Today, in Lund, Sweden, the pope is commemorating the Reformation. Now that is news that most Protestants, until the late twentieth century, would have been absolutely shocked to hear. But it’s true; this afternoon the Pope will commemorate the Reformation in the very birthplace of the Lutheran World Federation, now 70 years old.
To most observers, that raises a serious question: Was the Reformation, then, just a big misunderstanding? That’s the question NPR’s senior European Correspondent to Rome, Sylvia Poggioli, has recently asked. Perhaps the Reformation was a tragic case of two parties talking past each other, or two sides just unwilling to appreciate what the other side brought to the table. At least that’s what Gerald O’Connell, Vatican correspondent for America, the Jesuit magazine, thinks: There’s now a “recognition, perhaps, that both sides missed something at the time of the Protestant Reformation.” How so? “The Catholic Church missed ways of reforming itself. Luther and those around him pressed in a way that just couldn’t be taken on board, so, in a way, both sides misspoke.” Apparently communication was the real problem.
Yet according to Poggioli, all that misunderstanding is now behind us because both sides are currently talking, and not just talking but understanding each other quite well. The result? “One of the greatest rifts in Christianity—between Catholics and Lutherans—isn’t what it used to be.” If you’re not convinced, just consider Francis’s recent appreciation of Luther. On his trip back from Armenia, Francis praised Luther to reporters: “The church [in the sixteenth century] was not a role model, there was corruption, there was worldliness, there was greed, and lust for power. He [Luther] protested against this. And he was an intelligent man.” From these comments, one would never have known the church condemned Luther as a heretic. But more to the point, Rome needed a good moral scrub down, and that’s what Luther was all about. Too bad the authorities in Luther’s day didn’t take Francis’s new perspective into consideration.
So what areas of division still remain today? According to Poggioli, not many. She lists three: “the Universal Church and papal primacy; the priesthood, which includes women in the Lutheran church; and the nature of the Eucharist or Holy Communion.” But Poggioli is not worried, nor is Francis. “Pope Francis says that while theologians iron out their differences, the two churches can work together on social issues like caring for the poor, migrants, and refugees, and combating persecution of Christians.” According to Jens-Martin Kruse, Protestants and Catholics today can join hands and walk together; let’s call it, says Kruse, a “walking ecumenism.”
If Poggioli, and Francis, are right, one might walk this road of ecumenism with great optimism. It would appear the Reformation was but one giant misunderstanding.
Or was it?
The Reformation, one big misunderstanding?
Let’s start with Francis. Is Francis right? Was Luther’s protest just one bold Bible teacher’s frustration with moral corruption in the church? Without being overly dramatic, I cannot stress enough that whether or not you (or Pope Francis) understand what the Reformation was really about depends on the answer to this question. Despite the good intentions Francis may have, the Reformation was not most fundamentally or even primarily about moral reform.
If Luther’s reformation was merely intended to give the church a moral bath, we must admit then that Luther was late to the bathtub party. Yes, the church did need moral cleansing and desperately so. But moral reformers were nothing new. Numerous forerunners of the Reformation had cried out against the immorality they saw within the church. We would be historically mistaken to think, then, that Luther simply cried out the loudest. No, what distinguished Luther was that his reformation was not different in degree (as if all that was needed was a greater outcry against immorality in the church), but different in kind from those who came before him.
Reformation historian Alistair McGrath makes this very point. “For Luther, the reformation of morals and the renewal of spirituality, although of importance in themselves, were of secondary significance in relation to the reformation of Christian doctrine.” Though this may come as a surprise, Luther even criticized forerunners like Wycliffe and Huss “for confining their attacks on the papacy to its moral shortcomings, where they should have attacked the theology on which the papacy was ultimately based.” McGrath concludes, “For Luther, a reformation of morals was secondary to a reformation of doctrine.” In other words, at its core the Reformation was not a social, political, economic, or even a moral reform. Yes, each of these was a factor in what led to sixteenth century reform. But the essence of the Reformation was doctrinal. The Reformation was first and foremost a theological movement. It was, says Timothy George, “essentially a religious event; its deepest concerns, theological.”
The crux of the Reformation: Gospel rediscovery
Yet much more needs to be said. Certainly the Reformation was a religious event, but let’s be honest, Luther was not the first one to push “religious” reform. So what, then, distinguished Luther’s religious reformation? To be precise— and this is the point Pope Francis misses in his comments to reporters—what distinguished Luther’s reformation was that his deepest religious and theological concern was the gospel itself. Yes, doctrinal reform was the central priority, but the doctrine at the center was the unmerited grace of God in the gospel of his Son. In his well-known book The European Reformations, Carter Lindberg gets this: The “crux of genuine reform”, he says, “is the proclamation of the gospel of grace alone. This requires the reform of theology and preaching but is ultimately the work of God alone.” The “crux of genuine reform” was quite simply this: the gospel was in desperate need of rediscovery.
Luther was convinced that this gospel had been lost thanks to the influence of certain types of medieval Catholicism. As Luther came into conflict with Rome who was repeatedly unwilling to listen to his case, it became more and more obvious to Luther that the abandonment of the gospel meant that justification sola gratia and sola fide had been lost as well. And this was no small matter for Luther. “If the doctrine of justification is lost,” Luther lamented in his 1535 Galatians lectures, “the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”
Therefore, if real, lasting reformation was to take place, then there had to be a rediscovery of biblical doctrines such as sola fide and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the ungodly. Luther knew this, so he set his mind to preaching the gospel, lecturing on the gospel, and writing out the gospel again and again until those around him understood that man is only justified through faith alone. “I teach that people should put their trust in nothing but Jesus Christ alone,” Luther told Staupitz, “not in their prayers, merits, or their own good deeds.” In his new biography of Luther, Scott Hendrix concludes that it is this one sentence that summarizes “the essence” of Luther’s “reforming agenda.” For that reason, if we could only choose one word to describe the Reformation, it would have to be the word “rediscovery.” The Reformation was a rediscovery of the gospel, and therefore it was an evangelical reform movement at its nucleus.
What type of unity are we really after, Protestants?
If we are right, that the crux of genuine reform was the rediscovery of the gospel, then we should revisit Francis’s words with fresh eyes and a discerning spirit. Theology isn’t something to be left to the “theologians” until they iron out their differences, leaving the rest of us to focus on the “real” issues, which are social. Nor can we join this “walking ecumenism,” as if there was just a big misunderstanding and now we can gladly unite together. I may not have 95 theses in my back pocket, but Luther’s voice still whispers in my ear: true, authentic, biblical unity—the kind Scripture speaks about—can only take place around a shared gospel.
Unfortunately, Rome to this day continues to reject the gospel Luther taught. Despite the best intentions of ecumenical movements, Rome still rejects the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. It’s hard to miss imputation’s curious vacancy from the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999). Not only that but just as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) says justification includes not only the “remission of sins” but “sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man,” so does the Joint Declaration similarly say justification includes both “forgiveness of sins and being made righteous.” Undoubtedly, this is a Catholic view of justification, not a Protestant one, yet the Lutherans who signed this declaration somehow “confess together” this doctrinal statement. In this case at least, it would appear that it’s not the Catholic who has shifted but the Protestant. As Korey Maas points out in Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, “It is not entirely unwarranted, then, to believe that the Joint Declaration does speak accurately when it says that ‘the teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from then Council of Trent’—but only because the Lutheran teaching ‘presented in this Declaration’ is not that of Luther himself, the Lutheran confessions, or Reformation-era Protestantism more generally” (emphasis added).
A pinch of (biblical) optimism
It would be tempting to end this article with total pessimism. But Luther himself would not have done so. On the one hand, Luther groaned that if justification sola fide “is lost and perishes, the whole knowledge of truth, life, and salvation is lost and perishes at the same time.” But that was not Luther’s last word: “If it flourishes, everything good flourishes—religion, true worship, the glory of God, and the right knowledge of all things and of all social conditions.”
Be not mistaken, Luther recovered this gospel in his own day when he reclaimed justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. Yes, the Reformers struggled to unite around lesser doctrines, but let this be clear: they did unite around the gospel of free justification—Lutheran and Reformed alike. And Trent knew this. There was no ambiguity in their condemnation of imputation—an anathema that still stands today by the way.
Therefore, we Protestants can whole heartedly agree with Francis that unity is key—no, we can go further and say it is taught by Jesus himself! Yet Jesus did not teach unity at the expense of the gospel. The unity he shared with his disciples, and the unity he prayed would characterize his future followers, was a unity around doctrine, specifically around the good news he spilled his blood to ensure.
It’s October 31st, one year shy of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Let’s commemorate this event, but let’s do so without compromising the crux of the Reformation itself. Then, and only then, will everything flourish as it should.
Matthew Barrett is the author of God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture, which is part of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. He is also the editor of Reformation Theology (Crossway, 2017). He is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. You can read more about Barrett at matthewmbarrett.com.