With Reformation Day less than a week past, there linger important questions about a revolutionary time in history that has dramatically affected theology, philosophy, and the expression of the church over the last 500 years. We conducted short interviews with both Protestant and Catholic thinkers on causes, repercussions, and explanations for the Protestant Reformation. What follows is a conversation about the protestant perspective with Zachary Derr, adjunct professor from Wesley Seminary. Interview conducted by C.J. Ward.
Question: To start off the interview, could you give us a short background of yourself?
My name is Zachary Derr and I am privileged to serve in a number of different roles. From son, brother, husband, father to pastor, student, professor, and coach, I keep busy going from one thing to the next. I serve as Discipleship Pastor at Kernersville Wesleyan Church, Adjunct Professor for Wesley Seminary, and student at the University of Manchester/Nazarene Theological College. I fill most of my days with reading, writing, and soccer. I am passionate about the Church and creating healthy conversations between Christians and Muslims.
Question: Why should a Protestant care about the Reformation? What aspects of the break from the Catholic Church are the most significant for her?
There is always value in knowing the history of the Christian Church. In regards to the Reformation, one would benefit from learning about this history in order to better understand the core of unity from which all of Christianity branches. Of the numerous denominations and independent churches throughout the world, we can all trace our history back through the evolution of the Church that sprung from the Reformation. The Reformation was about bringing change to the Church but studying the Reformation can be about finding common ground with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Even more, a study of the Reformation can provide wisdom for the ways in which we defend the truth of Christianity in today’s world. With issues of disunity rising between genders, races, and cultures, the world desperately needs to see examples of peace, unity, and love from Christ-followers.
More than just caring about the Reformation, one would benefit from studying this era of Christian history in order to see the transition of theological thought that started to branch out with these rising Reformers. While each Reformer had his own unique consideration, most boil down to what Luther outlines as the 5 Alones: Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Christ Alone, and the Glory of God Alone. By getting back to the Bible as the highest authority, being saved by faith in Christ, that it is only by the grace of God that one is saved, Jesus as the Lord and Savior, and the glory of God as the purpose of life, these Reformers were working in ways in to bring about a reform in theological thought. While some “Radical” Reformers were pushing for a greater change to social and political life, Luther, Calvin and others were hoping more to draw back Christianity to a more Scripturally based religion. They saw the theology and thought of the Catholic Church founded more on history and tradition than on the teachings of God’s Word. It is along these lines that the Reformers usher in this theological transition away from Catholicism and into their individual reform movements.
Question: Would you consider what Martin Luther did to be inevitable? In other words, was there a strong enough reformation contingent that if Luther hadn’t nailed the 95 thesis there still would have been some sort of reformational movement?
Christendom was headed towards a tumultuous storm as early Reformers, such as Hus, Wycliffe, Waldo and others, had already been preaching out against Papal corruption, indulgences, and other theological differences. Tensions were high and the Catholic Church was ultra-sensitive to anyone who might voice contrary views to Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Church was willing to go so far as to ostracize or even kill any who might speak out. It is in this context that we find many of the early Reformers: wary of their lives and what might happen if they were to speak up. What ignited the flame of reformation, and the event that we herald as the beginning of the Reformation, was Luther’s dramatic fashion of nailing his list of propositions to the doors of a church. Reform was inevitable but there had to be a starting point, someone or something that paved the way for others to follow. Luther did just that. Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of Luther making this gesture was to give confidence to the many other Reformers like Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, Knox and others who were still working out their own plans for reform.
Question: Take a minute to explain to a Catholic reader how a Protestant could justify this dramatic break from the tradition of the church.
The biggest impact and perhaps one of the main reasons why reform was needed within the Catholic Church was because the Church had started to shift its focus on what had the ultimate authority. Luther and many other Reformers contested that Scripture alone should determine tradition and not the other way around. The traditions of the Catholic Church were long standing but had slowly outgrown their Scriptural evidence and foundation. This isn’t to say that all the traditions of the Catholic Church were wrong or to even suggest that the Pope and other Catholic leaders were evil; but it is to suggest that, just like everyone else, the Catholic Church was made up of men and women who were human and susceptible to the temptation of greed, lust, envy, and other sins. The rulers of the Catholic Church had been twisting the traditions and doctrines of the Church to meet their own wants instead of the glory of God. The Catholic Church was still doing a lot of good, but the Reformers believed that these wrongs could no longer be ignored. The following history of the Catholic Church attests to this truth as it followed the Reformation with its own Counter-Reformation and two Vatican Councils that ushered in needed change within the Church.
Question: Lastly, do you think a reunification, or even steps towards greater unity, are important or even possible for the people of God across the reformation divide?
I highly doubt the Church will ever dissolve back into one “unified” whole until glorification. However, I emphatically believe that unity across denominational lines should be something we all strive towards. “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Psa 133:1) We all live because of Christ’s sacrifice and we all live for the same purpose: to bring glory to God. One step towards this work in unity can come through the study of Church History. When each of us can reclaim the stories of the Church and its evolution from the Apostles, then we can work towards finding what unites us. It’s always been easier for Christians to point at makes us different. We each believe we know the “right” truth about God and the world. However, the vast number of different Christian denominations gives evidence to the greatness of God. Instead of constantly talking about all that makes us different, how can we better help each other understand God more? How can we work together to bring healing to others? For the sake of our country and even our world, every Christian must take up the urging of Paul to “live a life worthy of the calling” each of us has received, and to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1, 3)