Protestant Perspective: Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

by Mark Hertenstein


It was difficult deciding on what topic to write for this final Protestant Perspective. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther, ecumenism, social issues I have thus far ignored, a planned (and unwritten) article on the culture of estrangement in our society. But ultimately it made the most sense to return to what precisely Protestantism means and what the place of Protestantism is in the scope of Christianity. This is the overall project that guided the column for these recent years.


When we say “Protestant,” what do we mean? What is the guiding principle of the Reformation? Do we mean a set of fundamentalists, schismatics, anti-institutionalists, or something along those lines?

First, I have argued that those definitions are horribly wrong. When we say “Protestant,” we should mean that we are guided by the principles that informed the Reformers, the first “Protestants.” The aim of the Reformation was never schism or anti-this-or-that. The aim was to refine and reform the practice and doctrine of the Catholic Church.


We can judge that the Reformation, in the sense of its aims, has had a track-record of failure. There are literally thousands of denominations (or independent churches) today. Its historical result has been schism. But we should not let historical development become the norm, and we Protestants should not let misunderstandings or our principle of reformation and aim of purity become an excuse for false notions of perfection and schism. That would go against the very guiding principle of Reformation, and therefore Protestantism.


The Protestant Principle, especially as defined by Paul Tillich, is the principle that because revelation and development of belief occurs in a temporal and finite world, and the revelation is of a transcendent and infinite God, those temporal expressions of Christian faith must ever anew be questioned and refined by doubt that leads to further insight. The Protestant Principle is not that we should dismiss traditions because they are old, but refine them and observe how they may be renewed and reformed to further the truth that is continually fresh and being revealed. The Protestant Principle is simply that the transcendent truth of Christianity is not reducible to the historical forms in which it can be found. On this, Bonhoeffer concurred by saying that purity of doctrine is a goal, not an actual accomplishment at the present, for the Church.


Even the Roman Catholic Church has expressed this idea in the last 50 years. When Pope St. John XXIII called for the Second Vatican Council, he spoke of a need for aggiornamento, the idea that the windows needed to be opened to let in fresh air. The underlying idea that the Church was always in need of renewal, always in need of a new moment of Pentecost, drove the Council. The Protestant Principle is not a dividing principle, but a principle that can drive ecumenical dialogue, and ultimately further understanding and ultimate reunion.


On this basis, the Protestant Principle is that the Christian Church, doctrine, and practice must continually be renewed and reformed. The Reformation is a principle, not just a historical event that resulted in schism. On this basis, we can renew the spirit of the Reformation such that it will result in a fuller understanding among churches, and within the universal Church.


Ultimately, the test of the Reformation will be its ability to finish its task- reform, not schism. That means that the Protestant Principle must bring about a fullness of unity and charity among the local churches, and a unity of the Catholic Church. It will do that, but we must be open to God’s revelation of the truth of Christianity as it is encountered anew every day. We must be open to the application of the Protestant Principle to our own Protestant Reformation.


The goal of the Reformation of Luther’s time was to correct bad practice and doctrine. The goal of the Reformation in our day is the reunion of churches to realize again and concretely the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.


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