Five hundred years on, some observers are wondering whether the nail Luther used to post his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg door was a harbinger of a final nail in the coffin of Protestantism. In light of the many divisions in the church in the wake of the Reformation, do we truly have cause to celebrate? Should we mourn? Should we shrug off our divisions as the price to pay for truth?
This anniversary year gives us the opportunity to honor the legacy of the Reformation. We do so best not by whitewashing its imperfections but by retrieving its unitive spirit—in particular, the Reformers’ original vision for catholic unity under biblical authority.
Jerry Walls, professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, had something like this in mind when, in January, he sent an email to me and others who were using terms like “mere Protestant Christianity” and “Reformed catholicity.” Walls and Ken Collins had just written Roman but Not Catholic, arguing Protestants are catholic too by virtue of identifying with the one true church down through the centuries, as well as with its great tradition.
Evangelicals yearning for the ancient catholic faith need not cross the Tiber. Indeed, Roman-centricity falls short of true catholicity in suggesting that Protestant churches are defective, despite the Reformers’ affirmation of creedal Christianity. Protestant catholicity is bounded only by the supreme authority of Scripture: hence not Roman, but Reforming catholicity.
A Protestant is first and foremost “one who publicly professes” (from the Latin pro and testare). The solas are shouts of praise as well as protest. What protests the Reformers made served the positive purpose ...1