October is the month of the year in which, as a Reformation specialist, I find myself least likely to be unoccupied. And as we head toward 2017, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest against indulgences, my calendar is filling up. But a question arises: Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?
For example, if you are a Baptist, it is odd that you would want to celebrate Luther at all. His views on your attitude to the sacrament scarcely bear repeating in polite company. The same goes for the views of Zwingli and Calvin, the former of whom had several of you executed. If you are a Pentecostal or a charismatic, then I am afraid Luther would have regarded you as a fanatic, a Schwaermer, and Calvin too would have repudiated you as a nutcase. If you hold to a memorialist position on the Lord’s Supper, Calvin could have tolerated you, but Luther—well, once again that ugly Schwaermer word comes to mind.
And do not imagine that indifference on these matters offers you an escape route. If you doubt that infant baptism or the Real Presence are issues worth dividing over, then you will find no real place at the Reformation table, either. As Lyndal Roper’s excellent new biography of Luther shows, the Real Presence was central to Luther’s thinking, and to say otherwise is to domesticate him beyond recognition. On this point, even Calvin and Zwingli could be categorized under the “S”-word as far as Luther was concerned. And perhaps we had better not mention what a serious deviation from the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity would have earned you. Michael Servetus could sadly testify to that.
The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.
By contrast, earlier this year, as that oddest of Protestant creatures—the Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin—I spent a few days as the sole Reformed Presbyterian speaker at a conference of Missouri Synod Lutherans. Four hundred American Lutherans to one ex-pat Schwaermer. I liked those odds, and I came out fighting. Yet I was struck by something I had not really encountered before: It was actually a refreshing change to be among confessional Protestants who vehemently disagreed with me along Reformation lines—and yet cared enough about me and about the historic shape of the Christian faith to want to change my views on the Lord’s Supper, not simply to relativize them or agree to differ. They did so because they understood Reformation Protestantism in terms of its historic confessional dimensions and dynamics.
In a similar vein, I am currently finishing a theology book with my friend, the Lutheran historian and theologian Bob Kolb. The burden of the book is to present the Reformed and Lutheran faiths side-by-side, to show where they agree and where they differ, and yet to do so in a spirit of Christian respect. True ecumenism has to begin there—with an honest statement of differences over things that are important. Next year, I am speaking at another Missouri Synod gathering. Again, that is where true ecumenism can begin—not in a reduction of the faith to the bare minimum required to maintain our chosen extra-ecclesiastical organizations, but in an honest confrontation over differences about things that really do matter. You know—things like baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
As the evangelical jamborees to celebrate the Reformation get under way next year (and, full disclosure, I am speaking at a few of these myself), the question that needs to be asked is this (to repeat): While evangelicals will be remembering the Reformation, what will they actually be celebrating? I suspect the answer is this: They will be celebrating the ability of American evangelicalism to recreate the past in its own image and thereby domesticate any figures whom it wishes to appropriate into its own pantheon of heroes. To be sure, that will be a lot of fun. And I do believe that anything that makes Christians love their history is a good thing and to be welcomed. But when all you see in the past is your own reflection, you cannot really learn very much from it. The 500th anniversary will have been a wasted opportunity for real theological and ecclesiastical reflection if it becomes merely an exercise in semi-fictional hagiography in the service of self-affirmation. Let’s hope that it proves to be much more than that.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. This appeared in FIRST THINGS on September 29,, 2016.