This year marks the 450th anniversary of the Leipzig Disputation, the first major confrontation between the great institution of medieval Catholicism and the dynamic forces of what was to become an evangelical Reformation. The churches that have grown out of the Reformation are heirs of the changes wrought by Luther and his successors.

For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Protestantism equaled progress, dynamism, and change. Catholicism was static. We tend to forget that one of the greatest sources of Catholic outrage at Leipzig was not Luther’s demands for change but his admission and claim of continuity. After rejecting charges that his teachings were the same as those of John Hus, executed for heresy by the Council of Constance a century earlier, Luther began to study some of Hus’s works and came to the conclusion that the Czech reformer’s views were scriptural and that he himself shared them. Luther discovered that outside the institutional structure of the Church, with its popes and councils, there was a living stream of evangelical faith running through the centuries. For Luther the continuity of the true Church of Christ, like its authenticity, was based not on continuing institutions or the “apostolic succession” but on fidelity to the Word of God: “The church does not make the Word, but it is made by the Word.”

Today our situation is quite different: Protestantism no longer signifies progress in the eyes of secular society, but often enough reaction and obscurantism—even though Protestant ministers, officials, and professors, in their pursuit of novelty, have created doctrinal and moral chaos within most Protestant churches. Catholicism, on the other hand, which was for so many decades the bête noire of the liberal press, has suddenly found favor there. Many unrelated factors have contributed to this: the brilliance and tragic death of John F. Kennedy, the rantings of Ian Paisley and the violence of his followers, the somewhat romanticized figure of “Good Pope John,” worker-priests, married priests, singing nuns, and all the rest. Ecumenical Catholics like the late Cardinal Bea and Protestant scholars like K. E. Skydsgaard (Copenhagen) and Carl Fr. Wislöff (Oslo) may indeed maintain that nothing essential has been changed or will be changed, but most Catholics and non-Catholics instinctively feel that Rome is moving. Hermann Sasse, a sober and cautious Lutheran, wrote in 1966 that Rome is on the road to a reformation, while Pope Paul VI, less optimistic, said late in 1968 that the Roman Catholic Church had gone from self-criticism to self-destruction.

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All these developments seem to have outraced and overwhelmed normal Protestant-Catholic polemics and their traditional issues, such as the primacy of the pope, the sacraments, indulgences, and good works versus faith alone. Both Protestants and Catholics have the sensation of swimmers being battered by heavy surf: as they try to stay afloat, they have no leisure to rehash old arguments. Yet the old issues are neither dead nor resolved. At a time when the foundations of evangelical faith are being subjected to incessant pounding, when we have entered into the age of what Herman Dooyeweerd calls “the twilight of Western thought,” we will do well to look again at the conflict between the great confessions and ask ourselves which road we can take into the future.

Primacy Of The Written Word

The primacy of the Word of God, particularly the written Word of God in Holy Scripture, became the touchstone of Reformation Christianity. It made possible the rediscovery and authentication of the fundamental verities of biblical faith: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura (by grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone), and over them all, solus Christus (Christ alone). Sola gratia and sola fide reaffirmed the sovereign mercy of God: his love to us is conditioned not upon our performance but upon his promises, which have to be believed, not earned. Sola scriptura at once establishes a foundation for our hopes and a limit to our fancy: it prevents us from drifting into the despair of thinking that we can know nothing of God, and restrains us from plunging into follies of superstition and philosophical speculation. The three cohere in evangelical faith placed in the person Christ Jesus, in whom, as St. Paul says, all the promises of God are Yea and Amen (2 Cor. 1:20). Solus Christus, only Christ, is able to give those who believe in him that confidence for time and eternity which is a characteristic of truly evangelical faith: the assurance of salvation. How does it stand with these evangelical distinctives today, four hundred and fifty years after Luther began his “dialogue” with the Roman controversialists? Are they still honored in the churches of the Reformation? Have they still found no resting place in the church of Rome?

As the Leipzig Disputation began, there was only one church in the West. It is true that Latin Catholicism had many currents and facets. Yet no one thought there was more than one church. In the centuries that followed, Christendom has learned to live in fragmentation; it is not merely confusion of tongues that makes ecumenical assemblies resemble the tower of Babel, but confusion concerning fundamental loyalities and purposes.

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Even so, it is possible to say that there is a sense in which the Church is once again one, not theologically or jurisdictionally but in terms of communication. As Herman Sasse has remarked, “great spiritual movements, healthy or unhealthy, spread through the whole of Christendom irrespective of denominational borders.” Billy Graham does not bring the Gospel to cultural Protestants only, nor does Bishop Robinson sow confusion among Protestants alone. Jacques Maritain and Teilhard de Chardin are by no means read only in Catholic circles. In short, church boundaries, though they continue to exist, cannot impede the flow of ideas and ideologies—nor, more significantly, can they prevent the Holy Spirit from breathing new life into an ancient frame.

Evangelical Distinctives: In Protestantism?

Throughout much of Protestantism, sola scriptura has become a deader letter than any Pharisees’ commandment. The Old Testament is agreed to be what G. von Rad says it is, and Jesus Christ can be no more to us than what Bultmann and his disciples will admit as acceptable to modern man. Some Protestant denominations and many congregations have resisted this brutal perversion of sound theology and of common sense, but where it prevails, the living Christ of the Bible vanishes in clouds of existentialist, demythologizing smoke. Under such circumstances, sola gratia can mean nothing, for it is His grace, nor sola fide, for it is faith in Him. To call most contemporary Protestant churches churches of the Reformation is no less ironic than to call the Russian forces in Czechoslovakia “heroes of the Revolution.”

And In Catholicism?

While much of organized Protestantism seems bent on self-destruction, something different is happening in Catholicism. There is far more of a foundation for the principle of sola scriptura in the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Divine Inspiration than in the theology of a score of contemporary Protestant pundits—so much so that Dr. David Hedegard, and with him many others, wonders “how the Council Fathers who are radical biblical critics could agree to its formulations.”

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The present turmoil in Rome seems in fact to have two distinct aspects, an evangelical and a secularist one. While the evangelically inclined turn more and more toward the Scriptures alone as their guide, a much more vocal and better-publicized group prefers Marx and Marcuse, Darwin, Freud, and Teilhard de Chardin. Instead of sola gratia, we have nihil gratia (nothing by grace), for God has supposedly made us the sole masters of our destiny. Christ becomes, even for Italian Catholics, a social revolutionary (in an unauthorized Catholic catechism in use in Florence, Italy). As Protestantism forsakes faith alone for good works as defined by certain social activists, radical Catholics join them, forsaking their difficult moral and spiritual disciplines of yesteryear for the more agreeable task of dispossessing the possessors and redistributing their possessions. This is a change, but it can hardly be said to proceed sola fide. In none of this is contemporary Catholicism entering into the heritage of evangelical assurance: in fact, there is hardly anything more pitiful than the confusion and disorientation that now reigns among many pious Catholics who sincerely believed their church’s old claims to be the one approved and reliable source of the means of salvation.

In short, it is extremely difficult to say what is happening within Roman Catholicism. An evangelical spirit is stirring, and on the one hand powerful conservative forces warn (or proclaim), “Nothing significant will change!,” while on the other revolutionary innovators seem ready to turn the church into a syncretistic temple of Darwin, Marx, and Freud. It now appears that the purely conservative forces (thus anti-evangelical as well as antirevolutionary), though still powerful, are doomed to go on losing ground. The evangelical currents appear (perhaps because of unequal press coverage) far less strong than those of leftist political activism and theological radicalism. Because the pure conservatives have a super-naturalistic, trinitarian, orthodox theology, logically they should feel some kinship with the evangelicals and none with the revolutionaries. There may be some hope that these forces will learn to cooperate, and will do something to check the headlong rush of the others, just as the combined efforts of Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals in the Church of England prevented the proposed merger with Methodism.

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On the whole, however, it seems unlikely, humanly speaking, that the traditionalists and the evangelicals can all at one time stop the revolutionaries, hold the church together, and propel it toward an appreciation of the Reformation solas. The evangelical Protestant, for his part, must wonder whether to hope that Catholic traditionalism will be swept from the boards in order to set the stage for an evangelical renewal, or that traditionalism will survive and at least prevent the vast resources of world Catholicism from being thrown into the cause of world social unrest and agitation.

Constructive Proposals

In such a confusing situation, constructive proposals will be hard to make and harder to implement. Perhaps the first need for the evangelical vis-à-vis his Catholic friend is sympathy. Those of us who have stood under the dominating shadow of Rome in former days, fought with it, or perhaps even found Christ only in revolting from it, are wont to think of Catholicism as a harsh mistress—yet, for countless millions, it is (or was, until it began its current philandering) Holy Mother Church, the reliable source of comfort for this life and consolation about the life to come. The distress, even despair, that many of them experience at the sudden apparent disintegration of all that they trusted is real, and it is tragic. The Protestant evangelical has learned to live among a bewildering variety of conflicting opinions, and to discern his Lord’s voice among a bewildering variety of conflicting opinions, and to discern his Lord’s voice among the babble of false prophets and would-be messiahs. Most Catholics, especially the less sophisticated ones, have no such experience, and the situation in which they find themselves today is bewildering in the extreme. Protestant triumphalism would be vicious in such circumstances; a genuine attempt to understand the Catholics’ sense of loss and even of betrayal is needed.

Second, the Protestant must try to distinguish, and to help his Catholic friend do so, between those parts of traditional Catholicism that are truly Christian and indispensable, and those parts that are merely traditional (or perhaps even un-Christian). Finally, he must recognize that now the God-fearing, Christ-honoring Catholic and the evangelical Protestant are in the same situation. The structures of organized religion have become a frail thing, more apt to break and wound one than to give one support. Perhaps something can still be saved; perhaps the organizations can still be revived and renewed. Neither Protestants nor Catholics should lose sight of this or cease to work, pray, and hope for it.

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The Reformation was an attempt to make the Church abandon those things that were seducing it—scholastic philosophy, Renaissance humanism, wildly proliferating forms of non-biblical piety—and listen again, with undivided attention, to the clear and commanding Word of God. But Protestantism did not remain faithful to this goal: it developed its own scholasticism, its orthodoxies, its rationalism, and its barren skepticism. Today in both Protestantism and Catholicism there is a confused babble of human tongues—some would even venture, looking at the more bizarre phenomena of our age, that demonic voices are there too—and more than ever before there is a need for all of us consciously to seek the vital center from which we derive knowledge of God and of ourselves: his Word. If ever a Reformation slogan was needed by all Christians, it is sola scriptura today. This is the only barrier against both superstitious folly and nihilistic despair. What we need is not that the forms of our religious observance be reshaped but that the very structure of our faith and hope be transformed and restored through our attentive hearing and obeying of the Word of God.

At Leipzig, both Martin Luther and John Eck were well aware of the truth of Isaiah 40:8, though they quarreled over many things. We need to learn it again, and to let it change us, whatever our confessional signs, so that we can be faithful servants and effective witnesses:

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:

but the Word of our God shall stand forever.


Paraphrasing (or, rather, misapplying)

William Shakespeare, we may claim

That God (the Poet) gave to airy something

A local habitation

And a Name:

Nazareth and Jesus.… Well, some sneer, some damn

This post-Apollo, pre-Apollo talk of Incarnation,

Or term it pious lying,

And snort and flout it.…

Yet, let us pray, let us say

In our nadir of humility:

Open wide the window to the turbulent blue ocean;

Think about it—dare to feel about it—

This most unmodish notion

That God (the Poet) gave to airy something

A local habitation

And a Name!


Harold O. J. Brown is theological secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Lausanne, Switzerland. He holds the B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard and teh B.D. and Th.M. from Harvard Divinity School.

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