In some ways, this question seems odd. Of course the Reformation still matters! After all, in 2017, Christians around the world will mark the Reformation’s 500th anniversary. There will be exhibits, special lectures, Reformation Day activities and more. Germany has decided that a year to focus on the Reformation is not nearly enough and has labeled the period from 2010 to 2020 the “Luther Decade”! Travel companies are offering tours to Reformation sites in Germany, and Playmobil has even put out a Luther figurine, which has proved to be a runaway best-seller.
But in the midst of all these anniversary commemorations, does the Reformation still matter? For many Christians outside Europe, the Reformation feels both long ago and far away. For some Christians today, who may have little awareness of the history of their faith, the Reformation conjures up images of old men with long beards and funny hats, engaging in long theological debates about obscure doctrinal issues. In today’s world, Christians across denominations are increasingly working together on issues of common interest—maybe it’s time to forget about the Reformation.
So some Christians are eagerly looking forward to the anniversary events in 2017, while others are questioning whether the Reformation should be commemorated at all. In response to these divergent approaches, Karin Maag has written Does the Reformation Still Matter? for the Calvin Shorts series. As the director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies at Calvin College and an expert on the social history of the Reformation, she is ideally placed to provide both a historical and contemporary perspective on why the Reformation still matters after 500 years.
First, the Reformation’s theological insights dramatically reshaped people’s understanding of what it means to follow Christ. The Reformers taught that salvation is a gift from God through Christ and that believers cannot do anything by themselves to be justified in the eyes of God. They highlighted the central authority of scripture (albeit interpreted by the pastors) and rejected the saints’ roles as intermediaries between the faithful and God. Debates over authority in matters of faith and belief spilled into contentions over the respective roles of church and state. Reformation-era churches had to work out how to relate to governments keen on exerting more control over religious affairs. Today’s separation of church and state still leaves many issues unresolved. Can Christians ever legitimately resist their government? Should governments give preferential treatment to the majority faith? The Reformation’s responses to these questions helped shape our modern understanding of these issues.
Second, consider the following situation: In any given neighborhood today, there may be Christians from a dozen different denominations living alongside Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, people of other faiths, atheists, and people who are “spiritual but not religious.” Individuals within each of these groups may well hold fervently to their beliefs. But they are living alongside others whose beliefs may be very different to their own. Is it possible to coexist peacefully in the public sphere without compromising one’s own commitment? This very same question emerged with new urgency in the Reformation era, as Christians increasingly divided into competing confessional groups. Communities and individuals had to confront and navigate the reality of religious diversity. Maag’s Calvin Shorts book presents important insights from the Reformation era on this crucial topic in our modern world.