on all sides. Of course, among the many things we disagree about, we disagree about which errors were committed by whom, and whose pride and sin did more to wound the body of Christ. We also disagree about what would have to change today for Christians to embody on Earth the unity which Christ prayed for in the Upper Room before His crucifixion.
As the editor of an ecumenical blog, I probably have seen more of all sides of these disagreements than most Christians, and I won’t try to re-litigate any of the conflicts today.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul described division in the Church as evidence that the Corinthians were still carnal, not spiritual. And at the Last Supper, Jesus called His disciples His friends, and prayed that they would be one, even as He and His Father were one.
I would invite all of my friends who are Christian—regardless of their theological outlook—to reflect today on Paul’s words to the Corinthians and on Christ’s prayer for His Disciples, in hopes that growing friendship with God will draw us closer to each other:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.
“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Photo Credit: Wikimedia. Julius Hübner (1806–1882), “Der Anschlag von Luthers 95 Thesen.”
The Council of Trent pronounced anathemas against those who held Protestant beliefs. This includes an anathema against those who oppose indulgences. In the Roman Catholic system, the Council of Trent remains “infallible” teaching and these anathemas remain one of the biggest obstacles to unity in Christendom today.
May there be a day when the purity of the gospel as found in Scripture is embraced more broadly in the church. May there be a day when Scripture is understood, like Augustine did (https://calvinistinternational.com/2017/09/13/stand-patristic-roots-reformation/), as the only infallible source of theological truth. And may there be a day when all God’s people are more clearly seen as unified to a watching world.
“Of course, among the many things we disagree about, we disagree about which errors were committed by whom, and whose pride and sin did more to wound the body of Christ. We also disagree about what would have to change today for Christians to embody on Earth the unity which Christ prayed for in the Upper Room before His crucifixion.”