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31 January 2017

Evangelicals and the Reformation - 500 years on

Evangelicals and the Reformation - 500 years on

Five hundred years after Martin Luther published his 95 theses (whether he nailed them to a church door is a matter of debate), the Evangelical Alliance has issued a statement looking at relationships between evangelical Christians and the Roman Catholic church. 

The Reformation, as it arose at the start of the 16th century was not so much an innovation as a recovery – a recovery of the essential content of the 'evangel' or 'good news' of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ himself, and by his apostles. For evangelicals the importance of that recovery is evidently reflected in our designation.

The statement makes clear that we owe a great deal of our doctrinal, spiritual and cultural identity to the Reformation, and goes on to consider:

  • The enduring importance of the Reformation for evangelical Christians, as well as Christians more generally.
  • The core theological emphases of the Reformation, and the vital recovery of authentic gospel Christianity that they represented.
  • The divergences between evangelical and Roman Catholic faith and practice that are rooted in the Reformation, and which persist today.
  • The attempts that have been made, especially in recent decades, to promote greater understanding, convergence and common action between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.

Keeping the Bible central in determining Christian doctrine and practice was key to Luther's protest against indulgences in 1517. Indulgences were granted by the church to mitigate the punishment due from God, either to themselves, their loved ones, or others in purgatory. Traditionally they required some form of ritual action – for example saying prayers or taking part in a pilgrimage – but in the decades leading up to Luther's protest, they had become heavily commercialised and corrupt. 

Luther argued that indulgences were against biblical teaching and it was the Bible, not the Pope or the Church, which had final authority. He also translated the Bible into his native German, making it accessible to the mass of ordinary people, whereas previously the Latin Vulgate was the only authorised version, which was seldom read or understood beyond the clerical elite.

The statement notes specific points of divergence around:

  • The nature and authority of the Church: we do not accept that the Church is expressed definitively by the church of Rome and that evangelicals and others are classed less definitively as 'ecclesial communities'. 
  • The papacy and papal infallibility: while some evangelicals belong to churches led by bishops, we reject the narrative of papal supremacy and Petrine succession as without biblical warrant.
  • Sacraments: with respect to Baptism and the Lord's Supper, evangelicals would typically disagree with the Catholic notion that they intrinsically or instrumentally mediate regeneration and grace, and would disavow Catholic teaching on Communion as a Eucharistic sacrifice.
  • Mariology: there is much that we can glean from Mary's life and witness; yet on biblical grounds we nonetheless regard her, like us, as a pilgrim sinner and we find no basis for her own immaculate conception or assumption. Nor do we find any biblical grounds for the common Roman Catholic construal of Mary as one through whom we should pray. 

Points of convergence and co-operation identified in the statement:

  • Creeds: Although not all evangelical churches recite or formally subscribe to the key ecumenical creeds of the early Church, we do share with Roman Catholics the substantive doctrines affirmed by those creeds. Hence the creation and sustaining of the cosmos by God, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the deity of Christ and his uniqueness for salvation, his conception by the Spirit and birth of the Virgin Mary, his atoning death, bodily resurrection, ascension, universal rule and promised return to judge humanity and usher in a new and eternal order – all are held by evangelicals and Catholics alike.
  • Evangelism and renewal: from its earliest days the Evangelical Alliance has promoted religious liberty, and this has included support for the right of evangelicals to persuade Catholics of the evangelical understanding of the gospel. In the past century, however, there has been growing mutual understanding and effort between Catholics and evangelicals in the work of evangelism. Significant numbers of evangelicals and Catholics since the 1960s have also found new depths of fellowship as they have explored the gifts, work and life of the Holy Spirit together. 
  • Social and medical ethics, and the common good. In the 1990s, Evangelicals and Catholics Together crystallized a good deal of earlier joint action by each community on ethical issues related to the start and end of life, as well as on the classical Christian understanding of marriage and family. Joint work on abortion,euthanasia and marriage is born out of a shared conviction about the sanctity of human life as created in God's image, and the sovereignty of God over life and death, family life and relationships 
The full statement can be read online here.  

Image credit: CC Holly Hayes - Reformation Wall in Geneva