What Would It Take for the Reformation to End?

By Graham Glover

This past year has seen a number of articles, blogs, podcasts, books, documentaries, sermons, classes, etc., about the upcoming anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. No matter what “side” you think was right or how you understand the particulars of the people and events that transformed the Western Church and much of the world’s history, there is undoubtedly something out there for everyone to resonate with as we consider the events that took place 500 years ago.

Although I appreciate the fruits of the Reformation commentary over the past several months and think the dialogues occurring because of the 500th anniversary are both theologically and intellectually healthy, I’m left wondering what we are to make of the future of the Reformation. This curiosity is not one that wonders whether there should have been a Reformation, or whether Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Henry VIII, et al, were right in their respective quests to reform/revolutionize the Christian faith/Church. While those questions remain critically important in helping us understand why we believe what we do today, none of them change the reality of what actually occurred. Rather, my curiosity is one that wonders if the Reformation will ever end. That is, will the divisions that were codified five centuries ago forever remain a part of Christianity until our Lord returns, or is unity among some or all still a possibility? Or to put it another way: “What would it take for the Reformation to end?”

For all sides, I wonder:

What would it take for you to reconcile with those with whom you are not in fellowship with? What doctrinal positions would be required to be agreed upon for the differing sides to unite? Is it all or nothing? Must the Roman Catholics concede all points of the Lutheran reformers? Must Lutherans recant all of their confessions? Must the Church of England submit to the authority of the Bishop of Rome? Must the Reformed in all their varieties abandon much of what their churches teach? Seriously, what, if anything, would facilitate the end of the Protestant Reformation?

Perhaps my question will fall on deaf ears. If I concede that we cannot change the reality of what caused the Reformation to occur in the first place, how can I expect it to end? If the parties are unable to come to an agreement over whether the Reformation should have even happened, how can they be expected to agree on its ending?

I think, though, that we miss out on the spirit of the Reformation if we don’t consider the question. Again, I wonder:

If Rome were open to the Lutheran doctrine of justification, would Lutherans be open to the primacy of the papacy? If the Reformed conceded the Mass as the proper form of Christian worship, would others concede their varied understandings of church authority? If Rome acknowledged its errors that led to the Reformation, would the Protestants acknowledge their reforms may have gone too far? I’m not suggesting any or all of these should be accepted or embraced. I’m just using them as examples of what could facilitate a conversation about ending the Reformation.

Maybe I’m being naïve. Maybe I’m just too nostalgic. (And I haven’t even considered where the Orthodox churches fit in this conversation!) But I don’t think the question betrays the intent of the reformers or the counter-reformers.

Unity, although difficult, should remain our goal. In our efforts to get there, I’m simply asking: What would it take? What would it take for the Reformation to end?

What say you?