Why the Reformation Should Make You More catholic

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Celebrating the Reformation, as a 500th anniversary invites us to do, isn’t necessarily a straightforward affair. Even those of us who have robust confidence in the rightness of Protestant doctrine, who feel profound gratitude to the reformers, and whose entire Christian lives have been lived within the good heritage of Reformation churches, can nevertheless worry that somewhere around the third “hip, hip, hooray,” we might be in danger of giving the wrong impression.

The wrong impression would be the sectarian, clannish, hooray-for-our-team impression. It would be bad enough if our Reformation celebration looked like an excuse to mark the boundary between the Protestant us and the Roman Catholic them. But even worse would be a Reformation celebration that looked like an excuse to mark the boundary between 1517 and all that went before it. There is such a thing as chronological clannishness that divides Christian history into fourths and then celebrates the final quarter alone.

Protestants ought to say that this kind of centuries-segregating sectarianism is uncatholic: It fails to be universal in its intent, and it ignores the completeness of the entire Christian tradition. Universal, complete, and entire are of course the proper meanings of the word catholic. So although it may sound odd to our conventional connotations, it’s actually not contradictory at all to say that the Reformation ought to make us catholic.

Catholic John Calvin

To bolster my case, and to show that it’s not just mine but also a standard Reformation case, I want to cite John Calvin’s 1539 letter exchange with the Roman Catholic cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto. Sadoleto had written a pious and urbane “you’ll be back” letter to the Protestants of Geneva, who in turn asked Calvin to reply on their behalf. One of Sadoleto’s chief charges against the reformers was that they were “innovators on things ancient” and that, in turning to them, the Genevans were turning from the ancient heritage of the church to the newfangled novelites of a few clever young teachers.

Calvin agreed to a contest [with Rome] over who was more catholic. The reformers knew this was the right way to frame the dispute, and they believed they could win.

Think for a moment what the properly Protestant response ought to be. I fear that in our contemporary setting, it would be easy to find Protestant Christians who would give a rather flippant and uncatholic answer: “So much the worse for the whole history of Christianity down to 1517!” The pseudohistorical narrative of “the fall of the church” between the death of John the apostle and the rise of the Reformation would throw a shadow of pagan gloom across the first three-fourths of Christian history.

Not much better is the sectarian tall tale that traces a thin trickle of faithfulness down through the craggy dark ages, finding anonymous Protestant outposts here and there among the marginal and heretical groups. Neither approach (a time-capsule gospel or a thin-trickle gospel) can deliver Protestants from the charge, and the reality, of being uncatholic. The reformers knew better than to take either option. 

Calvin’s response to Sadoleto was direct: “Our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours.” As a careful and devoted student of patristic writings, Calvin gladly accepted Sadoleto’s challenge on its own terms. He agreed, in other words, to a contest over who was more catholic. The reformers knew this was the right way to frame the dispute, and they believed they could win.

Calvin asserted that “all we have attempted has been to renew that ancient form of the church, which, at first sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, was afterward flagitiously mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and his faction.” We don’t often say things like “flagitiously mangled” these days! But there is still a need for clarity about the principled difference between the Protestant way of being catholic and the Roman Catholic claim that the one and only way to be catholic is to submit to an authoritarian regime of post-biblical, post-patristic, late-medieval innovations.

Reforming Sectarian Protestantism

Five hundred years have changed the timescale somewhat (Protestantism no longer feels new or young from the inside), but not the basic truth claim. Reformation theological and liturgical reform is about being biblical and ancient. What Calvin asserted with brevity here in his letter to Sadoleto is what he developed at greater length in his Institutes, and also what a phalanx of reformers insisted on for year after year: The whole point of reform is to be more catholic than Rome will permit, by being more patristic than Rome will permit, by being more biblical than Rome will permit.

The whole point of reform is to be more catholic than Rome will permit, by being more patristic than Rome will permit, by being more biblical than Rome will permit.

I’m well aware that in some sectors of the evangelical Protestant world, people can experience the message of the Reformation as a summons to sectarianism, a giving-up on catholicity. That should cease. Those sectors stand in need of reform; and not just some new reform, but the very Reformation reform we celebrate in this anniversary.

Sadoleto’s charge was: You are novel; you have rejected the ancient church. Calvin’s response was: No, we are Protestant specifically so we can have the ancient church, and you are in our way. The Reformation doesn’t vault back over all of Christian history to stand alone and by itself on the Bible. It climbs over recent rubble (“contemplate the ruins of the church, as now surviving among yourselves,” Calvin admonishes Sadoleto; “It was not so long ago since those monsters of impiety with which we war were born, or at least, grew to such a size”) to reconnect with the great, vast heritage of ancient Christian confession of the truths of the Bible. We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.

We are Protestant specifically to be more catholic, to avoid the constriction and reduction that Rome requires.

Some of the terms have admittedly become tricksy by our time. Moderns tend to associate the very word “catholic” with the church called Roman Catholic, missing the irony of using a word that means “universal” to pick out a church that is defiantly and distinctively not universal. Moderns also tend to function with a largely bogus etymology of “Protestant” that suggests protesting against something, whereas a few centuries ago, even in love poetry “to protest” meant “to hold forth and confess a truth.” As a result of semantic drift, the sentence “Protestants are catholic” sounds nutty, and the sentence “Protestants ought to be catholic” sounds like a call to conversion. But for evangelicals settling for a sectarian and uncatholic way of being church, the call to be catholic is in fact a call to personal and congregational reformation, precisely because it’s a call to the Reformation.

We don’t have to settle for a quarter of church history, and we don’t have to settle for a chastened “two cheers for the Reformation.” Those of us with the solas in our souls can join in that third “hip, hip, hooray” because the Reformation was, is, and ought to continue to be, catholic.

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