Beyond the Wittenberg Door


Beyond the Wittenberg Door
Brian Zahnd

Five-hundred years ago on All Hallows Eve (the day before All Saints Day) Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Professor Luther was proposing a theological debate, what he got was a revolution. What Luther unwittingly launched that day in Wittenberg was one of the most momentous movements in church history: The Protestant Reformation. Among the many consequences of the Reformation was that the Western Church separated into Catholic and Protestant churches. One way of describing the Reformation would be, “there arose a sharp disagreement, so that they separated from each other.” (Acts 15:39)

So here we are now, five-hundred years down the road — five-hundred years beyond the Wittenberg Door. And finding ourselves half a millennium beyond the Wittenberg Door, how should we think about the Protestant Reformation? I have a few thoughts.

First of all, Commend It.

The Church of the Renaissance had become scandalously corrupt. Too often Popes were worldly emperors and bishops worldly princes with little authentic spirituality. Moral laxity among the clergy and a hierarchy marked by avarice and greed compromised the witness of the Church. A Church mired in empty ritualism where the sacraments were often used as a means of control threatened to rob people of the gospel. Something had to change. When John Tetzel arrived in Wittenberg selling indulgences (think “vacation passes from Purgatory”) as a fund-raising scheme for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, hawking his wares with tawdry slogans like, As soon as the coin in coffer rings / The rescued soul from Purgatory springs, well, this was all too much for the young professor of theology, Martin Luther.

I admire Luther for the courage it took to challenge the corrupt system and call for reform. Luther was not only risking his clerical career, he was risking his life. Many would-be reformers had already been burned at the stake. Martin Luther has to be regarded as one of the most courageous (and successful) prophets in church history. So for bringing desperately needed ecclesial and theological reform to a corrupt and misguided Church, I commend the Protestant Reformation.

But I also Lament It.

I lament the Protestant Reformation for the tragic division it brought to the Church. We didn’t end up with a Catholic Church and a Protestant Church…we ended up with something like 10,000 Protestant denominations. And Word of Life Church (the church I pastor) belongs to the second largest Protestant “denomination” in America — non-denominational.

(Though I’m keenly aware of the problem of a “non-denominational” church, I’m also largely unapologetic about it. I inherited a problem centuries in the making and sometimes you have to make due with the cards dealt you. Plus I can confidently assert that Word of Life Church is genuinely connected with many churches across the ecumenical width of the body of Christ.)

I also lament that the Reformation wasn’t nearly radical enough. The new Protestant churches quickly became the state churches of the emerging nation-states of Northern Europe. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Those who did advocate for radical reform (the Anabaptists) were ferociously persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants. So instead of turning away from Christendom (Christianity as civil religion in service of the state), Protestant churches just continued down the same well-worn path of compromise — baptizing the wars of their emperor and blessing the brutality of empire — already trod by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This established a tragic trajectory that would ultimately lead to the 20th century catastrophe of millions upon millions of European Christians killing one another in the name of national allegiance.

So where as I commend the Reformation as a bold and necessary correction to endemic corruption and aberrant theology, I also lament the Reformation for the division it wrought and for not being radical enough to break with nationalism.

On October 31 we will reach the five-hundred year mark beyond the Wittenberg Door. That the Reformation is both something I can commend and lament, leaves me feeling rather ambiguous about it. I have little passion for either commendation or lamentation. But there is something I am genuinely passionate about…

We can Anticipate Something New.

After five centuries I think we can finally allow the Reformation to rest in history. Today there is a fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit blowing across the body of Christ. I can sense it. I’m aware of it. I’m even bold enough to hope we might actually be on the cusp of something as momentous as the Reformation. What is it? I don’t think we have a name for it yet…and that’s probably good. For one thing, this fresh wind of the Spirit is not confined to any particular denomination. The Spirit is moving in the Church without respect for denominational borders. It’s like Jesus said, “The Spirit blows where it wills; you hear the sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. (John 3:8)

This year I’ve participated in conferences with Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Anabaptists, Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. I’ve been invited to speak in all these traditions. And that’s amazing! Such a thing would have been impossible only a few decades ago. I can’t name this new movement that connects so many believers from different traditions or even define it (though I recognize it when I’m around it), but I can identify some of the characteristics of this new movement.

To claim that a focus on Jesus is at the center of this new movement may seem a quaint (or audacious) thing to say, but it’s actually true and very significant. Whatever else this new move is about, it’s radically centered on Jesus! I thrill at the resurgent interest in the Gospels that I’m witnessing across the body of Christ.

The Great Tradition.

Christians within the “low church” traditions are discovering the ancient practices and resources of the historic church. Everywhere I go I find evangelicals, pentecostals, and charismatics beginning to explore liturgy and sacrament.

Contemplative Prayer.

The increased interest in contemplative prayer is enormously encouraging. The practices of contemplative Christianity are the only way forward out of the combative Christianity of dualistic tribalism.

The Love of God
I constantly meet people from across the body of Christ who have come to believe that God is love and have embraced the idea that God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. They are the vanguard of believers who have turned away from the distorted portrait of God as an angry, violent, and retributive deity.

The Peaceable Kingdom.
Increasing numbers of people throughout the body of Christ are rediscovering the Jesus-centered commitment to peace that so characterized the early church of the first three centuries.

Ecumenical Hope.

Unity will not be achieved anytime soon through hierarchical negotiation alone. But that doesn’t prevent Christians from confessing to one another, “we are one in Christ.” And when we believe and confess that we are one in Christ…well, we are! On All Saints Day — five-hundred years and one day after the Protestant Reformation — I will visit my Catholic friends at the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Why? Because we are one in Christ!

I trust you find these harbingers of hope as encouraging as I do.


The artwork is by Ferdinand Willem Pauwels (1830-1903)