There used to be a time when your loyalty to the Protestant cause was judged by how much you hated Catholics. But today, with all the ecumenical dialogue, the Manhattan Declarations, the ECT council, and the postmodern virtue of tolerance, people are much more willing to let bygones be bygones. “Maybe we overreacted” is the thought of many.
To the Catholics, Protestants are no longer anathema (which is pretty bad), but are “separated brethren” (which is not so bad).
Attitudes are changing, we could argue, for the better. But have the issues changed?
Four hundred years ago we had a “situation” in the church. We call it the “Great Reformation.” Catholics understand it as yet another rebellious schism. The first major division in the Christian church happened in 1054 when the Eastern church got fed up with the Pope and thumbed its nose at him (or something like that). The Great Reformation was the second. For Protestants, this was not only a reforming of the church, but a reclaiming of the Gospel, which had been obscured and overshadowed by the institutionalized church of the day.
While there were and are a lot of issues that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are two which overshadow the rest: authority and justification. The issue of authority has been called the “formal” cause of the Reformation, while the issue of justification was the “material” cause. In this brief post I would like to focus on these two issues.
1. Authority: Where do we go for truth?
To the institutionalized church of the day (now known as the Roman Catholic Church), both Scripture (written tradition) and Tradition (unwritten tradition – notice the capital “T”) represented the one ”deposit of faith” that was handed down from the Apostles. The church, as represented by the Pope and the congregation of bishops, protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, could interpret both infallibly. Think of a three-legged stool. These three entities (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church) support the stool of ultimate authority for the church.
To the Protestants, this represented an abuse of authority. While the institutionalized church had authority, it did not have ultimate authority. While tradition (notice the lower case “t”) was very important and to be respected, it did not share equal authority with Scripture; rather, it served Scripture. Everything, including unwritten tradition, the councils, and the Pope, had to be tested by and submit to Scripture. Protestants repositioned both the church and tradition underneath Scripture.
The battle cry of the Reformers here was sola Scriptura; the Scriptures alone were the final authority and the only infallible missive from God.
2. Justification: How is a person made right with God?
Here the issue was not necessarily the nature of justification, but the instrumental cause (from a human standpoint) of justification. The institutionalized church believed that justification was a process brought about by the individual’s cooperation with God through their faith and works. People were not justified, but were being justified, and they could never really know of their own eternal security. For most, the best that they could hope for was that they died and spent a certain amount of time (usually very extended) in a place called Purgatory, having their venial sins (the ones that are not so bad) purged through a painful process of cleansing. Then, once released from Purgatory, they would move on to heaven. As modern Roman Catholics would put it, “Purgatory is the time to wash before dinner.”
The Protestants believed this was a serious distortion of the Gospel message, likened to the Galatian error. This distortion, argued the Protestants, arose in the late middle ages with the rise of the sacramental system (you know, the necessity of Mass, confession, baptism, etc.). Protestants believed that justification was through the faith of the individual alone and that works did not contribute in any way. Otherwise, it was believed, grace is not really grace. To the Reformers, justification was an event, not a process. It was a “forensic” or a legal act in which the believing sinner was declared righteous, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to their account. There was nothing that man could do to add to or take away from their justification. Any attempts to work for one’s justification (including time spent in Purgatory) diminished the value of the cross; in essence, saying Christ’s work was not enough. As well, Protestants, unlike Catholics, believed that we could have assurance of our ultimate salvation.
The battle cry of the Reformation was sola fide; justification is by faith alone, not by any works man can do.
Again, there were other issues that caused great strife during the Reformation (Mariology, relics, communion of the Saints, etc.), but they all paled in comparison to these two. While the tension and heat that immediately accompany any fight have since cooled, recent events have not changed the centrality of these two issues. Most Protestants and Catholics still believe that these are hills upon which we should die, even if neither side conclusively believes the other is going to hell.
We must keep in mind, however, how much the two sides do agree. When it comes to the person and work of Christ, conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics (along with Eastern Orthodox) all believe that Jesus Christ is the God-man (fully God and fully man) who died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave as the atonement for sin. All believe that salvation is purely by the grace of God and that the faith of the individual is necessary. And, significantly, all believe that Christ is the only way to God.
Was the Reformation necessary? I believe so. The communication and purity of the Gospel was at stake. Amidst all the concessions being made today, we need to keep this in mind: things have not changed that much. We can love each other and appreciate the common heritage we share. We can even learn much from one another. But there is still a serious divide and Protestants dare not compromise the Gospel by sweeping the Reformation under the rug. The Gospel is too important.