Diet of Worms, Part Deux
Self-conscious Protestants celebrate October 31st as Reformation Day. It was on that day in 1517, an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church at Wittenberg. (This was the normal “broadsheet” technique to announce a forthcoming public debate.) These days, the celebrations of Reformation Day usually consist of conferences, lectures, and sermons remembering and giving thanks to God for the Reformation.
We blogged yesterday on how the Reformation signalled the end to Christendom. Luther said his conscience must be bound primarily to the Word of God; his opponents said that were this principle to be taken seriously it would mean the end of Christendom.
The tragedy in 1521 at the Diet of Worms was that both Martin Luther and Johann Eck were correct. late medieval Catholic Christendom was threatening the gospel and could have led to the evisceration of true Christianity; Protestant individualism harbored the potential to promote spiritual chaos and eventually did lead to weakness in the face of outside cultural forces. [Mark Noll, "Reconsidering Christendom?" The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue, edited by Thomas Howard (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), p. 68.]
Noll argues that as we face the militant progress of secularism, and experience its “tender embrace”, it is time to reconsider the idea of Christendom. He suggests that there are some key things which Protestants can learn from Roman Catholic traditions. These are:
- a positive, God-honouring place for matter;
- a positive, God-honouring role for reason;
- a parish ideal of community (all classes, races, dispositions in one common institution);
- a positive acceptance of history and traidtion as gifts from God;
- a well-established record of careful legal casuistry;
- a long-standing commitment to instiutions as capable of connecting present communities with both predecessors and successors.
But evangelicals also bring something to the table which is necessary to further Christendom in society:
- a sharp awareness of how religious formalism can mindless tradition can anesthetize thought;
- a well-practised demonstration of the virtue of voluntary organization for mobilising groups and initiating change;
- an insistence on personal engagement, in faith and in learning, as a key to God-honoring personal and group existence;
- and above all, the inestimable value (especially in an environment shaped by democratic individualism) of the priesthood of all believers. [Noll, ibid., p. 67.]
Like the symbol of yin and yang, evangelical and Catholic strengths and weaknesses are aligned with nearly perfect symmetry. It is not, therefore, surprising that all manner of historical reasons exist for Catholics and evangelicals to remain suspicious of each other. There are also, however, compelling theological and intellectual reasons to begin to learn from each other. Why do Catholics need evangelicals? Because evangelicals bring to Christendom personal engagement, personal commitment, and lay mobilization. Why do evangelicals need Catholics? Because Catholics bring to evangelicals many of the time-tested virtues of Christendom. [Ibid., p. 69.]
Long may dialogue and discussions of this ilk continue. Maybe there is a need for an informal, organic perpetual Diet of Worms to be reconstituted and reconvened, mutatis mutandis–naturally.
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