The Reformation Remembered

on June 22, 2015

The Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology recently hosted its Pro Ecclesia annual conference, Remembering the Reformation Together: Commemorate? Celebrate? Repent?, at The Catholic University of America. This conference anticipated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 and surveyed the different understandings of and approaches to the Reformation of various Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox thinkers. The conference speakers presented the aspects they thought called for repentance or for celebration. Two of the more notable speakers were Stanley Hauerwas  of Duke Divinity School and Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School; they differed rather sharply in their appreciation of the Reformation.

Hauerwas’ lecture was titled “Ethics After the Reformation” and highlighted the contributions of the Radical Reformation which included groups like the Anabaptists and the Mennonites. Hauerwas confessed his sympathy with them, admitting that he did not care deeply about Protestant Christian ethics. He argued that when “Protestantism became and end in itself, when its churches became denominations, Protestantism became unintelligible to itself.” He said he identified as a “high-church Mennonite” and that theologians in academia are “more determined by where we went to graduate school than by our ecclesial communities.”

Throughout his lecture, Hauerwas continued to critique mainstream Protestantism through the lens of the Radical Reformation. He spoke of the influence of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and pointed to the Anabaptists as an aspect of the Reformation that did not have doctrine as its main point. According to Hauerwas, for the Anabaptists, the main question of the Reformation was the question of the Constantinian Church. He pointed out that the Lutheran reformation was politically and socially conservative and that there was a “underwriting of the status quo by the magisterial reformers.” He accused Roman Catholics and mainstream Protestants of abandoning an “eschatological Christology,” alleging that “neither the Protestant nor the Catholic Church understood politics to be radically different from the politics of the world.”

Hauerwas alleged that the mainstream Reformation thinkers divorced the doctrine of justification from Christology, and that that divorce led to modernism and the moralizing of Christian theology.  Contrary to the magisterial reformers, Hauerwas admitted of the Anabaptists that “some rejected the central tenets of Christianity, and some seemed not to know there were central tenets.” Their contribution, in his eyes, was a rediscovering of the congregational practices central to sustaining the holiness of the Church. In this scheme, theology was a communal discovery and the Lord’s Supper was not a meal for individuals but a corporate act of unity – a commitment to a life of community and a commitment to peace. He asserted that “it is not the task of the Church to sustain a stable world, but to be faithful to Jesus.” He claimed that Anabaptism represents a recovery of the whole life of Christ where the cross and resurrection are not separated from the Sermon on the Mount. Hauerwas seeming sided with Anabaptist separatism regarding Christians in government, asking, “If you’re a Christian, how did you become Secretary of State, especially if you believe in truthful speech.”

Unsurprisingly Timothy George, a Baptist, had a more rosy view of the Reformation. He began his lecture, “Is the Reformation Over? A Badly Framed Question,” with a brief overview of the past four centennials of the Reformation and gave a brief autobiography regarding his spiritual upbringing, his education, and his lessons in ecumenism. He argued that the Reformation must be viewed as a “tragic necessity.” It is tragic because it disrupted the unity of the Church and fragmented its witness. It was a necessity because “the good news of God’s unfettered grace and justification by faith alone” had been clouded. He argued that the revival of the Patristics during the Reformation benefitted both Protestants and Roman Catholics, and argued that the Reformation should be viewed as a development of doctrine as Cardinal Newman explained the term.

George ended his lecture by giving five theses about the Reformation regarding its prospects and the prospects of ecumenism:

  1. The Reformation is best interpreted through a hermeneutic of continuity rather than rupture or disruption (like Roman Catholics understand Vatican II). It is a development within a tradition.
  2. The quest for unity begins with a call to prayer. This notes that the “scandalous separations and divisions are a contradiction of the prayer of Jesus” that his followers would all be one. What is needed is mutual forgiveness and repentence.
  3. The ecclesial character of the Reformation is honored when we study the Church with enlarged coordinates. George suggests that Protestants need to study Roman Catholic theology and vice versa. He also acknowledged that Protestants generally need to deepen their appreciation for the Church and their understanding of what it is, noting “Church means more for Roman Catholics.”
  4. The Reformation should be extended by reading together the Holy Scriptures.
  5. Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Protestants stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the past, but also of today, who are called to martyrdom.
  1. Comment by Mark Brooks on June 23, 2015 at 6:59 pm

    I’m not terribly impressed by either speaker, actually. As for Mr. George’s 5 theses, I would quote him from 2 Corinthians chapter 6:

    “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ Therefore ‘Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.’ ‘I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.'”

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