September 27, 2017
In the Spring of 2017 I was privileged to visit an exhibition in Berlin exploring the roots and results of the Reformation. It was one of several in Germany: with its profound sense of history, the country observed the Reformation’s 500th anniversary with no fewer than four special exhibitions (in Torgau already in 2015, in 2017 at the Wartburg in Eisenach, and in the “Luther City” of Wittenberg, as well as Berlin). For all the loose talk about Europe as a “secular” society, the Reformation observance has been very important to the German nation: these exhibitions were held under the patronage of no less than the German Federal President.
The exhibition in Berlin was called, with a nod to today’s media culture, Der Luthereffekt (“The Luther Effect”). It highlighted not only Luther’s own turbulent story and contemporaries, but also his precursors – and there were many, for example William Tyndale in England one hundred years before. It noted the political dimensions of the Reformation, especially the role of the German princes seeking independence from Rome, as well as efforts at reform within the Roman Catholic Church. It hinted at, but did not really address, the question why Rome was able to keep contemporary reformers such as Ignatius of Loyola and Teresa of Avila within the Church, but could not succeed in keeping Luther.
Above all the exhibition stressed the incredible diversity, in both theology and ecclesiology, which was unleashed through the Reformation and its aftermath. Four “case studies” explored the expansion and inculturation of the Reformation into Sweden, where the Lutheran faith became an established, state church, even more so than in Germany; in Tanzania, where the Lutheran Church has a very strong presence and has done much good in bringing education and health care; in the United States, where the stress was on the Reformation’s emphasis on critical thinking and individual interpretation of the Bible; and in Japan (curiously, because the Lutheran influence is relatively small there). But this was a moment of ecumenical openness, with the exhibition highlighting the work of a contemporary Japanese artist – a convert to the Roman Catholic Church – depicting scenes from the life of Christ in the idiom of Japanese art.
The other side of the picture is, of course, the call – Christ’s call — to unity. We are one church, united in our common baptism, though divided into diverse ecclesial structures. Our essential unity has been shown in the way in which we have approached the Reformation anniversary. For 15 years, from the initial planning for the event, Protestant, Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have agreed that, while honoring the values of the Reformation, we should not “celebrate” division, but rather see it as an opportunity for mutual understanding and further work toward unity.
Thus what could have been a “celebration” of division has become an impulse toward unity. The Reformation anniversary has given us a gift: the chance to reflect on fundamental issues such as the role of Scripture as the basis for our unity, and the relation of Scripture to Tradition. Through the ecumenical movement, through the work of bilateral dialogues and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, we can now celebrate the agreements that allow mutual recognition among many churches, and we have clarified the essential differences that remain between and among churches. Chief among these is the question of the structure of the church (it is no accident that we speak of Faith and Order, that is, what offices, and in what succession, are necessary for a church to be authentic in the eyes of others).
To speak personally: whatever our differences, there is still strong hope. As an example my own church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is engaged in an official international dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Our two churches do not have a direct history of separation; we find ourselves on opposite sides of a division not to our own making. Yet we have something profoundly important in common: the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, as fundamental to each Lord’s Day worship. This gives us the basis for our dialogue: the conviction that, whatever differences of theology, ecclesiology, history and culture separate us, we are united at the Lord’s Table. Our quest in the dialogue is to realize that essential unity in actual liturgical practice.
The Reformation posed profound theological, ecclesiological, and cultural questions. The 500th Reformation Anniversary This is itself a fruit of the broader ecumenical movement of the last one hundred fifty years. And that is what we can celebrate in this Reformation Anniversary year.
What stands before us is the question of unity and diversity—what structures are necessary to preserve our precious diversity, within a visible and viable framework of unity? In the end it boils down to the issue which Krister Stendahl, the great New Testament scholar, posed: How much unity is necessary? And how much diversity can we accept?
Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Best, a pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is former Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.