The Reformation @ 500 An Interdenominational Conversation of our Heritage from the Reformation

Dec 21st, 2017 | Category: Faith/Learning
By Matthew Harrison, Blase Cupich, and Philip Ryken

Editor’s Note: Martin Luther is well known for his Table Talks, conversations around a table with his students. Interchanges that changed the world. On October 30, 2017, on the eve of the Reformation500 anniversary, three church leaders gathered at Concordia University Chicago for a conversation at a table. The audience was more than a group of students. It was a full house of persons interested in this particular table talk. Our heritage from the Reformation is important to more than those who identify themselves as Lutheran. The church throughout the world has benefitted from the request for discussion that a university professor made on October 31, 1517. In our time a similar request for discussion has been extended to leaders in three church bodies: Rev. Matthew Harrison, President of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod; Cardinal Blase Cupich, Archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church; and Dr. Philip Ryken, President of Wheaton College, a representative of the Reformed tradition that grew out of the work of John Calvin. If you are interested in the full conversation from this evening, you will find it at

President Matthew Harrison

Cardinal Cupich, Dr. Ryken, President Gard, and dear Friends who have joined us for a conversation the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation:

More than two decades ago as a young pastor serving what was the poorest census tract in the State of Indiana, my counterpart at the neighboring Catholic Church, Father John Delaney, invited me to join him on the board of a Neighbor-Works, non-profit housing corporation with the goal of providing a pathway for ownership of new homes. Over the span of a few years, we acquired some 100 properties, tore down dozens of dilapidated homes, built new buildings on our church properties, coaxed the county to build a new African-American emphasis public library, provided property and money for a new Urban League headquarters and a new Head Start facility, and refitted an ancient vacant Catholic school into a beautiful senior living center.

Once I was joining my buddy, Father John, for lunch, and as I slid into the passenger seat he said to me, “God I wish you were Catholic so I know you weren’t going to hell.” This was prior to the Joint Declaration, mind you, but knowing something of Vatican II on the possibility of pagans going to heaven, I quipped, “If a self-respecting pagan can’t even get into hell, there should be room for a Lutheran in heaven!” We laughed uproariously.

The project continues around Zion Lutheran and St. Peter’s Catholic to this day. It also led to an appointment on the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue between the Indiana District of the LCMS and the Fort Wayne-South Bend Archdiocese. I read John Paul’s encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint,(Jesus’ words in John 17, “that they may be one”), and while I found as a Lutheran much to disagree with (particularly on the nature of the church), I also found its sane, level-headed, doctrinally-oriented advocacy of dialogue to be completely true. Echoing our 19th-century Lutheran father, Wilhelm Loehe, there was much to which I had to say “No.” But there was also very much there to which I had to say, “Yes! That is true.” It is an irony that today Rome has preserved the basic teachings of the Bible on, for instance, who is Christ, His divinity, the birth of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, the facts of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection, and Christian morality—more so than most mainline Protestants, who were born of the cry, Sola Scriptura!

Why talk? In so doing, we chase away caricatures. We will say “No,” but we will also say, “Yes.” I learned something of the Catholic Church I did not know. And I came to agree with the profound sentiment of Hermann Sasse, great anti-Nazi, early participant in the budding ecumenical movement, and friend of the Missouri Synod, when he said: “There is more true unity of the Spirit, where Christians of differing views are honest about those differences, than where they sweep them under the rug.” People of conviction—even when they disagree—must respect people of conviction. The same applies to our evangelical friends.

Cardinal Blase Cupich

Tomorrow evening, during the Offering at our service of Common Prayer and Renewal of the Covenant, the hymn Ecce Quam Bonum will be sung. Let me anticipate that moment by saying to you, how good and pleasant it is when friends come together in unity. Thank you President Daniel Gard for inviting me to Concordia University tonight for this Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. I look forward to the conversation with President Matthew Harrison of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and President Philip Ryken of Wheaton College. I know we are all grateful to Manya Brachear Pashman for moderating the conversation.

I followed with interest the pastoral journey last year that Pope Francis made to Lund, Sweden to participate in a similar commemoration. His inspiring words convinced me that we should likewise use the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the opening of the Reformation to reinvigorate the promotion of Christian unity here in Chicagoland. Pope Francis is convinced that we need a fresh approach and new impetus for promoting unity among the churches to overcome divisions. Not only has the ecumenical movement stalled but there is even within the organized ecumenical movement some hesitation and doubt about the best way forward. Do we focus on doctrine or ignore doctrine in favor of service? Should we, as some suggest, even think about abandoning the work of Christian unity and instead put our efforts on building unity in the human family and with non-Christian religions?

The Holy Father’s approach is quite straightforward as it is based on relationships grounded in joint action. We begin by getting to know one another. We deepen our relationships not only in conversation, but by working alongside one another in common cause, whether that be doctrinal agreement, direct charitable service, common witness on important social issues, or even joint engagement with non-Christians. What is essential to Pope Francis’ vision of dialogue is fraternity and service.

It is in that spirit that I join you tonight as together we commemorate the Reformation. If anyone would ask: what does this anniversary have to do with us in the Catholic Church? I would answer, everything. Not only because reform in the Church is an ongoing and a continual task, but also because the Reformation period was composed of several reformations. Many of Luther’s contemporaries, like Erasmus, Cardinal Contarini, or Thomas More, pursued the reform agenda within the communion of the Catholic Church. Additionally, after the separation, there were reformers within the Catholic Church such as Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, whose entire lives were dedicated to renewing our Church. So it is not so much of celebrating the Reformation, for it is hard to celebrate the division which wounded the Body of Christ in violation of the prayer of Christ in John 17. Rather, it is a moment to reclaim reform as our heritage, our calling.

We are blessed in our day with many advantages which our ancestors in the 16th century did not have. We live in a time of great theological development, liturgical renewal, biblical scholarship and patristic revival. It is not too much to say that the stage for much of this was set by the questions raised by reformers, and people like Erasmus and other Christian humanist scholars in the 16th century. All of the modern-day movements I just mentioned have their roots in this earlier era and coalesced for the Catholic Church in our time at the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis is connecting us with the guidance for renewal the Council provided, and the sense of springtime we felt over a half century ago. It is no wonder that he is so widely loved and admired by people around the world.

In particular, just as Vatican II reminded us that the Church is not a self-contained society, so Pope Francis is urging a missionary approach, one that sees the Church as a field hospital that goes out to the world in need. That redefinition of the Church is at the heart of our effort in the Archdiocese of Chicago called Renew My Church. So, I consider my being here with you tonight to commemorate the Reformation a great blessing, as it helps me keep in focus that reform in the Church, however it occurs, starts with building relationships as Pope Francis urges, for it is in those relationships that we recognize that all along it is Christ who is bringing us together. That is why it is so good and pleasant for us to be one this night. Ecce Quam Bonum indeed.

Dr Philip Ryken

I want to give a big thank you to President Gard and to Concordia University for hosting this panel, and also to President Harrison and Cardinal Cupich for the gifts of their time and thought—especially to the Cardinal for participating in a conversation where he is outnumbered by Protestants two to one. I also thank Manya Brachear Pashman from the Chicago Tribune as a true journalist—someone who seeks to be fair in her coverage.

Protestants have marked the anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses at least every century for the last five hundred years. We usually call it a “celebration,” but maybe “commemoration” is a better word for it. Not everything that happened in the Reformation, or afterwards, deserves to be celebrated. But what Martin Luther started continues to have such a huge influence on our world—not only in North America, but in Brazil, India, China, sub-Saharan Africa, and many other places—that it is good for us to rethink the Reformation—to consider its historical context, its many consequences, and our contemporary response.

As far as commemorations go, this is “the big one,” five long centuries since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. I know this is a big event because when Playmobil came out with a little plastic Martin Luther figurine, it turned out to be their hottest selling toy ever.

It is notable that Protestants and Catholics are talking about this anniversary together. Some of the earlier commemorations were much more contentious—especially some of the ones that were held in Europe in 1617. There have been some complaints this time, too, such as the commentator who said that Protestants and Catholics getting together to talk about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation makes about as much sense as a man and his ex-wife getting together to commemorate their divorce.

I guess some disagreements take at least half a millennium to even begin to resolve. Tonight we are here together, and I’m encouraged by that, as I hope you are. Last week we hosted a pastor’s prayer breakfast on campus, and I was a little surprised when one of the local Catholic priests who attends regularly more or less wished me a happy Reformation Day. Pope Francis has taken an even bolder step in declaring that Martin Luther is a “witness to the gospel.”

It is because of Luther’s witness that Wheaton College has claimed Romans 1:16–17 as our Year Verse for the 2017–2018 academic year. We want to take our stand with Martin Luther and declare that we are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” For in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”

Those are not Luther’s words, of course, but the Apostle Paul’s. And they do not necessarily explain themselves. Luther received Paul’s message as a gift of God’s grace, which relieved his guilty conscience. But we still need to consider carefully what is meant by “the righteousness of God,” what it means to believe, how faith relates to works, and many other important theological issues.

Which is why I hope we will leave plenty of room for disagreement on this panel, and in all the conversations we have afterwards. I would be disappointed to hear anything less than a spirited articulation of Catholicism from Cardinal Cupich tonight, or a robust defense of Luther from a Lutheran leader like Dr. Harrison. We need to talk more about the places where we disagree, not less. As long as we speak to one another with charity, this will not only help us become better Christians, and better theologians, but also better friends.