The Reformation and Church Unity

This blog is written by fellow Christ the King member, Tyler.

Here at Christ the King we are gearing up for our first official celebration of Reformation Day, October 31. While Sunday morning worship is the only biblically obligatory formal service we observe, many of us highly value the history of the Protestant Reformation as part of our doctrinal and ecclesial heritage, so we are excited to have Fall-themed festivities and a special time of fellowship with each other in honor of it.

As you might know, from a Protestant perspective, the Reformation constituted a recovery of the pure gospel of grace and of the functional supremacy of Holy Scripture over all Christian faith and life. These two issues, sometimes called the “material” and “formal” causes of the Reformation, respectively, are so key to the health of the Church that we believe the brave 16th century reformers were fully justified in challenging the medieval Church about them. But have some of the results of the Reformation discredited it?

The impact of the Reformation on the West as a whole can hardly be overestimated. Historians debate the significance of the so-called “Protestant work ethic” for various historical phenomena like the industrial revolution, but no one can deny that Protestantism in general has been one of the most important ideological factors of the last several hundred years in both Europe and America. Protestants today, of course, but also many secularists, would probably say that its overall influence on Western culture has been good. But what about the Church? How has it been affected?

Martin Luther, the theologian credited with kick-starting the Reformation, was an Augustinian monk who originally desired to reform and purify the Roman Catholic Church from within. However, after the famous Diet of Worms and several subsequent conferences about his writings, he was condemned as a heretic and an outlaw. Therefore he and later reformers established their own churches independent of papal authority.

In response the Roman Catholic Church launched the Counter-Reformation which, although it sought to revive true spirituality among the clergy and the monastic orders, also resulted in the Roman Inquisition and the Council of Trent. Writings from the Council of Trent condemn Protestant doctrine in the strongest terms, and at least formally continue as Catholic dogma today. So that which has been labeled a “reformation” in actuality may be better described as a secession.

Since the Reformation, Protestant churches have continued to divide into more and more denominations, based on the understanding of Christian faith and practice each group derives from a particular interpretation of Scripture. Without a supposedly infallible church authority to make pronouncements on official doctrine, fallible, finite, and indeed sinful human thinkers cannot easily agree on every point of interpretation. So when contentious points of theology or ministry become serious enough, no one is burned at the stake; churches simply split.

Some have numbered the different Protestant denominations that exist today at over 24,000. This number is probably misleading in a sense because it takes account of the minutest distinctions between otherwise identical denominations (e.g. differing flavors of conservative Presbyterian bodies who subscribe to identical confessional standards). However, the bare possibility of coming up with such a number illustrates something which is disconcerting to some Protestants and is a favorite argument of many Roman Catholic apologists: significant lack of Protestant church unity. Is this fruit of the Reformation rotten enough to say it was a bad tree after all?

It is all too common for this issue to cause Protestant believers to re-examine their beliefs about church doctrine and history, to despair of denominationalism, and to retreat to Rome (or Constantinople, as it were, in cases where the Eastern Orthodox tradition seems more appealing). They suppose they can have assurance that the purest doctrine and worship may be found in the oldest visible institutions of the Christian Church. After all, it is thought, greater historical proximity to the apostles and the sub-apostolic fathers results in greater access to the truths Christ has given to the Church through both Scripture and an authoritative oral tradition. With top-down interpretation based on historical tradition, there’s no need for the kitchen sink mess of Protestant factionalism. Right?

There are a number of responses a Protestant apologist might give. She could point out that although there are “24,000 Protestant denominations” that don’t agree on everything, a large percentage of them do agree on the most central issues of the gospel: justification by faith, the deity of Christ, substitutionary atonement, the resurrection, etc. Or she may point out that while institutions like the papacy and notions of infallibility are intended to preserve unity, in actuality many Catholic theologians continue to disagree on the correct interpretation of all kinds of official Church dogma, even rather fundamental issues (especially since Vatican II). Alternatively, she could argue the point that Roman Catholic teaching has not, in fact, been static throughout the ages but has itself undergone substantial development and change (appeals to Kantian epistemology notwithstanding). Or she may instead focus on the idea that whatever the practical consequences, the preservation of sola scriptura is always worth the price.

These would all be good arguments, but there is another one that people do not often discuss. It has to do with the biblical vision of church history and unity. The common notion that the Bible presents the early Church as a pure, pristine, fully unified community of believers that should never need to undergo structural change or doctrinal development is mistaken. A cursory glance at the New Testament epistles should confirm this, unless one conjectures that each of the earliest churches immediately and fully “shaped up” upon reception of the completed canon.

More importantly, however, is the positive vision the New Testament gives for the future of the unity of the Church. Restorationist movements have the same problem that Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers do at this point, because while they suppose the solution to Protestant disunity is to go back in time to a (supposedly) unified primitive Church, the New Testament actually looks forward to the unity of the Church in the end times alone. The metaphor in the book of Ephesians is that of a mature man who has grown up into Christ and finally attained to a unity of faith:

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13, NASB).

The implication is that, contrary to hardline traditionalist (and restorationist) thought, the Church must seek a future of unity that goes far beyond any sort of formal unity the Roman and Eastern churches have ever known. The path to unity among Protestantism (and the wider Church) is maturation, not reversion. That path, as with every such path, will involve plenty of messes and hardships along the way—messes like 1521 Wittenberg. But when the truths of the gospel are at stake, messes are always worth making, because in His own time God always vindicates His truth and blesses the efforts of His people in its promulgation.

We should believe such is the case with the Reformation. The great doctrines of our gracious salvation in Christ were brought to new light and given fresh clarity in that period. So although there have been divisions and factions among Protestants ever since, we trust God will take His truth and use it to further sanctify and instruct His people in this multi-millennia project of growth into eventual Church unity.

Divisions remain, but we do not despair but rather thank God for His patience and for His promise to grow us up together into His Son, realizing that our own work in this age is not done. We must reach more people with the gospel but we must also learn to love and serve each other into greater understanding of the Word of God. A couple of verses later in Ephesians, we read the divinely-ordained means of so doing:

“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).

So do your part this Reformation Day season and speak the truth in love to one another!

Soli Deo Gloria