Important Words, Important History



                           by Kenneth Bagnell                               


       On a brisk autumn October day, 500 years ago this week, a man named Martin Luther, a priest given to radical change, stood at the door of a Catholic church in Wittenburg, Germany and nailed a script on it with 95 theses. They marked one of civilization’s most dramatic and influential passages. Luther’s act would lead to the formation of Protestantism, which today, even in difficult times, has a world-wide membership of 900 million. In Canada, the Catholic Church, even with its terrible troubles, has still 12 million members and about 8,000 priests. Despite all its troubles, it is a major segment -– well over 65 percent — of the Christian presence in Canada. 

       Setting that aside for the question of Martin Luther’s reformation, we turn to the huge historic question: was Luther wrong and was his vision of reformation a great advance or a great mistake. The Luther influence was so provocative that councils were called: the major one, The Council of Trent  was held in the 1540s, and 1560s, in northern Italy’s beautiful Trentino. You’d be surprised that in a certain theological circle there are Protestants who regardless of what you think, find allies in the tough evangelical, conservative culture, which includes the American Southern Baptists. For example, its almost 30 years, since the Southern Baptists, released a statement that included this candid affirmation as to why with this answer: “Whereas many Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have found in recent years a common area of agreement in their concern for the sanctity of human life, their opposition to the spread of pornography, in our society, their commitment to traditional family values, their concern for securing the rights of all individuals, without respect to differences of religion, race, gender and class…..” Thereby the largest fundamentalist denomination are in line with Catholicism. (As you know they were also activists in support of Donald Trump. How’s that for credibility?)

     More interesting and arresting is a very recent book on the current subject, called, “Was the Reformation a Mistake? by Matthew Levering, a professor at a Catholic theological college in Illinois. It was released a few days ago just before the opening of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. In a word, it takes the anticipated position on the purity of nine critical Catholic doctrines, hence being sacred and not available to critical assessment: Scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, monasticism, justification and merit, purgatory, saints and the papacy. These are not to be recast or ever dismissed in any manner. (The conservative magazine Christianity Today, always in line with the Southern Baptists, entitles its article: “5000 years after Reformation, MANY Protestants are closer to Catholics than Martin Luther.” That’s false.  (Ask thoughtful Methodists, Congregationalists , Presbyterians, Lutherans and countless other Protestant denominations.)

      The above book, Was the Reformation a Mistake?  included –to give it some balance — an essay that modifies the high handed absolute authority of the above Catholic perspective on theology. A segment of it appeared in the greatly respected on line “Religion News Service,” which I have subscribed to for several years. The on line segment is by a Protestant, apparently a theological academic named S. Nichols. He entitles his essay Necessary Reformation, and treats the issue with a modest but effective rebuttal: “Was the Reformation a mistake? No, it wasn’t, for there are clear and crucial differences between Rome and the well versed reformers on ancient Scriptures, not to mention the other seven doctrines in this book. The reformers’ efforts centred around a formal principle and a material principle. The formal principle concerns the question of authority. The difference between the reformers and Rome on authority was crystalized at the Council of Trent. There Rome recognized Scripture as authoritative as it is interpreted through Rome. Hence we see the value of the “sola” in the Reformation view of sola scriptura.” (Sola Scriptura, is a phrase which, in brief, means the scriptures are the sole infallible rule of religious faith. It’s the proverbial “final word.”)

     The contributor to the books value, Nichols, ends his brief subtle RNS contribution with a careful and credible observation: “Levering’s book does succeed in showing these real and clear contrasts between Rome and those who follow in the reformation traditions. Hence his book succeeds in showing that the Reformation was and is still necessary.” Well put, Professor Nichols, especially the final seven words.



Wittenberg’s town square and the Castle Church where Luther nailed his theses.   Photos by Barbara Bagnell


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