About 500 years ago, as the legend goes, a small-town German Franciscan friar named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” on the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. This action was the most obvious of many events during the 16th century that marked the rejection of many of the tenets and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, and led to the Protestant Reformation.
Luther believed that Scripture alone was the sole authority (Sola Scriptura) for doctrine, and that Christ’s death fully satisfied the penalty of sin. Thus the Protestant mantra became: Justification is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. This was a sharp divergence from the Roman Catholic doctrine that salvation came from works and faith.
Luther had no intention of leaving the church he hoped to reform, but his theological fury led to his inevitable excommunication as a heretic and the splintering of Christendom. As a result, with the help of Philip Melanchthon, Luther precepts became known as the Lutheran religion. From this Reformation Movement what developed was the church known today as ‘protestant’.
Now, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, one of the most common charges against the Reformers is that they divided the Church. What’s more, once the division came, inevitably division after division followed, with fragmentation, splintering and dissension; there are now approximately 33,000 different protestant denominations in the world.
On September 10, 2017, over 250 prominent scholars, pastors, and church leaders drawn from every continent and spanning most Protestant theological traditions and Communions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, Free Church, Nazarene, Pentecostal, etc.), released a theological statement affirming the essentials of the Reformation. Its Protestant authors contend that in this 500th anniversary year, the document must be a “catholic” statement in the best sense of the word.
This Reforming Catholic Confession (A “Mere Protestant” Statement of Faith to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation) is a document that outlines the main theological commitments held by a large majority of Protestant Christians since the Reformation. The purpose of such a statement is to “demonstrate the remarkable commonality that exists throughout the world among Protestants on the core elements of Christianity,” claims Jerry Walls, an author and professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, in a September 12 post on The Christian Post.
The Reforming Catholic Confession contains 12 articles that outline shared beliefs in such basic Christian tenets as “The Triune God,” “The Atoning Work of Christ,” “The Gospel,” and “The Church”.
The beliefs are followed by 25 “why we say what we say” explanations that capture key cornerstones and dimensions of the Christian faith. The final section of the Confession states the resolve of the authors to honor the distinctions among the variety of Protestant traditions, but to aim for even greater unity in the Body of Christ.
It is much like the creation of the Nicene Creed, developed in 325 CE, as a statement of faith that could be professed by all the faithful. It is a negotiated statement among the leaders of the various factions of the church at that time and is still used by a majority of Roman Catholic and liturgical churches.
As in 325 CE, no single group of participants gets everything they wanted to express in the document, but they nevertheless arrive at a mutually agreed upon declaration. “The question is not ‘Does this statement say everything you would want it to say,’ but ‘can you agree with us thus far?'” Walls said.
It is called a “catholic” confession, to reclaim the word (little ‘c’) catholic, meaning the church universal. The document is an attempt to recover the speaking of truth in love between divisions of the church. Too much dissension and negative rhetoric between members of the Protestant churches has come down through the ages. This is an attempt, much like the Nicene Creed, to emphasize what we all share, rather than how we are different.
In her book The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Phyllis Tickle, a renowned authority on American religion once said:
“Every 500 years, the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered so that renewal and growth may occur. Now is such a time.”
In a PBS interview, Tickle referred to this “[e]very 500 years” theory and said, “the church has a giant rummage sale.” She said, “Christianity is in the midst of a new reformation that will radically remake the faith.”
There is still much analysis to be done on The Reforming Catholic Confession by varied denominations of the church universal, but this may well be the beginning of a modern reformation, working to bring disparate factions of God’s faithful into closer communion with each other. The statement has already been translated into French, Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish.
The complete document can be found at http://reformingcatholicconfession.com/.
The Rev. Deniray Mueller serves as the legislative liaison for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.