A Perspective on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

A Perspective on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

October 31st is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses and the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Italian journalist, Luca Barrato, interviewed Paolo Ricca, a church historian who is perhaps the world’s best known Waldensian theologian. Excerpts from that interview, which was conducted in Italian [translated and lightly condensed for North American readers by the Rev. Dr. Duncan Hanson, Supervisor of the Reformed Church in America’s Mission in Europe, the Middle East, and India], follow.  It was originally distributed by the American Waldensian Society.

Question: As you know, Professor Ricca, during the next twelve months Christians around the world will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. From your point of view as a Waldensian theologian, how important is it to commemorate events that happened five hundred years ago?

Paolo Ricca: I think it is very important. First let’s talk about the importance of this celebration for Protestant-Catholic relations. In a day or two, the pope will be traveling to Lund, Sweden, for an ecumenical event that will begin this year of celebrations. The pope’s traveling to Sweden for the opening event of this year of celebrations about the Reformation is yet another indication that he wants to decentralize the Catholic Church. His trip to Sweden to join in the opening celebration for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation follows closely on the pope’s decision to inaugurate the current Jubilee Year in Africa, which was another first for the Catholic Church.

We have used both the words ‘commemoration’ and ‘celebration’ to describe what the pope will be doing in Lund, Sweden. In my opinion, the more fitting word is ‘celebration’ because the word ‘commemoration’ is too neutral, too free from the positive value judgment that the pope wants to express about the Reformation. That the Pope will take part in the opening celebration of this year of celebrations of the Reformation shows that he believes that the Reformation is not only a major event for Christian history in general, but also for the history of Catholicism in particular. A pope taking part in an event celebrating the Reformation is something unprecedented. Only free people can do something which is completely without precedent or roadmaps. This pope is, in my opinion, a free man, a man who is able to make new things happen, unprecedented things, things whose future consequences no one yet knows.

Question: Of course, there are those who are already critical of the pope’s decision to take part in the opening celebration of this year of celebrations for the Protestant Reformation. Some of those criticisms are on the Catholic side. Some are on the Protestant side. Some Protestants have even said that the Protestants’ willingness to allow the pope to participate in their celebrations of the Reformation shows that the Reformation has nothing left to say. What do you think?

Paolo Ricca: Until Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church always told its members that the Reformation had nothing to say, that it was a heresy, a departure from the truth, a spiritual poison. This was the Catholic position until Vatican II, that is, until practically yesterday! That is no longer the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching. The Second Vatican Council ended the practice of calling Protestant churches heretical. Even if post Vatican II Catholic teaching still avoided using the word ‘church’ in relation to Protestants, saying that our churches were ‘ecclesial communities’ instead of churches, the teaching of the Catholic Church today is still diametrically different than what it had been during the previous four and a half centuries. The presence of Pope Francis at the opening celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the Ninety-five Thesis is a recognition by the Catholic Church that the Reformation was a positive event for Christianity as a whole. It is a sign from the pope that the Reformation has a lot to teach Catholics.

Question: What part of the message of the Reformation is still current or urgent today?

Paolo Ricca: The Reformation marked a great rediscovery of a fundamental aspect of the Gospel message – and thus an aspect of God, because we know God only through the Bible’s message. That fundamental aspect of the Gospel message is the justification of the sinner by means of unconditional love, undeserved grace. The Reformation highlighted this aspect of the gospel: namely that the heart of the Gospel is not a righteousness that God demands but that God gives.

Question: How has the Catholics’ recognition of the contribution of the Reformation affected relations between Protestants and Catholics?

Paolo Ricca: The Catholic re-valuation of the Reformation has not yet affected the life of the churches. This is mainly due to the fact that justification by faith is of a different importance for Catholics and Protestants. For Protestants, justification by faith is central to the life of faith, for Catholics it is not. This difference makes it difficult for Catholics to appreciate the deepest convictions of Reformation faith. Another big hurdle for Protestant – Catholic relationships is the absence of a shared understanding of ministry. Agreement about justification by faith is not enough. In 1541, just a generation after the posting of the Ninety-five Theses, Catholic and Protestant theologians agreed on most of what we Protestants call ‘justification by faith’. What we still haven’t agreed on, even 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation, is our understanding of ministry. Reaching agreement about ministry will be our next challenge.