Reflecting on the Reformation

I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.

(Stanley Hauerwas)

Coincidentally, on Halloween/Reformation Day, I began listening to a two-hour podcast, Perspectives on the Church Fathers, featuring two notable guests. I finished it on Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damien (All Saints Day, if you’re into that Western Christian stuff).

So what’s the coincidence?

In this two-hour edition, host Kevin Allen speaks with two early Church scholars—Reformed Christian James R. Payton, Jr. (editor of the newly published A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today) and Orthodox Christian Bradley Nassif (a leading expert on the relationship between Orthodox and Evangelical Christians)—about the Church Fathers, including who they are, what they taught, and their significance in the Evangelical and Orthodox church traditions.

(Podcast Description, hyperlinks added) Protestant Payton is well enough acquainted with the Fathers of the Church that an Orthodox publisher published his book. And both Nassif and Payton agree that the Reformers had a solid appreciation of the Fathers and retained catholic views on most Christian doctrine.

I remain skeptical about even the original Reformation. I accept the dark view that it was a schism from an already-schismatic group, the Roman Catholic Church. It seems to me that it threw Pandora’s Box wide open, as, for example, Luther was already fighting the Radical Reformation before his death, and today’s debased, rootless American Evangelicalism is heavily influence by radical reformation ideas.

When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.

(Hauerwas) There’s a lot of anathematized religion in America. Read the whole Hauerwas piece for confirmation.

But I’ve been reminded by the podcast, by a commenter to a recent blog, by my older brother’s catholic-minded Lutheranism, by the semi-historicity of Calvinism that attracted me 35 years ago (in contrast to the largely ahistorical Evangelicalism I’d been immersed in for a decade-plus), and by the re-appropriation of the Fathers by serious-minded Protestants, that some greater respect may be due than I’ve been giving.

And I’m reminded by Hauerwas that the ethnic labels remaining on American Orthodox jurisdictions give rise to a suspicion – not entirely unwarranted – that the catholicity of Orthodoxy is flawed. Ouch!

Yeah, yeah: I know how it came about. But I know how the Reformation came about, too. There comes a time when historical explanation falls short of contemporary justification.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Reformation Day thoughts

Today is Reformation Day. In 5 years, there presumably will be a huge shindig for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses.

Some people take this very seriously, as do I (it’s hard to understand America without it), but some are invested in it so much as to take it very, very seriously.

In the “very seriously” camp is Russell Saltzman, “dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays.” How he took it seriously is the subject of a recent essay:

The post in question was called “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?” which would seem to be self-explanatory. Nevertheless, Reverend Saltzman explains how he, a Lutheran, came to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church. (Hint: It required an archbishop.) He goes on to lament that, while Catholics are free in most cases to receive the sacrament in Lutheran churches, Lutherans are still barred from receiving in Catholic churches.

I read the same Saltzman essay Strange Herring (who’s in the “very, very seriously” camp) read, and had some of the same reactions. But since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a card-carrying member of the Lutheran party, I did not take time to do the take-down Strange Herring presented, from which the preceding block quote is taken.

I particularly like his quote of “Mary,” who commented on Saltzman’s essay:

Lutherans are welcome to take Communion on the same terms as everyone else. Make your profession of faith at the Easter Vigil and be received.

If you think your differences from us are too big for that, they are too big for you to receive.

The eventuality of Saltzman’s way of thinking – that no serious differences remain between Lutheran belief and Roman Catholic belief – if one takes schism as seriously as the Church always did until the centrifugal force of sola scriptura required turning it into a virtue, is what the late Richard John Neuhaus did 22 years ago: return to Rome.

My take on the Reformation is “Why, oh why, didn’t Luther & Co. return to the Church from which Rome is in schism?”