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 ...

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