After 500 years of schism, will the rift of the Reformation finally be healed?
An ecumenical service in October 2016, led by Pope Francis at Lund Cathedral in southern Sweden, heralded a year of events running up to the 500th anniversary (October 31, 2017) of the Reformation that resulted in the greatest schism in western Christianity and a string of religious wars.
Christian leaders and congregations spent the next 12 months consolidating moves towards greater cooperation and dialogue after centuries of division. In the first papal visit to Sweden in more than 25 years, Francis led prayers asking “forgiveness for divisions perpetuated by Christians from the two traditions.”
In Germany, leaders of the Catholic and main Protestant churches issued a joint text calling for a “healing of memories” of past divisions. The commemorations are the latest step in a slow rapprochement between the Catholic and Protestant traditions pursued by Francis, who has put ecumenicalism and healing past wounds at the heart of his papacy.
A recent document signed by dozens of Protestant evangelicals and entitled “Is the Reformation Over?” says that although cooperation between the two traditions should be encouraged in areas of common concern, “the issues that gave birth to the Reformation 500 years ago are still very much alive in the 21st century for the whole church.”
[Harriet Sherwood | The Guardian, Oct. 29, 2016]
Why should we care about the Reformation?
Washington, DC—Dozens of religious freedom scholars, advocates, and supporters met to commemorate and discuss the implications of the Protestant Reformation for religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The one-day event, themed “Commemoration of the 500- Year Anniversary of the 16th-Century Protestant Reformation: Conversations on the Reformation, Christian Identities, and Freedom of Conscience,” sought to delve into the multiple connections between the watershed sixteenth- century event and our ongoing quest for freedom of conscience and worship.
“The 16th-century world lived in the grip of fear, explaining every disease outbreak with all kinds of superstitions,” said Ganoune Diop, director of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty for the Adventist Church. People would ask how they could ever be righteous before God, he said. “The Protestant Reformation was an answer to those questions.”
“The kingdom of God was central to his [Martin Luther’s] beliefs,” said Diop. “His theology expected the end of the world. So, in this doctrine too, he was a Reformer.”
Diop also pointed out that while Luther’s work opened ways for the freedoms we enjoy today, there was a long way to go. “At first, religious freedom was granted to States, not to individual persons,” he said, as he added that such a path often ends in tragedy, resulting in violence and suffering. “Claim to truth must be paved with the individual freedom to believe or not.”
While Luther was the most obvious reference in the commemoration talks, presenters also emphasized other forerunners of the principles of religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
“George Fox believed that Christian life should inform and affect everyday life,” said Gretchen Castle, general secretary of the Friends World Committee for Consultation, in referring to the founder of the Quaker movement in seventeenth-century England. “He believed faith and actions are not separated, which is still reflected in the Quaker’s commitment to making the world a better place.”
Ted N. C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference, summarized the specific Adventist contribution to freedom of conscience and worship.
“Believing that we are created in the image of God is the basis of human dignity,” Wilson said. “All human beings are endowed with dignity and infinite worth, and human conscience is an essential part of it.”
Wilson concluded by saying even when their rights are violated, Seventh- day Adventists seek the welfare of others for God’s sake. “Seventh-day Adventists are determined to help develop a global culture that respects every person’s freedom of conscience,” he said.
This ongoing commitment should inform everything we do in the present, not only in church but especially outside of it, said Castle. “[We] desire a church that is always reformed and reforming,” she said. “This is our spiritual imperative—to act and be active, to take risks for social change, and to choose to love.” [Marcos Paseggi | Adventist Review]
South American Biblical Theological Symposium
Entre Rios, Argentina—Almost 500 years and 7,000 miles (11,300 kilometers) apart from the time and place Martin Luther chose to nail his Ninety-Five Theses—or arguments on justification by faith—to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church, hundreds of South American Seventh-day Adventist theologians passed a consensus statement on the same topic.
On the closing day of the 12th South American Theological Symposium in Libertador San Martin, Argentina, regional theologians reaffirmed “the great principles of God’s gospel” as stated by Paul in his epistle to the Romans. They also expressed a renewed commitment to “the proclamation of the eternal gospel” within the framework provided by the symposium theme, “The Just Shall Live by Faith.”
“The statement voted reflects our commitment to the Bible, which Luther modeled so well,” said Adolfo Suárez, rector of the Latin-American Adventist Theological Seminary (SALT). “As Seventh-day Adventists, we have a total and unrestricted commitment to the Bible. In that sense, we are committed to the Protestant Reformation, which reinstated the preeminence of God’s Word against tradition.”
Plenary speakers included church leaders such as Artur Stele, a general vice-president of the world church; Elias Brasil de Souza, director of the Biblical Research Institute; and Alberto Timm, an associate director of the White Estate at the General Conference.
“As a church, we have always valued the Reformation, because, in a sense, we are its sons and daughters,” said Stele. “But the Reformation has not ended. It must be an ongoing process, as we keep striving to stay close and go back and again to Scripture.”
Timm seconded. “We cannot look at the Reformation as a historical one-time-only event,” he said. “The Adventist Church is an heir of that movement, which advocates for ongoing efforts to staying close to God’s Word. It is a process that should never stop.”
Theologians attending the Argentina symposium expressed their desire to pass a 750-word consensus statement that highlighted their commitment to the principles Luther derived from his study of the book of Romans, as originally stated by Paul.
“In his epistle to the Romans, Paul presents the great principles of God’s gospel,” reads the beginning of the document. “It is there that we find the doctrine of righteousness by faith in Christ.”
At the same time, the framework provided by the Protestant Reformation was reinforced by distinctively Adventist theological elements, including the overarching notion of “a great controversy between God and Satan” and “the mission of God’s remnant church to the world.”
The voted document also includes a reaffirmation of participants’ beliefs in biblical baptism, a new life in Christ, and God’s invitation to become part of His people. Finally, it reasserts participants’ confidence in eternal salvation in Jesus Christ at His soon second coming. Quoting Romans 13:11, it reads, “We reaffirm that our salvation is nearer than when we first believed,” something participants think should move every Seventh-day Adventist towards a “total commitment to the proclamation of the eternal gospel.”
And it closes by stating, “As we announce [the Gospel], God’s grace and justice are revealed, because ‘the just shall live by faith.’”
[Marcos Paseggi | Adventist Review with contributions by South American Division News and River Plate Adventist University News]
The Protestant Reformation continues
Fort Lauderdale, Florida, United States—The Protestant Reformation is not a historical event frozen in a distant past, said a panel of leaders and scholars at the International Religious Liberty Association’s 8th World Congress. On the contrary, the watershed sixteenth-century occurrence must be revamped and rethought if we are to make the most of its core principles, they said.
“It is important we include the Reformation in the context of religious, peaceful coexistence,” said Nicholas Miller, Andrews University Professor of Church History and director of the International Religious Liberty Institute, who moderated the panel. “After all, reformers Luther and Calvin also persecuted Anabaptists.”
The brief presentations on the historical aspects and issues of the Reformation and its meaning in contemporary society gathered experts from various backgrounds and training. When it comes to human rights, social justice, and religious freedom, Millennials—a generation between 16 and 36 years old—are a force to be reckoned with. Millennials possess certain traits that make them a unique group of people with the potential to create change, panel experts said.
“We are a generation trying to fight for the rights and beliefs of others,” said Blayre Marley, a young lawyer from the state of Maryland in the United States. “It’s not just about ourselves.” Millennials care if people are being fed, care about voting rights, marriage equality, privacy rights, people who come out of prison, refugee rights, and genocide.
“How can we work to promote religious tolerance?” asked Elizabeta Kitanović, the executive secretary for Human Rights and Communication in the Council of European Churches. “We must build trust in communities to fight intolerance.”
Seventh-day Adventist Church General Conference president Ted N. C. Wilson also reminded attendees to not overlook that the Reformation was founded on the availability of Scripture to the people.
“If we want to underscore the wonderful principles of Reformation, we must be connected with God through His Word,” he said. “If we go back to the Bible and refer to what God has indicated, we’ll also fulfill the wonderful injunction of being true to the Reformation.”
Wilson later delivered a special message to fellow Seventh-day Adventist Church members around the world, stating, “Without being overly dramatic, we need to recognize the times in which we live and ask God for not only protection but the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s last-day three angels’ messages of warning and hope focusing on Christ and His righteousness especially as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is observed with some people apologizing for the Reformation or saying it is over.
“My brothers and sisters, the Spirit of Prophecy says that the Protestant Reformation was never to end with Martin Luther but was to continue to the end of time. By God’s grace, may Seventh-day Adventists worldwide stand firmly for the principles of the Protestant Reformation—only the Bible, only by faith, only by grace, Christ as our only Mediator, and only God to be worshiped.” [Marcos Paseggi | Adventist Review with contributions by Libna Stevens/IAD and Adventist News Network]