That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.I was late in seeing this article by the well known voice among modern day Protestants and Evangelicals. His question seemed to revolve around the end of the Reformation and included his own story from Texas to Duke. It was curious because he does not quite know what to do with himself except to call him a somewhat enlightened Protestant. It was not so much a theological article as a personal and reflective take on things. It seemed to me that he ended just when some real stuff should have begun. But, in any case, one paragraph jumped out at me.
Republicans have been great as the opposition party but have always struggled in modern times with the real business of governing. It is, alas, easier to complain than to propose, easier to distinguish than to form a consensus. But most of us already knew that. Yet when it is pointed at the Reformation, it is something to be pondered.
Lutherans would insist that there are several reformations and that we claim only one of them -- the one that produced the fruitful work of the Concordia. These Lutheran Confessions have withstood the test of time even though the Lutherans today have considered them differently, to be sure. The other reformation(s) we do not claim. The splinter of denominations, the triumph of individual conscience and reason, the distance from the catholic tradition formed and informed by Scripture, and the skepticism and even wholesale rejection of that Scripture are all fruits of the more radical reform of which Luther could not be part. Yet, it all gets lumped together as the legacy of Father Luther and we heirs of that Great Reformation bear some responsibility for either its result or for leading it to some resolution.
The ELCA and those like them have thrown their lot in with the liberal Protestant tradition, so willing to forget Scripture in order to remember and affirm the wind of cultural change. Their response is to find unity in extra-Gospel causes like the environment and social change while at the same time being content with a Gospel unity that is fairly shallow and allows churches to define terms pretty much as they desire.
Missouri has struggled with this more than most and tried to venture out from its self-imposed isolation of the Gospel and all its articles. What it has bought Missouri is more solid theological unity within than most churches and traditions born of this Reformation time period. Were it not for a growing chorus of Lutherans born of mission plants a hundred years ago or more, we Missourians just might be a lonely lot. Now it seems that many among the flourishing churches of Africa and other places are looking for substance and Missouri is where the begin their quest for real partners of conviction.
In the end, however, I am not as concerned as most about visible unity. Having the same denominational headquarters or being in fellowship with many groups does not seem to me to be an end but a diversion from the primary call to be the Church, to speak the Gospel, to address the world with the love of Christ in mercy and service... Christian division is not a problem unless those divisions are themselves not about the Gospel and its articles. If we really are not all that sure we believe anything but vague code words for affirmation, hope, and kindness, what justifies those divisions. But if we, like Luther and Zwingli, wrestle with the Word of God and cannot find common truth, then those divisions are not bad. It may seem then that individual conscience and reason get to decide whether it was Luther or Zwingli who was correct but that is never something Luther held and certainly not something Lutherans confess. The doctrine, the Gospel, all its articles, and the practice of this faith are catholic and not sectarian and it is not hard to see, between Luther and Zwingli, who was sectarian when it came to the presence of Christ in His Holy Supper.
Yet the question Hauerwas raises is a good one to ponder. What now? Protestantism cannot be an end. The Gospel is both beginning and end. Where Protestantism no longer has the Gospel as its beginning and end, the end has already come. Where we contend for the Gospel in our own age and time, fiercely and determinedly faithful to the Word of God and its catholic tradition, there is our end. We just need to remember, every now and then, that if we do what God has bidden faithfully, the results are and always were His to accomplish. It seems that this is one thing we often forget.