A Commemoration, Not a Celebration - by William G. Rusch

William G. Rusch

A 21st-century consideration of the Reformation must be different from the past. The contemporary milieu is uniquely shaped, for instance, by more than 100 years of the modern ecumenical movement. This fact is dramatically documented by the present practice of avoiding any notion of “celebrating” the Reformation. A division of the church is not “celebrated” in an ecumenical age; it is to be “commemorated.”1

Whatever descriptive word is allied with the Reformation, its creative force continues after 500 years. Its core teaching remains Martin Luther’s understanding of the doctrine of justification.2 The lively relevance of this teaching was apparent in Lutheran-Roman Catholic theological discussions in the 1990s. It finally resulted in the 1999 approval of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the fruit of some 50 years of national and international dialogue.3 Thus could churches of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church officially reach a fundamental and differentiated consensus on this doctrine, which had been a chief cause of their division 500 years ago. The mutual anathemas expressed by each side were, they declared, no longer applicable. Since 1999, Methodists and most recently Reformed church bodies have identified with the consensus expressed in the Joint Declaration.

This document provides a graphic example of the partial healing of divisions between some Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church and has the potential to serve as a catalysis for further Protestant-Catholic agreements. Only the coming years and the will of the churches involved will determine whether this potential can be realized.

The successful efforts of the Joint Declaration raise once again the ancient twofold question: Is the visible unity of the church necessary, and is it possible?

Certainly from the perspective of the magisterial reformers of the 16th century, the preservation of the one church – the desire to maintain its unity – was a major concern. They held out the hope for a genuine council for the church. These 16th-century figures should not be contorted into modern ecumenists. Yet their commitment to Scripture, the early church, and the creeds motivated their commitment to the unity of the church. For them church unity was a necessity.

This view has indeed influenced many Protestant churches that later became involved in the ecumenical movement. It has been undergirded by an understanding derived from Scripture that unity is a matter of Christian faith and confession, and not something subject to human disposition or a matter of mere utility. It is both a gift from the Triune God and a task given to the churches. In the final analysis it is affirmed as a possibility and expectation, but a possibility not achieved in the ultimate sense by only human efforts.

In spite of signs of malaise in the movement, we cannot overlook the positive steps toward Christian unity that have occurred. Besides the Joint Declaration, these include agreements of full communion involving Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Moravians, and Reformed. The ecumenical movement calls Christians to be faithful and persist. In this remarkable anniversary year of commemoration – if not celebration – we cannot neglect the urgency of the unity of the church.

William Rusch, adjunct professor of Lutheran studies at YDS, is an internationally known specialist in ecumenism.


1 For a discussion of “celebrate” or “commemorate,” see William G. Rusch, “‘Commemorating’ the Reformation: Churches Looking Together Toward 2017 – and Beyond,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring 2017), pp. 220-21.

2 See Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings (Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 2-15. Gritsch and Jenson laid important ecumenical groundwork by proposing justification by faith as a dogma that the whole church could embrace.

3 See Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church (Eerdmans, 2000).

4 For a fuller account of these developments, see William G. Rusch, “The History and Methodology of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: A Case Study in Ecumenical Reception,” and Harding Meyer, “La ‘Déclaration commune sur la doctrine de la justification’ du octobre 1999.” Both articles appeared in Agapè, Études en l’honneur de Mgr Pierre Dupre, M. Afr., edited by Jean-Marie Roger Tillard (Centre Orthodoxe du Patriarcat Oecuménique, 2000), pp. 169-209.