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The legacy and future of the polarizing Reformation

Reformation: Legacy and Future, ed. by Petra Bosse-Huber et al. (World Council of Churches Publications, 2015).

According to Protestant tradition, Martin Luther initiated the Reformation when he nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. This makes 2017 its 500th anniversary, and academic and popular presses have worked overtime to publish new studies on point. Reformation: Legacy and Future is one such volume. Its contents derive from a 2013 congress in Zurich that was attended by more than 200 participants from 35 countries. The stated goal of the volume is to prove

authentic points of reference of international appeal for all those who are preparing for the celebration of the fifth centennial of the Reformation, with neither triumphalism nor misplaced modesty, with neither denominational polemics nor underestimation of the ecumenical challenges. (p. xiii)

Because the volume is celebratory, readers will — and perhaps must — judge its merits on the basis of their own preconceptions, rather than upon the academic merits of the essays between its covers. Regrettably, this will not prove difficult, for most of these essays lack substantive academic heft.

The volume opens with a sermon by Michel Müller, president of the Church Council of the Evangelical-Reformed Regional Church of the Canton of Zurich. He asks, “How are we to understand the last 500 years as ministry of the Spirit? … Would Protestants have been included as one of the signs of the Spirit’s ministries?” (p. 4). These are frank questions. But neither Müller nor most of the other contributors offer frank answers. One might be grateful for Müller’s encouragement of ecumenism, but the ecumenism highlighted by these essays is quite narrow. The authors are concerned with Lutheran-Reformed relations; only one Anglican is present, only one Catholic, one Orthodox, and one “radical” Protestant. Lutherans and Reformed with no interest in ecumenical relations are predictably absent.

Having edited one volume of essays and co-edited another, both of which sought out ecumenical perspectives, I am well aware of how difficult it is to secure the desired range of contributions. But one participant argued that the congress was too narrow. Hanspeter Jecker, writing from an Anabaptist and Mennonite standpoint, informs readers that “the frequently repeated openness to involve the heirs of the radical Reformation in the preparations for the Reformation Jubilee has hardly been reflected concretely in the organization and procedure of the meeting” (p. 327). This is too bad. It highlights the fundamental argument against Protestantism: its fissiparousness. Can something truly of God really be so devoid of unity?

The most balanced theological essay belongs to Rowan Williams. He points to three positive outcomes of the Reformation: its emphatic distinction between Creator and created, its biblicism, and its emphasis upon grace. But he also points to three “ambivalent” outcomes (p. 41): rationalism, ecclesial fragmentation, and a vision of the divine will so authoritarian that human freedom was soon reconceived in fundamentally secular terms.

Some other essays are equally fine. Marianne Carbonnier-Burkard offers a fascinating overview of the development of Reformation jubilees from 1617 to the present; insofar as the Reformation is the result of hagiography, its roots lie in the first Reformation jubilee of 1617. Viorel Mehedinţu discusses one of the most interesting moments in 16th-century history: the brief correspondence between Lutheran theologians in Tübingen and Jeremias II, Patriarch of Constantinople.

But on the whole, sober studies are outweighed by celebration. As I read, I kept asking myself, “Why should I care?” I never found an answer. Perhaps this is because burning questions surrounding the legacy of 16th-century history — matters such as secularization and confessional violence — are basically ignored. One author, Christophe Chalamet, a professor of theology at the University of Geneva and Fordham University, offers a five-page book review of Brad S. Gregory’s polemical 2012 study The Unintended Reformation, which blamed the Reformation for modern secularization. I have zero sympathy with the apologetic abuse of history, but I also take it seriously, because arguments such as Gregory’s are quite widespread. Serious issues deserve serious treatment; arguments like Gregory’s need something far more substantive than short, dismissive analyses. I am not asking for yet another guilty German conscience to ponder the thin lines of connection between Martin Luther and Nazism. I am calling for something other than tired cheerleading.

Marred by hagiography and mired in heresiology, the Reformation is deeply polarizing. This volume highlights how Protestant churches in Europe are celebrating their past. Faced with an uncertain but currently bleak future, I am little inclined to fault them for occasional flights of celebration. I will fault them for not fighting. These essays are a paean to failure — but whether the failure is that of the Reformation or that of the editors is open to debate.


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