Toward Closer Communion
October 31, 2017, will be a significant date in the calendar of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). Declared by the German parliament a nationwide public holiday, the day will bring to a close the EKD’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The German celebration is dubbed “a festival of Christ that seeks to send the message of God’s free gift of grace to all people.”
One of the important actions taken by the EKD as it prepared for the celebration was to issue, in November 2015, a declaration distancing itself from Luther’s anti-Jewish stance. The EKD noted that “Luther was a source for theological and ecclesiastical anti-Judaism, as well as political anti-Semitism.” It admitted that “Luther’s view of Judaism and his invective against the Jews … contradict his faith in the one God who revealed himself in Jesus the Jew.” It reaffirmed EKD’s rejection of any form of anti-Judaism.
To start this major 2016-2017 anniversary year of activities, which the EKD actually commenced in January 2016, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) convened a Joint Ecumenical Commemoration of the Wittenberg Reformation. This included a prayer service in their cathedral in Lund, Sweden, followed by a “public event” in Malmö, Sweden, that focused on Lutheran and Catholic commitment to common witness and service in the world.
The LWF and its ecumenical partners planned the prayer service, which took place on October 31, 2016. The inclusion of partners in the planning process, the LWF explains, reflects the global scope of the legacy of the Reformation, the just requirement of ecumenical accountability in a world where several church communions claim the legacy of the Reformation, and the fact that churches are called to be continually reformed.
This approach to planning the commemoration was influenced by the work of a LWF Special Committee that produced the report, Reformation Anniversary 2017, offering perspectives on the kind of event that would responsibly mark the Reformation anniversary. That report was adopted in 2013 – the same year when an international dialogue commission of Catholics and Lutherans published From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017. In this text, the partners admit the importance, but also the difficulty, of sponsoring “a common ecumenical remembrance of the Lutheran Reformation.”
The LWF’s ecumenical commemoration includes the participation of representatives from the Christian World Communions in an event planned not to celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation, but to commemorate it. We joyfully recall the bilateral theological dialogues involving Baptists and Lutherans and the contribution achieved through that dialogue to better Baptist-Lutheran relations.
An international dialogue between LWF and BWA took place from 1986-1989. Before that, Baptists and Lutherans formed joint dialogue commissions in North America, 1979-1981; in the former Federal Republic of Germany, 1980-1981; and in the former German Democratic Republic, 1982-1983. Norway hosted a similar dialogue, 1984-1989. The international dialogue noted that “Baptist ecclesiology has taken over much from the Reformed tradition” (§69) but also acknowledged a certain discontinuity between Baptist beliefs concerning the church and certain insights of the Lutheran Reformers (§57-79, for example).
There has always been an ambiguous reaction to the Reformation – that development in the church in the Western world that drove a wedge between communities and reinforced the scandal of division in the Christian family. Yet, what an indispensable truth the Reformers wanted to emphasize and how much poorer would the church be without their historic witness!
Thankfully, such is the awareness of the need for a serious commitment to the visible unity of the church that Lutherans and Catholics spent many years of painstaking theological work until they arrived at a better understanding of the precise nature of their differentiated consensus on a central church doctrine and the reasons for their division in the 15th century. They registered real progress in jointly clarifying their beliefs in the 1999 Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith, which hopefully will be received increasingly in Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and other church families as a useful, if imperfect, instrument expressing convergence on a fundamental truth of the Gospel.
All churches should take careful note of the fine example of the LWF in making the commemoration of the Reformation anniversary possible in a responsible way. This is partly because of the commitment by churches to take each other seriously, to read and interpret our histories together rather than separately and to recognize that commemorations are more an exercise in honoring the faithful God and practicing obedient love than in anything else. Shall we not commit ourselves on an ongoing basis to remembering and commemorating responsibly?