Was the Reformation a Big Misunderstanding? (2)

Part 1

Unlike our evangelical friend, our ecumenically minded mainliner received an education in church history at an Ivy League divinity school and is a little more cognizant of the problems of overcoming the Reformation but he’s also a member of the local country club and plays in a regular foursome with Father Mike Sheridan S.J., chaplain to the fire department and to the local Jesuit University athletic department.

Thwack, ping!

Rev. Feelgood: Nice shot Mike. Well hit.”

Father Mike: “You know we’re planning our annual ecumenical service. Aren’t you on the planning committee?”

RF: No, I rotated off. My term is up. May I participate anyway? It’s such a wonderful way to express the underlying unity of the church.

FM: “Sure and begorrah you may. We would be happy to have you. After all, I think we all know that the Reformation was just a big misunderstanding anyway. Did you hear what his Holiness said about justification recently? It almost sounded like Luther.”

RF: “That’s great. Just have your assistant call my secretary and I’ll be there with bells on. Yes, I did see those remarks. I’m so thankful for the Holy Father’s openness toward us. I’m not sure that the Reformation was a misunderstanding. After all, Luther was a trained theologian. He knew the tradition. He may not have known Thomas but he knew Lombard. I think there’s another way to explain how we’ve been able to move closer together.” Hold on. Let me tee off.”

After RF dribbled his drive down the fairway, they climbed into the luxury golf cart and the conversation continued.

RF: “You see, the harsh language used in the sixteenth century by Trent, Luther and Calvin reflected their religious consciousness of God as a stern judge. They couldn’t really speak any other way. Things have changed, however. Our religious consciousness has changed. In the 19th century we learned that God is love. After Schleiermacher and Hermann we know now that religious speech simply expresses our experience of divine dependance. We’re not trapped by the old ways of speaking and thinking about the faith. That’s why those old anathemas don’t apply any more, because they’ve been superseded by a new, more mature consciousness of the divine. After all, we have Barth and you have Küng, Schillebeeckx, Rahner and Vatican II. It’s too bad that Ratzinger, er, I mean the Holy Father moved to the right the way he did, but the new openness is most encouraging. I’m sure that the consultations at the World Council will produce much fruit. By the way, you’re welcome at Holy Communion with us any time Mike.”

FM: “Well, whatever brings back our rebellious brethren to Holy Mother and for all the saints and angels I’m all for it. I’m also for birdying this hole.”

Where Earnest Evangelical was simply ignorant of church history (his seminary covered everything from the Fathers to the Second Great Awakening in two short courses), Rev. Feelgood has found a more sophisticated way around the problem. Neither Cardinal Cassidy nor Father Mike have moved. They’re loyal to holy Mother. They know that the magisterium has spoken and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is crystal clear. Thus they stand pat (O’ Brien).

Neither the evangelical nor the mainliner is so bound by any confession. Earnest doesn’t have a confession since he’s in the “Bible Church” tradition and no one in Rev Feelgood’s communion really pays attention to the Confession of 1967 anymore. After all, times have changed. That document represented the religious consciousness of the time, but Ed Dowey and the fellows were still poisoned by Barth’s antipathy for Rome. After John Paul II we don’t feel the same way. In addition to the two dozen programs already operating at St John’s By the Sea, they’ve just added an ecumenical service and an Emergent Group at a nearby warehouse. The main thing is to facilitate the existential encounter with the Word and the feeling of divine dependence. It really doesn’t matter how it comes about.

Though they look quite different, at bottom, both the mainliner and the evangelical have done the same thing. For his sophistication, Rev. Feelgood’s approach is just as radically subjective as the Earnest Evangelical’s approach. The latter is sweatier, more enthusiastic, less polished, more ignorant, more crass and “bottom line” oriented. What took Rev Feelgood and the World Council three decades to do, EE was able to manage in just a few minutes. No wonder the EE’s of this world swept the field in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. It’s much more pragmatically American. Rev. Feelgood is more patrician and European in style. Both EE and RF have resolved the Reformation crisis not by facing the problems of objective, real, history but by a subjective turn.

For both, the faith is not what it was in the 1st century and certainly not what it was in the 16th century. Rather the faith is what it is in us, what we experience now. Nunc super tunc. For RF and EE our experience transcends the old disagreements, even if in different ways. Thus Chuck Colson lives not by bread alone but every new word that comes from the Holy Father and he reads those words against the background of what he “knows” to be true: that, despite whatever formal (rhetorical) theological differences may remain (though he does not see many) the real, underlying reality behind the rhetoric is that there is an actual, spiritual and even theological communion through personal experience of the risen Christ.

Was the Reformation a big misunderstanding? No. Not if actual, objective history still means anything. Is it possible to do away with history? Sure. Both RF and EE have done it in their own ways. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1989. Look at the footnotes. Noll and Nystrom are simply wrong.

The Reformation is not over and no, it’s not over not because angry, disaffected Reformed warrior children still need a cause, a reason to get out of bed. It would be a great relief if the Reformation were over (and Rome repented of her condemnation of the gospel!). The problem is that, for some of us, texts still mean what their author’s intended. For some of us objective reality still exists. It isn’t merely the product of my subjective experience. Traffic lights still work and remarkably the subjectivists haven’t found a way to experience red lights as green.

The Reformation is not over because the fundamental questions remain: What is the principle, unique authority for the Christian faith and life and how are we right with God? Rome confesses one answer to those questions and confessional Protestants (as distinct from EE and RF) confess another. The two answers are irreconcilable.

The Reformation is not over, not by a long shot.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I couldn’t help myself. I broke out in laughter when I finished reading this. Scott, you should really consider writing a novel. You have a gift. lol

  2. **Golf clap** (But real Presbyetrians are still patronizers of the links.)

    Instead of writing a novel perhaps this should serve as an eplilogue in later editions ofLost Soul… which makes the extended argument that EE and FM fall into the broad category of “Evangelical” over against “Confessional.”

Comments are closed.