In 2017, Christians are marking the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. Historians and theologians have been racing to publish biographies of Luther and analyses of his impact. Various museums are hosting major exhibits on Luther and his world. Pastors and church leaders are retelling the story of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 theses against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church on October 31, 1517. Congregations will join in singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Meanwhile, tour companies are marketing trips to Reformation sites in Europe, and providers of memorabilia are selling everything from Luther socks to beer steins and bobbleheads.
But beyond the books, articles, and exhibits, the commemorative worship services around October 31 and the nifty gift ideas for the Reformation fan on your list, it is worth pausing to reflect on what the Reformation means exactly for Christians around the world in 2017. Five hundred years after the Reformation, what should Christians be commemorating, especially in the increasingly diverse and globalized church? Does the Reformation have any relevance to Christians in South Korea or Nigeria or Argentina, not to mention in North America or in Europe? Does the Reformation still speak in any substantive way to 21st-century Christians?
These questions are hard to answer. First, many churches focus on the present and the future, largely ignoring their own history. If we don’t know what the Reformation was really about, how can we commemorate it? Then there’s the challenge of figuring out what aspects of the Reformation have enduring significance and what parts are rooted in the early modern world. As the heirs of Reformation divisions over doctrine, liturgy, and church government, how do we discern between bedrock issues and matters of preference that have become the norm over centuries? One way to move forward is to consider what changed because of the Reformation. What has the Christian church worldwide gained or lost as a result?
For starters, here are three important guideposts:
- The Reformation is a general label used to refer to a wide range of calls for wholesale changes in the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, primarily in the 1500s. “Reformations” may well be a more accurate descriptor. (The earlier split with the Eastern Orthodox Church is also important, but falls outside the parameters of this article).
- These calls for reform came from insiders, not from folks who were disgruntled outsiders disengaged from their church. The leading reformers Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin were all either priests or priests-in-training in the Roman Catholic Church prior to their advocacy of Reformation. They did not call for change because they hated their church but because they cared deeply about it and wanted it to follow Christ’s teachings faithfully.
- The Roman Catholic Church also engaged in the process of reformation in the 16th century. It worked to clean up abuses in church practice while reaffirming traditional Catholic doctrines. To try to understand the Reformation’s impact while leaving aside the story of the Catholic Church’s reforms is to have only a partial picture of how the calls for change reshaped all of Western Christendom.
There is no doubt that the Reformation dramatically transformed the religious life of early modern Christians. To make it easier to assess the Reformation’s longer-term impact, let’s consider different aspects of church life in turn.
Although each of those who worked for fundamental religious changes developed their own unique visions for reform, some key theological features surfaced again and again. These included turning to Scripture as the key authority in doctrine and worship, emphasizing God’s justifying grace through Christ rather than human efforts, concentrating on preaching, and committing to teaching the next generation the foundations of Christianity. A return to these fundamentals was definitely a gain, both in the short and long term.
Across the board, the Reformers sought to restore what they understood as the key teachings of the faith. These core doctrines can be summarized in various ways—as in the five solas: Scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and to God’s glory alone (for more on each of these, see Banner articles from March 2017 onward).
Yet these slogans provide only a partial look at the complex history of Reformation theology. The problem was that people disagreed about what Scripture meant and how to interpret it. For instance, the Anabaptists’ support for adult or believers’ baptism as most faithful to the New Testament record attracted opposition from everyone else who stood firmly for infant baptism. Jesus’ words at the Last Supper proved equally divisive. Reformers disagreed, for instance, about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Luther and the Swiss Reformed famously fought over this issue at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. For their part, the Dutch Reformed split in the early 17th century over conflicting understandings of the doctrine of predestination. These doctrinal divisions led to hostility and mutual attacks on each other’s doctrine, which was a loss in terms of inter-church relations (see more below).
Today, doctrinal differences continue to divide Christians, although church leaders have worked hard over the past decades to find points of agreement. So, for instance, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have issued a “Joint Declaration on Justification” in 1999. The core section of the text is worth quoting: “on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” This declaration is a major step forward, though not all Lutheran churches have signed on to this document.
In 1975, five of Canada’s largest denominations, including Anglicans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Canada, and the Roman Catholic Church, agreed to accept each other’s baptisms as fully valid. In 2007, five major denominations in Brazil, including Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Catholics, did the same thing. In the United States in 2013, four denominations including the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, and the Presbyterian Church USA formally signed a common agreement with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, mutually recognizing the validity of each other’s baptisms. So although we are still divided doctrinally, many Christians seek some common ground, especially in areas that reflect the heart of faith and worship.
The Reformation led to many significant changes in worship. First, Protestant worship largely moved from Latin to the vernacular, the language of the people. Second, most Protestant churches only retained two sacraments—baptism and communion—compared to the Catholics’ seven. Third, for all Protestants, communion involved partaking in both the bread and the wine, as compared with lay Catholics’ practice of only receiving the bread. Beyond these fundamental changes, there was little unanimity among Protestants as to the most biblically faithful way to worship. Lutherans and Anglicans retained many aspects of traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, whereas the Reformed and the Anabaptists adopted a much plainer worship style. This difference led at least one Catholic observer of early Protestant worship in Geneva to remark that he felt he was in school rather than in church. The Reformed and the Anabaptists also rejected any religious images in their places of worship, leading to the destruction of religious art in several locations.
Today, worship-related differences between denominations are shrinking. Indeed, there are sometimes greater differences in worship styles within a given denomination than between two different confessional groups. In church music in particular, denominations borrow freely from each other. Here, the Reformation’s strong encouragement to church members to sing in worship has led to a rich tradition of hymnody that crosses denominational divides. CRC churches sing pieces composed for Catholic liturgies (think of Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me, O God” or David Haas’s very popular “You Are Mine” for instance). Meanwhile, contemporary Catholic hymnals include famous Protestant hymns including “Be Still, My Soul” and “Amazing Grace.” Hymns and praise songs from the global South and East are growing in popularity regardless of denomination.
In many Protestant groups, especially among the Reformed and the Anabaptists, lay church leaders grew in number and in power. Among the Reformed, elders and deacons provided crucial leadership, especially for congregations facing religious persecution. Even without a pastor, these congregations could continue to gather for worship and remain active as a church body at the local level.
Giving lay people a greater role and a greater voice in church leadership has been one of the most important—yet often forgotten—longer-term gains of the Reformation. Churches around the world have benefited from male and female lay leaders from all walks of life who contribute their time and talents to bring forth God’s kingdom and help their local faith community thrive. Lay leaders, particularly in the global South and East, have served as highly effective evangelists, teachers, and pastoral care providers in their home communities, helping to bridge the gap between large numbers of church members and the small number of pastors.
In 1500, the vast majority of Western Europeans were Roman Catholic Christians. By 1600, rival confessional groups had taken root across Europe: Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, and Reformed competed with Catholics for people’s allegiance. Each of these Protestant groups split further, either at the time or afterward, often into more hard-line or more moderate factions.
So the Reformation led to profound and continuing splits within Western Christendom. This separation among Christians can definitely be understood as a loss.
Worldwide, Christians still live with this legacy of division. When European and North American missionaries went to other continents in the centuries following the Reformation, they did not simply bring people to Christ. Instead, they brought the new converts to faith within a particular religious tradition. So there are strong Catholic, Episcopalian, and Reformed communities in sub-Saharan Africa, multiple branches and forms of Presbyterians, along with Methodists, Baptists, and smaller Catholic communities in South Korea, and vibrant Catholic communities alongside smaller communities of Protestants of all kinds in the Philippines. While working diligently to spread the gospel message, missionaries also imported the seeds of denominational division.
In the 16th century, tensions between rival Christian groups led to executions, religious riots, and massacres. Today in much of the world, active violence between Christian groups has largely abated. However, tensions still remain. Some denominations or groups within denominations still will not collaborate with other Christians on joint projects, viewing each other as heterodox rivals rather than potential partners. At times, we still let our preconceived notions about other Christian groups’ beliefs or practices dictate our attitude toward them. The continuing fragmentation of the church (Christ’s body) calls for deep reflection and genuine dialogue. As a Reformed colleague of mine, Dr. Epiemembong from Cameroon, remarked, “We Reformed Christians in Cameroon only know those in our own group—we do not know what other Christians in our country are doing to address the same problems we face.”
Yet the experience of confessional diversity within Christianity from the Reformation onward can also be seen as a gain, even though this gain (religious co-existence) was slow in coming. Here’s why: by the late 1500s, individual Christians had to confront the reality that people living across the street or in the next town or over the border held to different beliefs and practices of the faith. While governments and church leaders at the time tended to preach separation and exclusivism, ordinary Christians on the ground had to figure out how to manage family and work life in spite of these divisions.
Here are some real-life examples from the 16th century to consider. Would a French Huguenot family still attend their cousin’s Catholic wedding? Would a Protestant baker sell his wares at a Catholic festival? Would a Protestant printer publish a Catholic prayer-book? Would a Catholic father send his son to the academically excellent (but Protestant) school? Would Lutheran parents accept a Reformed baptism for their child if no Lutheran baptism was available? Would young people from different confessional groups marry and successfully navigate the pitfalls of an inter-confessional marriage? Although inter-communal religious violence persisted, already by the mid-1500s, many individuals and communities were quietly coming to terms with religious difference. They found ways to emphasize workplace, neighbor, and kinship bonds that endured beyond confessional divisions.
Many of these situations from the Reformation era still resonate among present-day Christians. For instance, cross-confessional marriages have continued to pose challenges, especially if both sides of the prospective family are active in their respective churches. Yet the experience of ordinary Christians in the Reformation era offers ways forward toward coexistence, even in situations where people are divided by different faith commitments.
Does the Reformation still speak to 21st-century Christians worldwide? Yes, because it provides examples of men and women putting their faith commitments at the center of their lives, willing to go into exile for religious reasons, and coming to terms with increased religious diversity. Ultimately, the longer-term outworking of the Reformation was about finding the balance between profound commitment to one’s faith and recognition that others within the Christian family who hold different beliefs are still brothers and sisters made in the image of God.
Questions for Discussion
- What have you known, heard, or read about the Reformation? What do you appreciate the most about it?
- Doctrinal differences have divided the church from the Reformation until today. How do you feel about this disunity? How can Christians work together more closely?
- Have you experienced worship in a different Christian tradition? What was different from, or similar to, your home church? What did you learn from that experience?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of your church’s leadership structure? How has it been shaped by the Reformation?
- How do you navigate relationships with Christians from other denominations, especially those who are very different? Where could you improve?
About the Author
Karin Maag is the director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies, and professor of history at Calvin College. She is a member of Woodlawn CRC in Grand Rapids, Mich.