The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have released a joint statement on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The statement recognises that ‘many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed’. Furthermore it includes among those blessings, ‘clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church’. The Archbishops make clear that the Church of England will be participating in the celebrations of this anniversary, ‘including sharing in events with Protestant church partners from Continental Europe’.
So despite how some of the more popular press might try to spin it, this statement is not a repudiation of the Reformation nor of its doctrine. Indeed, it includes the sentences: ‘Remembering the Reformation should bring us back to what the Reformers wanted to put at the centre of every person’s life, which is a simple trust in Jesus Christ. This year is a time to renew our faith in Christ and in Him alone.’
Nevertheless the statement does want us to face what we might call the dark side of the Reformation, where, most horribly, ‘many suffered persecution and even death at the hands of others claiming to know the same Lord’. The Reformation martyrs in England come to mind: Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer and many others. The Anabaptists who were persecuted and in many cases executed in Europe were another case. The Roman Catholics who were hunted down and killed in Protestant lands also come to mind. The turn to coercion and violence as a means of producing religious conformity (which continues to this day in some parts of the Anglican Communion) was a tragedy of major proportions. Those who rejoice in the recovery of gospel truth and a new freedom to live in the world as sinners saved by grace can also mourn this particular legacy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As the Archbishops would be the first to recognise, among their predecessors and colleagues are both victims and perpetrators of this distress.
The statement is a little less surefooted when it speaks of ‘the unity of the church’ and the need to ‘repent of our part in perpetuating divisions’. True this was bound to be a theme of the statement given a Week of Prayer for Church Unity. Furthermore, it is thoroughly appropriate that the Archbishops should call on members of the Church of England to reach out to other churches and strengthen relationships with them. However, the statement does not anywhere acknowledge that the separation that happened in the sixteenth century was ultimately a necessary one. When the gospel is abandoned or compromised, and there is no repentance, division and separation are the ultimate sanction. This was, of course, the case even in the New Testament. Jesus certainly prayed for the unity of those who followed him – a unity of faith in the Spirit which many of us realise can exist even across insitutional boundaries (Jn 17.21). The apostle Paul could call on his readers to ‘maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3). However, in cases of departure from biblical truth or unrepentant immorality of one kind or another, Paul could counsel separation and even reluctantly recognise the importance of division (cf. 1 Cor 1.10 and 1 Cor 5.1–2; 1 Cor 11.19; Gal 2). On the last day, Jesus Christ himself will make the ultimate separation, even saying to some who cry ‘Lord, Lord’, ‘I never knew you’ (Mtt 7.23)
We should undoubtedly eschew hatred, sectarianism and violence. These have no place amongst those who know that none of us have a claim on the grace of God and we have been reconciled by the death of his Son ‘while we were enemies’ (Rom 5.10). Yet where the gospel is denied either in teaching or in behaviour, the resultant division, though lamentable, is a sign of faithfulness on the part of those who will not abandon the word of God for the approval of (or friendship with) people.
Which must lead us to reflect on whether the departures from biblical truth that occasioned the split at the time of the Reformation have been addressed by the Roman Church. A quick and effective way of assessing this is to measure contemporary Catholic teaching against the solae of the Reformation. Does the Roman Church teach sola scriptura, the final authority of Scripture above all other authorities, including the authority of councils, popes, reason and tradition? Does the Roman Church teach sola gratia, the unearned favour of God that is not dependent upon any ministration of the church? Does the Roman Church teach sola fide, justification by faith alone, that the basis of our right standing before God is the righteousness of Christ in both his perfect life and atoning death and we are joined to that by faith through the work of the Spirit? Does the Roman Church teach solus Christus, that Christ alone is our redeemer, intercessor, and Saviour, and is not joined in this unique ministry by any other, whether it be his faithful mother or the saints of human history? Does the Roman Church teach soli Deo gloria, that glory belongs to God alone and that all Christian men and women are merely unworthy servants who have only done what was our duty (Lk 17.10)? Against this measure the Reformation division was not only necessary then but remains necessary today. The Roman doctrine which occasioned the Reformation and was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent remains unchanged today, attempts at ecumencial joint statements notwithstanding. There can be no genuine unity where the truth is augmented, compromised or undermined. Unity and truth are inextricably bound together.
The joint statement of the Archbishops ends with a call to all Christians ‘to seek to be renewed and united in the truth of the gospel of Christ through our participation in the Reformation Anniversary, to repent of divisions, and, held together in Him, to be a blessing to the world in obedience to Jesus Christ’. This is surely something to which we can all say a hearty ‘Amen’. Yet in doing so, let us not forget that while division is always something lamentable, and to be avoided where at all possible, it is sometimes sadly necessary when the very gospel of Christ, which binds us together in faith and love and hope, is at stake.
Mark Thompson is Principal of Moore College and the author of A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture and A Sure Ground on Which to Stand: The Relation of Authority and Interpretive Method in Luther’s Approach to Scripture. He blogs at Theological Theology.