Catholics and Protestants Commemorate the Reformation

Luther’s 95 Theses split the Catholic Church. Now, 500 years removed, Protestants are closer than ever to returning to the fold—as prophesied.

On this day 500 years ago, a previously unknown German monk, Martin Luther, supposedly posted a set of statements on the door of a church in Wittenburg. Historians still debate whether this actually happened, but it is a potent symbol of the start of the Protestant Reformation, which split the Catholic Church and led to numerous, vicious wars.

Luther’s document was the “95 Theses.” It was a collection of statements intended to expose the corruption of “indulgences.” These infamous indulgences granted sinners time off their eternal punishment in return for acts of service to the church, including cash payments. Luther complained that indulgences, the “remission of temporal sins,” had devolved from a “spiritual exercise into a monetary transaction.” One friar who provoked Luther was Johann Tetzel, who said his indulgences were so effective that one could have raped the Virgin Mary and still be assured remission from purgatory. His now famous saying was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Luther’s message spread quickly. The movement became so large that Luther was called to a trial of his belief at the Diet of Worms. If proclaimed a heretic, his punishment would be burning on the stake. He went and was proclaimed a heretic, but was quickly whisked away into hiding. While in hiding, others took over the cause, accusing the Catholic Church of even further errors. By the end of his life, Luther was calling the pope the antichrist.

Meanwhile, in Britain, King Henry viii used the issue of his divorce to break from the Catholic Church and form the Anglican Church. French theologian John Calvin formed the basis of the Reformed movement, believing that the Catholic Church was a false church: “The worship of God has been deformed by a diverse and unbearable mass of superstitions. Doctrine (apart from which Christianity cannot stand) has become entirely buried and driven out.”

Such was the intensity of the split. The participants believed life and death, even eternal salvation, were at stake.

Five hundred years later, Catholics and Protestants no longer hold these views. Pope Benedict xvi declared that Luther was not a heretic; Protestants no longer believe that the pope is the antichrist. Around the world today, Catholics and Protestants will commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, together.

At the 100th anniversary in 1617, Catholics and Protestants “celebrated” by writing polemics condemning each other. At the 500th anniversary, they are focusing on binding their divisions.

At the 100th anniversary in 1617, Catholics and Protestants “celebrated” by writing polemics condemning each other. At the 500th anniversary, they are focusing on binding their divisions.

In the lead-up, thousands of events have been organized to commemorate the date. A quick look through the “Events” page shows a seemingly endless list of anniversary activities including lectures, seminars, symposiums, concerts, dinners, movies, artwork displays and even tours retracing the steps of Luther in Germany. Many of these events invite Catholics to join in the anniversary.

While some Lutherans still label the events as celebrations, those involved in uniting the churches prefer to use the term “commemoration.” It is their way of acknowledging that there were terrible horrors committed by both sides.

An artist’s depiction of Martin Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenburg on Oct. 31, 1517.
Public Domain

Vatican II

From the Catholic perspective, Protestants were the rebels who divided the church against Christ’s clear commands for unity. The Catholic Church had always wanted to return these daughter churches to its fold, but without success. A huge turning point occurred in 1959 with Pope John xxiii’s announcement of the Second Vatican Council, aimed at discussing reconciliation and unity.

To get an idea of what church unity (or “ecumenism”) meant before Vatican ii, Orthodox priest Lawrence Farley provided this anecdote of some Protestants who were meeting the pope. “They asked him to offer a prayer for them, and in response, he prayed in Latin the prayer offered over incense in the mass, ‘May you burn for His glory.’ Since the prayer was offered in its original Latin, the Protestant pilgrims had no clue as to its meaning, but were delighted that the pontiff took the time to pray with them.”

Despite this, theologian Herbert W. Armstrong pointed to the fact that unity would be achieved. In a Plain Truth article in 1961, a year before the council officially began, he wrote: “The pope will step in as the supreme unifying authority—the only one that can finally unite the differing nations of Europe. The iron jurisdiction over both schools and religion will be turned over to the Roman Catholic Church. Europe will go Roman Catholic! Protestantism will be absorbed into the ‘mother’ church—and totally abolished” (emphasis added). For decades before and after the council, Mr. Armstrong forecast that the Catholic Church would unify the religious divisions in order to bind together the European continent.

The end of Vatican ii in 1965 was heralded as a great victory for unity. Protestant and Orthodox Christians were pulled from hell and accepted as containing other “elements … of truth.”

Two years later, Protestant leaders were seriously questioning the need for an ongoing Protestant movement. The Lutheran bishop of Berlin, Otto Dibelius, said, “If the Catholic Church of 450 years ago had looked as it does today, there never would have been a Reformation.” Dr. Carl E. Braaten of Chicago’s Lutheran Theological Seminary concluded that it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify “a need for Protestantism as an independent movement.”

Nevertheless, further steps have been taken in the lead-up to the 500th anniversary.

From Conflict to Communion

Last year, to commemorate the Reformation’s 499th anniversary, Pope Francis traveled to Lund, Sweden, and gave a talk to the Lutheran World Federation. He praised Luther, saying, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”

This year, Lutherans and Catholics came together to produce a document called “From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.” It documents the work on unity and describes how they believe it can be furthered.

The document quotes Pope John xxiii saying, “The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.” Both sides are regretful of the “polemical” environment that existed for the more than 400 years before the Vatican ii council. With the passage of time, they now say, has come a collective memory loss. “As a result of this forgetting, much of what divided the church in the past is virtually unknown today,” the document states.

The four major issues discussed in the document are justification, the Eucharist, the ministry and “scripture and tradition.” “While there are still numerous difficulties concerning the ministry,” the document says, “the other three issues are close to being totally resolved.”

On the two issues of justification and “scripture and tradition,” Catholics and Lutherans have been able to reconcile their differences—not just among the clergy, but also among everyday churchgoers.

A number of Pew polls done in advance of the 500th anniversary bear this out. One poll titled “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later” shows that in regard to justification, more American Protestants agree with the Catholic teaching than with Luther’s teaching of sola fide (by “faith alone”). Regarding “scripture and tradition,” Luther’s famous pronunciation was sola scriptura (by “scripture alone”). Once again, a majority of American Protestants agree with the Catholic view, which states that both church teachings and tradition are necessary for salvation. On the European continent, the numbers are similar.

Five hundred years have passed, and a majority of Protestants side with the Catholic Church rather than with Luther on his most important criticisms.

Another Pew poll titled “Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded” shows just how much the majority of Protestants and Catholics in Europe have embraced each other. Across Western Europe, nearly 60 percent of Protestants say they are “more similar than different.” Only 26 percent believe the opposite. And in Germany, where Luther originally protested, the number who believe the two churches are more similar is 78 percent.

The vast majority of Catholics and Protestants say they are willing to accept a member of the opposite church as their neighbor or even as a member of their family. In Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the number of Protestants willing to accept a Catholic family member is 98 percent.

Among Catholics, the rate of accepting Protestants into their families is a little lower, especially in Italy, Spain and Portugal. In fact, in all the pushes for ecumenism, the Catholic Church remembers that it is the mother church, and that the Protestant denominations are the daughters that split off. The Catholic Church gathers together its split-offs into unity, not the other way around.

This is why there is a difference in the language that different church leaders use to urge their congregations to unity. In January, the Anglican Church’s archbishop of Canterbury told Protestants that in pondering the Reformation, they should “repent” of their part in “perpetuating divisions.”

A year earlier, Pope Francis apologized for persecuting Protestants—but not exactly in that language. “As the bishop of Rome and pastor of the Catholic Church, I would like to invoke mercy and forgiveness for the non-evangelical behavior of Catholics toward Christians of other churches,” he said. “At the same time, I invite all Catholic brothers and sisters to forgive if today, or in the past, they have suffered offense by other Christians.”

As the Trumpet wrote at the time, “‘Non-evangelical behavior’ is an interesting euphemism for the massive violence unleashed in the wake of the Reformation.” The Thirty Years’ War between Catholic and Protestants alone cost 8 million lives.

One church leader speaks of repentance in “perpetuating divisions”; the other provides mercy and forgiveness for “non-evangelical behavior.”

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby during a service in Rome on Oct. 5, 2016.
Vatican Pool/Getty Images

Returning to the Fold

Let’s go back to the comment by Herbert W. Armstrong, before the Vatican ii council. He said Europe would “go Roman Catholic” and Protestantism would be absorbed into the mother church. A few years later, in 1963, while thousands of Catholic officials were still participating in the council, his magazine, the Plain Truth, wrote:

Today, the time is ripe—according to official Catholic views—for making the final effort to unite the church bodies of the Christian world. The mighty problem of achieving unity is twofold. First, it involves reconciliation of the Orthodox Schism that officially commenced in 1054 and divided the churches in the East—Greece, Russia, the Balkans and the Near East—from Rome. Second, it involves restoration to the Roman communion all Protestantism, which developed from 1517 onward.

Mr. Armstrong based these predictions on numerous biblical prophecies that pointed toward a reunification of Europe through a unified religious force. Just as it had been in the past, that force would be Catholic.

The Trumpet continues the legacy of Mr. Armstrong, and our editor in chief, Gerald Flurry, also proclaims the same prophecies. Mr. Flurry has pointed to Isaiah 47:1-8 as a passage of Scripture indicating that Protestants, or the Catholic Church’s protesting daughters, would not be lost but rather brought back into the fold.

Here is described a “lady of kingdoms.” Mr. Armstrong consistently proved this represents the powerful Catholic Church, which has ruled kingdoms throughout history. In verse 7, this church says, “I shall be a lady for ever”; in the next verse, she says, “I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children.” With the two major splits—the Great Orthodox Schism in 1054 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517—the Catholic Church lost influence over two daughters that split from her. But her attitude is that she will never “know the loss of children.” They will be brought back, eventually. What we see at this 500th anniversary is actually evidence of this prophecy being fulfilled.

While unity and ecumenism have been a peaceful process in the last five decades, there are a number of issues that look difficult to reconcile. The Catholics, even under Pope Francis, have maintained conservative approaches to issues, while many Protestants have taken more liberal stances. Both Herbert W. Armstrong and Gerald Flurry have pointed to the fact that while steps toward unity will initially be peaceful, when a time of crisis comes, a Catholic Church of force and power will have its way. That has been the way it was done in the past, and it is the way it will be done in the future.

For more information on these forecasts, see the booklet the Trumpet has produced on the collected forecasts of Herbert W. Armstrong, He Was Right, especially the chapter “Returning to the Fold.”