Any observant tourist to Germany this year would notice that the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation means a great deal to the country. Scores of academic conferences, public lectures, publications, and museum exhibitions are devoted to rediscovering the fascinating world and figures of the Reformation era, as well as its cultural, religious, and political legacies in Europe and beyond.
Despite all this, however, few in Europe see the relevance of the Protestant Reformers’ theological and spiritual vision for today. Many dismiss their doctrinal and ecclesial agenda as a mask for furthering the political and economic interests of power-hungry royalty (or, unintentionally, of zealous peasants).
Others blame the Reformation for leading Europe into divisive wars and struggles with disastrous and abiding social consequences. Most Europeans view the Reformers’ beliefs as intolerant, passé, and petty.
With few exceptions, Europe’s churches more or less agree. To advance ecumenical relationships with Catholics, the EKD will officially commemorate the anniversary as a Christusfest (festival of Christ) rather than celebrate it with the label “Reformation.”
There’s little cause for celebration anyway, as most churches have long abandoned—or, at least, significantly revised—the Reformation’s core doctrines: sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. While the Roman Catholic church still officially rejects Scripture alone, European Protestant church leaders and university theology faculty now place the authority of human reason, the claims of higher criticism, and individual conscience over Scripture. Grace alone is of little consequence in an age when ministers minimize sin and maximize humanity’s inherent goodness and free will.
It appears Erasmus won the debate with Luther over the bondage of the will after all. Faith alone and Christ alone have been replaced by the supposedly humbler positions of “We don’t know” and “Many paths lead to God.” And soli Deo gloria is the forgotten sola, known in Germany today only through the SDG inscribed under Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions.
Even the bulk of Europe’s evangelicals and free churches (i.e., those without ties to the state) see little use for the theology of the Reformation.
Ministers have largely traded the Reformers’ emphasis on the Christ-centered preaching of the Word for theater performances and moralistic guidelines, and the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has warped into therapeutic individualism. Our prayer is that the same great God who sparked the Reformation 500 years ago would renew post-Christian German-speaking Europe, as well as many other regions around the globe.