With these words, Jaroslav Pelikan addresses the Reformation not as some blip on the radar of church history or some terrible detour to a once straight path but the true expression of catholicity. At this time of year, Lutherans often speak of their glorious heritage of reform and renewal as if our history began on this date in 1517. Luther would strongly object to a characterization of the Reformation movement as sectarian. Luther would bristle at the thought that he stood for some fringe opinion out of the mainstream of Christian thought and faith. Yet today that is exactly the impression some Lutherans want to give. We act as if our history began with a hammer and a nail and a church door and that nothing much happened in the fifteen centuries before that moment in time. Sometimes we are even more parochial and point to much more recent dates as the start of the true history of the Church (say 1839 and a few ships sailing from Saxony).
Existing side by side in pre-Reformation theology were several ways of interpreting the righteousness of God and the act of justification. They ranged from strongly moralistic views that seemed to equate justification with moral renewal to ultra-forensic views, which saw justification as a 'nude imputation' that seemed possible apart from Christ, by an arbitrary decree of God. Between these extremes were many combinations; and though certain views predominated in late nominalism, it is not possible even there to speak of a single doctrine of justification.
Newman was right in saying that doctrine develops but the doctrine that develops is doctrine gone awry. At the time the seeds of the Reformation were being planted, the doctrine of justification was developing -- not just ways of expressing the one truth of the Christ event but actual different theologies that competed and often conflicted. What happened in the Reformation was not the start of something new but the course correction that reclaimed what was old and true and catholic. The evangelical expression of justification was not some aberration but the reclamation of what had been lost or overshadowed by other truths and not a few lies.
All the more tragic, therefore, was the Roman reaction on the front which was most important to the reformers, the message and teaching of the church. This had to be reformed according to the word of God; unless it was, no moral improvement would be able to alter the basic problem. Rome’s reactions were the doctrinal decrees of the Council of Trent and the Roman Catechism based upon those decrees. In these decrees, the Council of Trent selected and elevated to official status the notion of justification by faith plus works, which was only one of the doctrines of justification in the medieval theologians and ancient fathers. When the reformers attacked this notion in the name of the doctrine of justification by faith alone—a doctrine also attested to by some medieval theologians and ancient fathers—Rome reacted by canonizing one trend in preference to all the others. What had previously been permitted (justification by faith and works), now became required. What had previously been permitted also (justification by faith alone), now became forbidden. In condemning the Protestant Reformation, the Council of Trent condemned part of its own catholic tradition.
As Pelikan points out in his seminal work Obedient Rebels, it was not the rejection of heretics but the banishment of its own catholic identity that was at work in the Reformation in its response the Counter Reformation. Yet Lutherans run the risk of doing the very same thing when they reject their catholic identity and forget the centuries of church life and thought that went before the tragic necessity of the Great Reformation. If we would be so bold as to challenge Rome to recognize the catholic identity of our confession, we must allow others to challenge us to see beyond the the sixteenth century.
Truly both options could not be allowed to stand -- justification by faith alone or justification by faith plus works. They were conflicting truths that weakened the Church and her witness to the world. But in resolving this conflict, the authority must rest with Scripture and not with the pious opinions of theologians whether ancient or eloquent. This was Luther's point. Let the conflicting ideas be sounded forth in debate and let the voice of God's Word decide. Not council, not pope, not theologian but Scripture must choose which is authentic, which is faithful, and which is true. Luther did not hide his convictions but put them forth and Rome should have been prepared to do the same. Instead we ended up with a breech and a schism and now with competing camps each claiming to be the right one.
Lutherans have become too institutionalized in their Lutheran identity and speak as if Reformation was the greatest moment in history. It was tragic and however necessary it will always be as tragic as it was necessary. Rome has become institutionalized in its Counter Reformation and so has amputated part of its own catholic faith and identity -- even anathematizing it. No matter the careful steps tried to reconcile in the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification, Lutheranism cannot live with justification by grace through faith as being a minority opinion and Rome cannot erase its own history of rejection. So we delicately dance around what remains -- is justification by grace through faith THE teaching of Scripture or is justification plus works what Jesus came to die for and what St. Paul commends as truth?
And so we celebrate one more Reformation. Lutherans needing to know and celebrate their history before 1517 and Rome needing to know and celebrate the reform rooted in the Gospel and the faithful corrective to what had become a mish mash of conflicting ideas about how we are made right before God. Can we give thanks for the Reformation without looking down our noses at those who gave Luther the boot? Can we proclaim the Reformation truth as not just one permitted opinion but the defining issue and the doctrine on which the whole Church stands or falls? And the catholic faith is this... ought to be the start of the preaching on this day and the start of every conversation to reclaim Protestantism from its abyss of relativity and Rome from its rejection of what Scripture teaches...