A Catholic Spirit and the Reformation

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-10

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22

October 31 is the anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 theses and the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation.

Ephesians 2 contains a good example of a text that highlights some of the main principles of the Reformation, what came to be known as the five solas: sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ–by grace you have been saved– and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV)

Salvation by grace alone jumps out from this text. Twice Paul says, “by grace you have been saved” and once “it is the gift of God. Salvation through faith is explicit as well. The centrality of Christ is evident throughout. That glory is due to God alone is implied in Paul’s statement about good works; even they are ultimately rooted in God’s design and redemptive activity. No one can boast. And while the primacy of scripture is not evident in the text, the text is only critical if we recognize the authority of scriptures.

If we keep reading in Ephesians 2, however, we will find that the five solas are missing something. What are they missing? The church!

It has been common in Protestant history to pit the scriptures against the church’s authority, personal faith against the church’s common belief and Christ against the clergy. It’s not surprising that the reformers framed their arguments the way that they did since they were arguing with a monolithic church hierarchy.

If you read the reformers, you will find that they all had a high regard for the church, properly understood. If you simply went by their slogans, however, you might miss that point. Some forms of Protestant Christian teaching, in fact, ignore the church in their presentation of the “basics” of the Christian faith. You can’t do that. There is no Christian faith without the church. The scriptures were written for the people of God as a body and not just for individuals. The scriptures are the foundation of the church! God’s grace is given in a covenant in which the people of faith participate. Both grace and faith are communal as well as individual. The church is the body of Christ; to be “in Christ” is to belong to his people. It is in the church that God is glorified.

Ephesians 2:11-22 goes on to make this point. The church is a holy temple built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20-22). It is the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). Those who belong to Christ are citizens of the same commonwealth (Ephesians 2:12, Ephesians 2:19). The church is a new human race in which all believers participate (Ephesians 2:15). This is what the grace of God in Christ accomplishes! In fact, Paul’s first mention of the “blood of Christ” in Ephesians comes in Ephesians 2:11-22 in the context of talking about the church as household-commonwealth-temple-humanity.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13 ESV)

“Brought near” here means to be connected to God’s people. Those who were far off (the Gentiles) have been brought near – connected to God’s people in Christ. Here in Ephesians, this is what Paul highlights as the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross! The church is not an afterthought, to be tacked on after one has faith in God’s grace given in Christ as taught by the scriptures. The church is an integral part of that grace and seeing yourself as part of the church is an integral part of what it means to have faith.

If the scriptures tell us that as believers we are part of God’s temple-household-commonwealth-humanity, maybe the sola scriptura principle makes the church and its mission a big deal. If Christ died to connect us to Christ in his church, maybe it is important to maintain that connection.

That’s exactly the point that Paul will make in the “therefore” portion of his letter. Ephesians 4 begins:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call– one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6 ESV)

The Reformation principles, however, have not always led to unity in spirit. The sola sciptura principle has led to thousands of diverging points of view and religious practices. By the time John Wesley and the Methodist movement appeared on the scene in the 18th century, the number of Christian sects had grown tremendously. Both the European continent and the United Kingdom had experienced centuries of sometimes violent conflict, not only between Protestant and Catholic but also between Protestant and Protestant.

In his sermon on “A Catholic Spirit,” Wesley made an important contribution to overcoming these divisions – a problem that seems to be inherent in the Protestant approach to the Bible and the church. He wrote:

Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.

It is very possible, that many good men now also may entertain peculiar opinions. . . . And it is certain, so long as we know but in part, that all men will not see all things alike. It is an unavoidable consequence of the present weakness and shortness of human understanding that several men will be of several minds in religion as well as in common life. So it has been from the beginning of the world, and so it will be “till the restitution of all things.”

Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true, is the same thing as not to hold it); yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions, taken together, are true. Nay, every thinking man is assured they are not, seeing humanum est errare et nescire: “To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity.” This, therefore, he is sensible, is his own case. He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.

Who can tell how far invincible ignorance may extend? Or (that comes to the same thing) invincible prejudice? –which is often so fixed in tender minds, that it is afterwards impossible to tear up what has taken so deep a root.

And how shall we choose among so much variety? No man can choose for, or prescribe to, another. But every one must follow the dictates of his own conscience, in simplicity and godly sincerity. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind and then act according to the best light he has. Nor has any creature power to constrain another to walk by his own rule. God has given no right to any of the children of men thus to lord it over the conscience of his brethren; but every man must judge for himself, as every man must give an account of himself to God.

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?”

When Wesley asks, “what does it mean to have a right heart,” his answer coalesces around three poles:

  • Passionate, heartfelt faith in Christ
    that results in
  • Enthusiastic love for God and one’s neighbor
    that produces
  • Active engagement in Christian labors and good works

Wesley’s question – being centered on the heart – and his answers – focusing on internal affections and external benevolence – are particularly Wesleyan. When reading Wesley here, it is helpful to remember that Wesley’s Methodism was a reform movement primarily within the Church of England and not a separate church. The components of his religious world included catholic and Puritan elements in the Church of England, Reformed separatists (dissenters and nonconformists) in England, Calvinists and Armenians, Lutheran scholastics and pietists, quietists, Anabaptists of various descriptions and, of course, Roman Catholics. For Wesley, indifference, formalism, hypocrisy and unholiness were the most important dividing lines in the Christian church.

He could see people with a living Christian faith in many branches of the Christian church, despite their differences of opinion and practice. The most important divide that Wesley observed was the one between the dead and the alive, not between those who practiced differing forms of baptism or those who had different opinions about predestination. Wesley’s “catholic spirit” makes best sense when it is seen in this Wesleyan framework. Wesley truly believed that every Christian SHOULD have a passionate, heartfelt faith in Christ that results in enthusiastic love for God and one’s neighbor, producing active engagement in Christian labors and good works. That – and not creeds or liturgical practices – was the focus of the Wesleyan movement! While his sermon says, “We can unite around these things” what he really means is “Every Christian group should adopt these aims as their own.”

Wesley does what most of us in fact do. “Let’s agree to disagree about the small things. Let’s just agree about the most important things, which I will now define.” As important as faith, love and good works may be, they are also some of the things about which Christian opinion differs. What does it mean to have faith? To what extent are sinful people truly able to love either God or their neighbors? How should Christians live in this world?

Wesley’s argument “begs the question” (in the technical sense) in that the conclusion is contained in the premise. Is having a “right heart” indeed the essence of Christian unity? Or is it, as the reformers said, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solo Christo, and Soli Deo Gloria? Or is it something else?

I bring this all up to make a simple point. There is a tension that will always exist within the church as two forces pull us in opposite directions. That’s not all bad. The earth and the planets circle the sun with the force of mass in motion wanting to fling them into space and the force of gravity wanting to pull them into the sun. The two forces balance each other and hold the planets in their orbits.

The reformers were right. Sola scriptura. We must listen to the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures, ascribing to it authority greater than that of any human being, whether that human being is the pope, Martin Luther, John Wesley or your beloved and humble pastor. We must listen to the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures even if the force of our individuality means that our varying interpretations will push us further apart.

But that same voice of scripture points us back toward each other. If we haven’t learned the importance of love and the centrality of our place in the body of Christ, we haven’t really heard the scriptures. Wesley was right. The force of love – love of God and love of neighbor – will pull us back toward each other.

The tension between individual responsibility before God and the unity of the body of Christ will always exist in this age. I will continue to affirm the Reformation slogans of sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria. To them I would add one more: In una, sancta, catholica et apostolica Ecclesia –  that is, “in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.”

For a modern English version of Wesley’s sermon, see Dennis Bratcher at CRI/Voice: A Catholic Spirit.

Reformation Day