In October of 2017 we will celebrate the 500 anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The legacy of the Reformation is profound and has resulted in over a billion new Christians around the world. The Reformation was, among many things, a major new church planting movement which created thousands of new faith communities which encircle the globe. Throughout history a repeated theme is that when the church goes through a crisis, it often spawns fresh re-discovery of the gospel message which, in turn, unleashes bold new evangelism and church planting.
The question I want to address in this blog post is this: Is the story of the Reformation the story of a cataclysmic division in the life of the church demonstrating that Christians just can’t get along and see themselves as “better together?” Or, is the Reformation about preserving the unity of the church and the re-discovery of that ancient apostolic faith? I want to say that the Reformation was, in the final analysis, about catholicity, or church unity, not about division. Of course, from a structural, ecclesiastical perspective we had a Roman Catholic Church and after the Reformation we had several new branches, including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Anabaptist. This, in turn, has led to a narrative that the Reformation was about schism, unbridled individuality, secularization, and so forth.
However, the Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). The reformers believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical. They believed that there were acting on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel. To argue for the sole sufficiency of Christ for salvation is not a sectarian schism, but a contending for the apostolic gospel. The Reformers’ protest against the Roman Catholic Church was not against the concept of catholicity per se, only its unwarranted delimitation (“Roman”), as well as those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to authoritative Roman tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It is also important to remember that the Reformation sparked the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic church which addressed many of the abuses which gave rise to the Reformation in the first place. There remain important differences, but we should thank God for the renewal which did take place which has enabled, for example, over 1 billion Catholic Christians to read the Bible in their own language.
What does this have to do with today? On the one hand, it is schismatic to contend for new doctrinal innovations which have never been believed or affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, it is a sign of catholicity to contend for the faith “once for all delivered unto the saints.” A return to apostolicity is always an affirmation of catholicity. It also results in fresh evangelism and church planting. As Methodists, we are rooted in the Anglican tradition. We should never forget that hundreds of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith were burned at the stake for the Apostolic faith. It was said at the time that they were burned for being schismatic. But, looking back, they were actually put to death because of their deeper catholicity and faithfulness to the apostolic message. During Queen Mary the first’s short reign in England, over 300 Protestants were burned at the stake. Anglicans particularly remember the Oxford martyrs—all bishops—who were burned at the stake: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer (the compiler of the Book of Common Prayer). These three died for sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola scriptura (Scripture alone), and sola gratia (grace alone). They died for the deeper catholicity to which we have all been summoned by Christ. May we never forget.