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The Roots of the Reformation: The Relevance of History & Criteria For Unity

Dr. Kenneth Howell
October 19, 2017 No Comments

This article is the epilogue to The Coming Home Network’s reprinted edition of “Roots of the Reformation” by Karl Adam, which is available on our store.

A colleague of mine who teaches religious studies recently told me of one of his student’s understanding of history. The student had been assigned to read a book on modern issues in Christianity published in 1981. After reading the book the student asked the professor, “Well, when are we going to read the modern stuff?” My colleague felt justly disheartened at the student’s sense of history. If issues addressed in 1981 could be considered pre-modern, the writings of a German theologian from the 1940s must be positively Neanderthal.

Extreme though this incident may seem, it is not far from many Americans’ deficient sense of history. For many American Christians, the issues of the Protestant Reformation are now four centuries old and are thereby irrelevant to “modern concerns.” But even a nodding acquaintance with the issues of the Reformation makes us realize the relevance of history. What may surprise some is that Reformation history is as relevant to Catholics as it is to Protestants. One of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Adam, shows us the engaging force of history. The history of the Reformation and the divisions in western Christendom over the last four hundred years demonstrate the living reality of history in two senses. The teachings of the founders of various movements live on in the hearts of their disciples today, and the memories of past injustices and failures often bar the way of reunion among Protestants and Catholics.

When Karl Adam wrote The Roots of the Reformation around the middle of the twentieth century, he did so in response to a movement in Germany that placed the reunion of Catholics and Protestants in bold relief. This movement, called Una Sancta, built itself on the conscious attempt to return to the roots of ancient Christianity. The title of this movement was taken from the Nicene creed (“one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”) which both Lutherans and Catholics professed in worship every Sunday. This common confession evoked in the minds of many German Christians a call to heal the divisions within Western Christendom. In addition, the horrors and evils of the Nazi period in Germany’s history called forth from Christians the realization that only a unified Christianity would stand against the social disorder of their day.

Criteria For Unity

1) Seeing the need for unity

The social evils of our day, increasingly prevalent since the 1960s, have had much the same effect on Catholics and Protestants in the United States. We are witnessing an unprecedented cooperation between them in fighting against the social evils of abortion, euthanasia, and sexual license. It seems that the disintegration of the society around them has moved Christians to address the need for a more united witness of the Gospel, much as a similar disintegration affected German Christians during the 1940s.

2) Desiring unity

Seeing the need for unified witness, however, does not solve the problem of how to bring about that unity. The problem of Christian unity often seems intractable. Even though many seek it, it always seems to be beyond the grasp of well-intended efforts. Why is unity among Christians so hard to achieve? In a very real sense, the answer to that question is simple. To use the words of the Apostle James in his letter, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2). Unity must become an overwhelming desire for every Christian, a consuming passion that motivates each one. Our Lord Jesus commended the example of the persistent widow who pestered the judge to give her relief from her oppressor (Luke 18:1ff). A prayerful passion for unity, an intense seeking of the heavenly Father’s gift provides the key. Unity among Christians, like every aspect of God’s will, finds its answer in Jesus’ promise, “Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7).

Yet desire for unity is not enough. We must know where the path to unity lies, and why we have not been able to find it. Karl Adam’s Roots was quite prophetic, but even he could not see what greater efforts toward Christian unity would be implemented in the second half of the twentieth century. The developments in the Catholic Church since the time of Adam’s writing indicate two pressing needs for the Catholic Church and all Christians: the need for divine grace and the need for repentance from past sins and injustices.

3) The need for divine grace

Our lack of unity as Christians derives not only from a deficit of effective methods or clever organization, but also from the poverty of divine grace within our lives. While honest and open dialogue is necessary, while organizational questions must be considered, in the end unity only comes about as a result of Christians being filled with grace. The teaching of Christ Himself must penetrate more deeply into every Christian heart, for “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). If He is truly the vine, the source of all grace, then we the branches must take our sustenance from Him. It is this grace of the Redeemer’s divine life that will unite people torn by distrust and suspicion. Every layman, every priest, every bishop, in short, every member of Christ’s Mystical Body must be “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). And it is in this need that we find Mary, Jesus’ mother, as an example of believing simplicity. Her consent to God’s will in her life (see Luke 1:38) provides a perfect example of how God’s desires can accomplish great things when those desires live in the hearts of God’s redeemed children.

The only way to become “full of grace” is to be nourished by divine grace through word and sacrament. If we had Jesus here with us in person, simply doing as He asks could immediately unify us. If we had questions of doctrine, we could ask Him and His divine judgment would stand. Yet Catholics and many Protestants believe that Jesus is here on earth today! All traditional Christians believe that Jesus speaks to us through His word, the Bible. The Second Vatican Council reaffirmed an ancient Catholic belief that the Sacred Scriptures are the very “soul of theology.” This high confidence in the authority of the Scriptures explains the prominent place of the Gospels in Catholic liturgy and in the liturgies of many Protestant communions. The Gospels put us in touch with the historical Jesus who is one and the same as the living resurrected Christ. This same Christ is present to us through His instruction within the Church as the Church is fed on the Scriptures.

Christ is preeminently present to us through the sacraments. The sacraments provide us with an additional opportunity to be “filled with grace” by bringing us not only the teaching of Christ but also the divine life of the Savior. Why did Christ give us the sacraments and especially the Eucharist? He knew that human efforts alone could not achieve the will of the Father. Since we could do nothing without Him, He determined to give us His life through the channels of grace called the sacraments. The greatest of all these grace-filled instruments is the Eucharist. Since this sacrament alone confers the total presence of Christ (body and blood, soul and divinity), it has the power to unite all God’s children wherever they may be. Our Lord founded the Church not only as an organization but also as an organism. And just as living organisms need food to grow, He knew that His Church could not grow into unity without His very life sustaining it. Catholics are constantly reminded of this at every Mass because each of the four eucharistic prayers currently in use include prayers for the unity of all. In the end, only Christ’s presence in the sacraments can make us one.

4) Acknowledging past sins and injustice

When grace enters our life on an increasing basis, we are not only strengthened to do God’s will, we are made aware of our personal need to confess our failures and sins. The desire for unity requires acknowledgment of sins, injustices and failures of the church and its members. Here is true hope for unity among Christians, and a reason for hope that Karl Adam could not foresee. This Catholic theologian, writing in the late 1940s, could not possibly have known what magnanimous efforts toward unity the longest reigning Pope in the twentieth century would institute. John Paul II untiringly sought to bring unity to Christendom. His Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint (“That they may be one”) attempted to extend and enlarge the vision of Vatican II by calling every Christian to an examination of conscience that genuinely desires to confess our corporate and individual sins.

Besides the doctrinal differences needing to be resolved, Christians cannot underestimate the burden of longstanding misgivings inherited from the past, and of mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference, and insufficient knowledge of one another often make this situation worse. Consequently, the commitment to ecumenism must be based upon the conversion of hearts and upon prayer, which will also lead to the necessary purification of past memories. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s disciples, inspired by love, by the power of the truth and by a sincere desire for mutual forgiveness and reconciliation, are called to reexamine together their painful past and the hurt which that past regrettably continues to provoke even today. All together, they are invited by the ever fresh power of the Gospel to acknowledge with sincere and total objectivity the mistakes made and the contingent factors at work at the origins of their deplorable divisions. What is needed is a calm, clear-sighted and truthful vision of things, a vision enlivened by divine mercy and capable of freeing people’s minds and of inspiring in everyone a renewed willingness, precisely with a view to proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of every people and nation (Ut unum sint no.2).

Not only did John Paul’s teachings serve as a beacon light for unity. His actions spoke even louder. Kneeling at the doors of St. Paul’s Outside the Wall in Rome with Anglican Archbishop Carey and with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew, John Paul showed that the path to unity lies on our knees. He knew that the posture of prayer and confession of sin would open the floodgates of divine mercy bringing a union of hearts that is at the very essence of the Church. This Bishop of Rome saw clearly that the more we acknowledge our sin, the more the mercy of God will bring healing to the divisions among Christians.

Why did John Paul II show such willingness to admit the past failures of the Church? His primary motivation undoubtedly came from the confession of his own personal sins, and his profound awareness of how healing the sacrament of reconciliation can be. Yet, I also wonder if he knew something that few seem to recognize. Confession of corporate faults is probably easier for Catholics than for Protestants. This is not because, as one might think, Catholics engage in confession more often. Even though most Protestant communions do not have a formal sacrament of confession, only God knows who actually confesses their sins more. Nor is it even ours to inquire. I think rather that John Paul knew that confession of past sins, especially those against Protestants, would not do injury to the very essence of the Church. The Church is still “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” The Eucharist is still valid and the office of Peter’s successor is still the integrating and unifying center of God’s people, even if Catholic prelates and people have failed miserably at times to live up to the splendor of the Church.

For Protestants it is quite different. For them to admit the wrongs of the past must necessarily cut to the very core of their existence, to their raison d’être for being separated from the center of unity in Rome. Karl Adam seemed very aware of this difference when he acknowledged many of the valuable criticisms Luther had made of the Church in his day. He sought to find reasons within the Church why the scourge of division had persisted so long. Adam also knew that he was on good historical grounds because he was familiar with the famous confession of Pope Adrian VI, made publicly through his Legate at the Nuremberg Reichstag in 1523:

We freely acknowledge that God has allowed this chastisement to come upon His Church because of the sins of men and especially because of the sins of priests and prelates…We know well that for many years much that must be regarded with horror has come to pass in this Holy See: abuses in spiritual matters, transgressions against the Commandments; indeed, that everything has been gravely perverted.

Karl Adam suspected that if there were ever to be reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics, the Catholic Church would have to take the lead in confessing the sins of the past. I think Karl Adam would have rejoiced greatly to see the spirit of John Paul’s acknowledgment of the Catholic Church’s failures. Perhaps he does even now. As the Church seeks to bring unity to all Christians, we of the Coming Home Network International believe that the world was given a great gift in the pastoral leadership of John Paul II. What Christian, Catholic or not, could not join John Paul in praying?

Merciful Father, on the night before his Passion your Son prayed for the unity of those who believe in him: in disobedience to his will, however, believers have opposed one another, becoming divided, and have mutually condemned one another and fought against one another. We urgently implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart, so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another will be able, in one body and in one spirit, to experience anew the joy of full communion. We ask this through Christ our Lord. (John Paul II’s Angelus Message for 12 March 2000).

Pope Benedict XVI has continued John Paul’s ecumenical leadership since 2005 in surprising and practical ways. Though I will never know for sure, I have often wondered if the cardinals who elected Joseph Ratzinger as Pope did so out of a desire to foster the trajectory of unity that the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II had begun. Because Benedict is German, he knows Protestantism probably better than any other bishop in the Church. And his very election signaled a spirit of reconciliation. Poles and Germans were bitter enemies because of the atrocities committed in Polish borders during World War II. To have a Polish pope followed by a German was itself a call to and an example of reconciliation.

Pope Benedict XVI, however, has gone beyond symbolism. On November 4, 2009, Benedict issued an official canonical structure entitled Anglicanorum Coetibus which would allow Anglicans and Episcopalians to unite with the Roman Catholic Church while at the same time retaining many of their Anglican distinctives. Each country or region of the world must work out the details of implementation but this unprecedented overture on the part of the Pope demonstrated that the Catholic Church is set irrevocably on the path to ecumenism. And such structures provide for all Christians the hope that we may indeed be reunited not only in spirit but in church structure and in doctrine.

We are living in a unique time, a time when Christians are longing and praying for greater Christian unity. It is our prayer at the Coming Home Network International that this small book by a great Catholic theologian of a past generation will spur us all to seek that unity for which our Lord prayed in the last night of earthly life before His crucifixion. We can be sure of two relevant truths: Christ died to make His people one and He rose again to give us the power to pursue that unity.    

I guarantee [this book] will lead you to a deeper understanding of your own faith heritage, if not challenge it. Marcus Grodi, President, The Coming Home Network

One of the great Catholic theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Adam, shows us the engaging force of history. Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.

Click here to purchase “Roots of the Reformation” by Karl Adam, a new reprinted edition from the Coming Home Network International.

Dr. Kenneth Howell

Kenneth J. Howell holds a Master of Divinity degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in General Linguistics from Indiana University, and a Ph.D. from Lancaster University (U.K.) in History. He was Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi for seven years, and served as a Presbyterian minister for eighteen years.

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