Approaching the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation 

The year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses in Wittenberg, Germany, which eventually gave rise to what has become known as the Protestant Reformation. It will be the first centenary commemoration that takes place in an ecumenical age. What’s important to know is that a year of events in approach to the anniversary itself will open on October 31, 2016, and culminate on October 31, 2017.

On October 31, 2016, ninety-five Volkswagen buses will gather in front of Berlin Cathedral, and then head for ninety-five Reformation cities throughout Germany and Europe, collecting one thesis from each of them. By the end, if all goes well, there should be ninety-give theses from ninety-five cities across Germany and Europe, which together will add up to the ninety-five theses for today. The various places will reveal their own quite specific approach to the Reformation.

In addition there will be an exhibition showground in Wittenberg for ninety-five days in the summer of 2017, along with concerts, film festivals, youth camps and large worship services in various countries. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church will jointly hold an ecumenical commemoration of the Reformation on 31 October 2016 in Lund, Sweden.

The 2017 commemoration will also mark 50 years of Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue in which representatives of both churches have looked afresh at their own theological traditions and practices, recognizing the influences they have had on each other. Past commemorations have been by and large oppositional, intensifying the conflict between the churches and even leading at times to open hostility. This will be the first commemoration marked by a real desire to come together for its observance.

In our time, the international Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity has produced its latest report, titled: From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. The international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue has gone on continuously since 1967 and has been one of the most detailed and fruitful of all the bilateral ecumenical dialogues. The intertwining of these two anniversaries—that of the Reformation and that of the dialogue commission’s healing work—appropriately inclines us to a joint commemoration of them which is both joyful and yet also penitential, on account of the past sins and deficiencies within both communions.

What is there to commemorate about the Reformation, Catholics may ask?  The answer given by the Commission is the genuineness of Luther’s spiritual search and its very positive results in re-emphasizing the centrality of God’s free grace in the life of the Church and each Christian. The Report spells this out in a chapter entitled, ‘New Perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation.’ It shows how Roman Catholic scholars have come to a very different evaluation of Luther from the traditionally negative one of the Counter-Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church in general up to the time of Vatican II.

 It is now recognized that the Augsburg Confession of 1530, still the standard Lutheran confession of faith, stated the doctrine of justification within the context of the faith of the traditional creeds and that it called for a real reform of the Church and a new zeal in Christian spirituality rather than a complete break with the past. The third chapter of the Commission’s Report stresses that Luther insisted that his original theses were intended not as assertions, but precisely for academic discussion.

In the mid-16th century, the context was one of hardening mutual alienation. At the end of the 20th century, by contrast, it was one of increasing mutual rapprochement, powerfully aided by an ecumenically committed Pope and a Lutheran commitment to wide-ranging ecumenical dialogue, the latter in particular showing important advances not only with the Roman Catholic Church but also with Anglicans, Reformed and Methodists.

 Catholic Suffragan Bishop Jaschke of Hamburg has declared that today Luther’s ninety-five theses would also be accepted from the Roman Catholic side and said that he shares Luther’s criticism of the trade in indulgences at that time. And in Augsburg in 1999 the Roman Catholic Church and The Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which was affirmed by the World Methodist Council in 2006. The declaration nullified centuries’ old disputes between Catholics and Protestants over the basic truths of the doctrine of justification, which was at the center of the 16th century Reformation.   

These events set a new context for the upcoming commemoration of the
Reformation. Given that the kick-off of events leading up to the 500th anniversary will begin on October 31, 2016 , and culminate on October 31, 2017,  it’s now time to begin the planning of jointly-sponsored events.

May 2, 2016

Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC