The Reformation: The Disagreements Weren't as Deep as We Thought

Thomas Ryan, CSP

A year-long series of events in preparation for the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be kicked off in just a few weeks with an international prayer service in Lund, Sweden, on October 31. Its chances of being a headline event are elevated by Pope Francis’ participation in the prayer service organized by the Lutheran World Federation.

What observations might be made today about the Reformation by way of a run-up to these events? At a July 4-11 conference on “50 Years of International Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue: Assessment and Outlook” at the Lutheran Ecumenical Institute in Strasbourg, France, Lutheran Dr. Kenneth Appold, a professor of Reformation history in Princeton, NJ, shared that the disagreements weren’t as deep as we tend to think they were.

From 1523 onwards, in the absence of any conciliar gathering until the Council of Trent in 1545, there were Reformation conversations or “colloquies” that developed. The aim was the reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants, and there were also some that took place between Reformed (Zwinglian) and Lutheran Protestants, and some between Reformed and Ana-Baptists.

These colloquies, noted Professor Appold, were distinguished by a number of patterns. First of all, they were convened by imperial and not ecclesiastical powers. There were, for example, imperial regional colloquies. And in order to run them, they used university ground rules for disputations. They were, in short, academic debates, with criteria for finding the truth, but they spent a lot of their time arguing about the principles and criteria for their debates. Zwingli’s thesis, for example, got little discussion because most of the time was spent disputing foundational debate principles.

Were it not for such dynamics, observed Appold, and if they could have gotten to the questions at stake—like justification, indulgences, the real presence in the eucharist—they might have been able to find agreement. The academic approach did not prove to be a suitable means for solving the problems.

And as we might observe given the events of our time, politics made it all the more difficult to have a clear conversation about faith. After the Diet of Worms in 1540, the Emperor of the Roman Empire was looking for allies against France and the French King, and he put pressure on the participants in the colloquies. In short, the goal of the talks wasn’t so much to reach a theological truth as a political and military alliance. Many political actors got involved, noted Appold, which made a calm discussion about faith very difficult. And this led to a loss of hope and defiant stubbornness—a scenario that may sound familiar to Americans in this electoral season and to Canadians in their response to the Supreme Court’s decision on assisted suicide.

To make matters worse, there were also internal Protestant disputes about some of the practices being introduced among Protestants, like new forms of worship and allowing priests to marry, which made it difficult for them to come to agreement amongst themselves.

Trent and Vatican II

Dr. Wolfgang Thönissen, a Catholic professor in Paderborn, Germany, related how the first decades of the Reformation reveal a new era in church life that required new methods of resolving the disputes. Although Luther had appealed to the pope in 1518 for a general council to resolve the disputed issues, it did not happen until the Council of Trent in 1545, due once again to tensions between the Emperor and the church. And while the Council of Trent didn’t condemn Luther personally, it did condemn his theology. Trent wasn’t able to reach consensus on every issue, and tried to ignore the dissension among the church fathers regarding some of the Reformers’ issues.

That said, Trent’s formal proclamations looked like unity to the outside world, and for the next 400 years the Catholic Church operated from a perspective of condemnation. But what Trent condemned, the Second Vatican Council tried to clarify, observed Thönissen. Vatican II’s examination of the questions of 1517-1545 led to the conclusion that the dissent among the Roman Catholic theologians at Trent was overlooked.

An example: For a long time Catholics thought Lutheran reformers completely denied the real presence of Christ in the eucharist. But it was more the concept of transubstantiation that was rejected. What was overlooked was that, while among Catholic theologians this was the “most apt” language to use, it was acknowledged that there were other words that could possibly be used as well.

The point: apparently the Council of Trent didn’t condemn everything that people thought it had. It simply said that we think this terminology expresses it best, not that any other way of talking about this should be condemned. From the outside, Trent’s texts seemed to be a straightaway condemnation of Luther’s texts; but from the inside, there was more nuance. “The teaching was not as fixed as we thought it was,” said Thönissen.

If we look at some of the texts of Vatican II, like the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, The Declaration on Religious Freedom, The Decree on Ecumenism, we see that much of what Luther and the Reformers said is presented in Vatican II, e.g. the relationship between Scripture and Tradition; the reform of the sacred liturgy; the priesthood of all the faithful; and the question of justification. This suggests that Vatican II took up the questions of Luther and the Reformation in a more conciliatory light. And the creation of post-Vatican II national and international Protestant-Catholic dialogue commissions carried the ball forward.

The dogmatic issues are important, and today, after 50 years of work, these commissions have produced an impressive collection of Agreed Statements on historically dividing issues.

We have reached a remarkable extent of accord. Our next step and challenge is reception of these agreements and their implementation at local levels.

November 24, 2016 Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Boston, MA.