Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wrestling with the Reformation

As many Protestants prepare to commemorate the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation this October 31, I am conflicted about that development in church history.

As a Baptist pastor, I thoroughly identified with the Reformation. I relished Luther’s chutzpah that sparked the movement. I honored Luther for translating the Bible into the language of the German people. I was grateful that Luther and others articulated and promoted the three solas: by Scripture alone, by faith alone, and by grace alone.[1] I tried to turn the attention of folks away from Halloween and toward the celebration of Luther posting his ninety-five theses. On Reformation Sunday, we would sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and read Psalm 46.

Now as a Catholic, my appreciation of the Reformation is muted. Discourse, most often by theologians, historians and clergy rather than from lay people, is typically critical. They sometimes refer to it as a rebellion.[2] While they admit that the Church needed a course correction, they consider many of the beliefs of the reformers to be out of bounds. Yet, last year Pope Francis participated in a prayer service at a Lutheran cathedral in Sweden to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. He expressed that Lutherans and Catholics “should mend past errors and seek mutual forgiveness.”[3]

So I wrestle with the positives and negatives of the Reformation. I believe that the Lord God inspired Luther and others to challenge the Church for the integrity of the Gospel. At the same time, I believe God wants all followers of Jesus to be united—to be “perfectly one.” Unity reveals God’s love for us, which matches His love for our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:20-23). As the song from the ‘60s goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

But what would complete unity look like? Would the division between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, which began in 1054, be settled? Would the disconnect between Protestants and Roman Catholics, and further lack of harmony within the Protestant branch of Christianity, be resolved? It’s true that perfect unity will happen in the heavenly realms. But can we achieve it here on earth? If so, how will it take place?

It will arrive as we realize that all branches and sub-branches of Christianity believe and teach that our salvation, our forgiveness and ultimate freedom from sin and friendship with God, comes from “conversion to God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.”[4] Unity will arrive as we speak respectfully about the nuances the branches and sub-branches emphasize. Unity will flourish as we recognize that disagreement among Christians largely has to do with the mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our essential relationship with our Lord. Engaging in worship with other traditions is a good way to appreciate their beliefs and practices. For example, in June of 2013 Judi and I spent several days at New Skete Monasteries in Upstate New York basking in the beauty of Eastern Orthodoxy.[5]

While evangelicals and Roman Catholics agree that our faith is all about having “a personal relationship” with God the Father through Jesus Christ, Catholics don’t typically use that phrase. So I take note when Catholics express their faith that way.

For example, the priest at the parish I attend recently gave this illustration during two separate homilies. He recalled attending a funeral at an evangelical church where the pastor was an outspoken critic of Catholicism. The pastor said something like this to the assembled congregation that apparently included Catholics: “If you think your rosary beads will get you to heaven, you are in for a rude awakening!” and “If you think your novenas will assure your salvation, you are mistaken!” Fr. Michael said that the pastor’s words were so annoying that he wanted to take his rosary beads and throw them at the pastor such that the crucifix would make a permanent impression on the speaker’s forehead. “But there was just one problem,” our priest said, “That pastor was right! Our rosary beads won’t get us to heaven. Our novenas aren’t the way to God. Jesus is the only way. It is only through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that we will arrive in heaven. Our rosary beads and our novenas are simply some of the means we use to connect with our Lord.”

And H. James Towey, in his contribution to Paul D. Scalia’s book That Nothing May Be lost, writes, “Any book on the Christian life is only of value if it facilitates or nurtures an encounter with Jesus—not the concept of Jesus or the legend of Jesus, but the Person of Jesus.”[6] He also quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more.”[7] Towey proceeds to tell his own conversion story. It’s worth the price of the book.[8]

I hasten to note that Catholics and evangelicals, and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition, have much more in common than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Here is a short list of beliefs revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church long before the Schism of 1054 and the Reformation of 1517.

       There is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit;
       God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, became flesh and dwelled among us. He is one person with two natures, divine and human;
       Sacred Scripture (God’s Word) is authoritative for faith and life;
       Our Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again to accomplish our salvation;
       We are justified by grace through faith because of Christ;[9]
       Those who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ;[10]
       We look forward to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will take us to heaven to worship God for all eternity.[11]

There are clusters of Christians from contrasting traditions that work harmoniously without diluting the tenets of their faith. A short list includes those aligned with Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ETC),[12] members of “That They May Be One” Evangelicals and Catholics in Dialogue,[13] and those who write for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity. I’ll focus on Touchstone because it is the one I know best. This publication, which has nourished me for fifteen years, has a clear mission statement:

Touchstone is a Christian journal, conservative in doctrine and eclectic in content, with editors and readers from each of the three great divisions of Christendom— Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. It provides a place where Christians of various backgrounds can speak with one another on the basis of shared belief in the fundamental doctrines of the faith as revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the ancient creeds of the Church. To the confusion of voices in the world on matters of order in religious, social, and cultural life, it speaks with a unified voice of that which, manifest in creation and divine revelation, flows from the life of God himself.[14]

It’s a pleasure to read Touchstone for several reasons: the writing is superb; each issue features a wide range of topics; and the authors express their convictions in a positive and constructive manner. Above all, its members seek to bring healing to our wounded society. Theological disagreement among, for example, a Southern Baptist (Russell D. Moore), a Roman Catholic (Anthony Esolen) and a member of the Eastern Orthodox community (Patrick Henry Reardon) is never on display. Their unity is palpable.

Such consensus is an example for my wife, Judi, and me as we enjoy our respective traditions. I like to say that we have our own chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. We remain united when we recall that we are followers of Jesus by virtue of our conversion to God in Christ. We remain united when we speak respectfully about our contrasting customs. We remain united when we affirm that differences in our traditions have to do largely with mechanics, descriptions and practices that promote our relationship with God. We remain united when we recall that first and foremost we are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Writing this helps clarify how I feel about the Reformation. Division, prompted by sinful attitudes and practices, still abounds. Yet, positive points of emphasis and nuances embodied by various traditions continue to nourish the body of Christ. C. S. Lewis observed that in heaven, “. . . each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can.”[15] That sort of praise of God does happen in this valley of tears, but it is often tainted by sin.

Thus, I celebrate this momentous anniversary, in advance, by writing this essay. I’m sure I’ll observe the day in some special way. Until then, I’ll read and support Touchstone magazine even more faithfully; and I’ll begin reaching out to evangelicals in our community to promote meaningful communication. Perhaps, by God’s grace, Judi and I will expand our chapter of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

© Stan Bohall
June 12, 2017
Word count: 1517

[1] I have since discovered two more: through Christ alone, and glory to God alone.
[4] Cf. “Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (, the penultimate paragraph of the section titled We Witness Together, 19 of 24. Not all groups that claim to be Christian are within the fold. The article “We Need to Stop Saying That There Are 33,000 Protestant Denomination” ( by Scott Eric Alt makes this clear.
[5] Cf.
[6] Rev. Paul D. Scalia, That Nothing May Be Lost (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 19.
[7] Ibid. Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, October 21, 2009, quoted in “Pope Encourages Personal Relationship with Christ: Points to Example of St. Bernard of Clairvaux”
[8] Ibid. 20-22.
[9] “Evangelicals & Catholics Together . . . .”, 4 of 24.
[10] Ibid.
[11] There are groups that claim to be Christian that do not espouse one or more of these beliefs. Scott Eric Alt makes this point in his article, “We Need to Stop Saying That There are 33,000 Protestant Denominations”
[14] Reproduced from the magazine’s masthead. A summary of that statement is the subtitle of Touchstone’s parent organization, The Fellowship of St. James, For Christ, Creed & Culture.
[15] Clive Staples Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 154.

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