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My Reformation Day Dream: The Catholic Council that Never Was

“O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Saviour, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatsoever else may hinder us from godly Union and Concord: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one Hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may henceforth be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of Truth and Peace, of Faith and Charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” -Book of Common Prayer

Earlier this month, when I mentioned to my students that the 505th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses is coming up on October 31, one student asked, “Wasn’t the Reformation a good thing?” I’m not sure if my announcement unintentionally stirred a sense of doubt, but I had to respond, “It’s a mixed bag.” There certainly were things about the church’s doctrine and morals that needed reforming, and, to the degree that Protestants reformed them, it was successful and beneficial, and we should be grateful. But have all the results been good? The answer is clearly “no.”

Of all the unintended negative consequences that resulted from the sixteenth-century Reformation, the most pernicious was the deep schism and the little schisms that followed, all of which still persist. In short, Luther and his contemporaries brought legitimate concerns to the hierarchy, and, for their trouble, they were rejected and excommunicated. Luther and others hoped for an ecumenical council to discuss the issues at hand. Twenty-five years after Luther’s excommunication from Rome, and one year before his death, a council finally convened. Sadly, rather than uniting, it sealed the schism. It was the Roman Church’s Council of Trent (1545–63), and it solemnly and repeatedly anathematized those who held to Protestant teachings, most of which were tenable within the Roman Church just a century or two earlier.

This Roman Catholic council and its confession of faith, which drew the lines of fellowship more sharply than any previous ones, was understandably followed by Protestant confessions of faith that accepted the new hardening of lines and drew some of their own. By the end of the sixteenth century, the boundaries were clear, as they remain more or less today.

The tragedy of it all is that it probably didn’t have to be that way, or at least not as bad as it was. The issues that divided western Christianity had been brewing throughout the late medieval period and they were bound to come to a head at some point. But what if cooler heads had prevailed? What if an ecumenical (at least western) council had successfully convened and its participants carried on charitable debates?

The question is, could there have been a council of actual historical figures that represented the major viewpoints and could have come out on the other side with ecclesiastical unity? If so, who from the sixteenth century would have been the best candidates to convene in order to discuss and pronounce on the contested issues? Whom should I invite to be on my council dream team?

First, I should specify who and what kind of people I am not inviting to this council. If you respond to honest questions with threats and excommunication, then you should not attend. That’s you, Pope Leo X. If you mixed your honest questions with insults, calling Pope Paul III, among other things, “most hellish father” and “hellish scum,” and you have inspired a website that quotes (and provides citations for) your many insults, then you’re disqualified. Sorry, Luther. If you sought the execution of Anabaptists, some of whom you once called your friends, then you’re not invited to this council. Maybe next time, Ulrich Zwingli. If you created church schism because you wanted to divorce and remarry, then you should stay home. I’m talking about you, Henry VIII. If you’ve been described by your objective but sympathetic biographer as a domineering and manipulative bully, as well as “ruthless, and an outstanding hater,” then you’re out, too. Sorry, John Calvin.

I don’t mean to be too hard on these figures. They had good intentions. (Well, maybe not Henry.) They were defending the truth as they saw it. In fact, looking over my negative criteria, I might have to recuse myself from my own hypothetical council.

Those who are invited to this council should be those with an ecumenical and irenic spirit, something that was in short supply in the sixteenth century. They represent the major viewpoints in dispute. And they are people who did not drive the divisions, but lamented the persecution of fellow believers and spoke up for unity. What follows is my dream team, my top nine, in chronological order, for a sixteenth-century western council.

1. Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536). Erasmus, the prince of the humanists, was, to put it mildly, learned in the Scriptures and early church fathers. He favored reforms within the Roman Church but could not support the schism that resulted. He felt that, in their zeal for legitimate reform, Protestants like Luther overreacted. In 1524, Erasmus wrote, “If each side continues to defend bitterly its own exaggerations, I can see such a fight coming as was that between Achilles and Hector whom, since they were both equally ruthless, only death could divide.” Erasmus was prescient.

2. Balthasar Hubmaier (1480–1528). A representative from the Anabaptist team, Hubmaier received his doctorate in theology at Ingolstadt under the training of the Catholic theologian, Johann Eck. Unlike most other Anabaptists, Hubmaier saw a role for Christian civil government and the restrained use of the sword in just war. Of course, the physical sword should not be used against doctrinal heretics, a thesis that he argued in his treatise, On Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. Unfortunately, for his defense of believers’ baptism, he was burned at the stake.

3. Johann Oecolampadius (1482–1531). Translating your name into Greek can do a lot for it—just ask Melanchthon. Besides having the coolest name in the Reformation, Oecolampadius also merits a place at the council’s table. He was the reformer in Basel and an expert in the Hebrew language. Although he was a friend of Zwingli and is classed as a “Zwinglian,” unlike Zwingli, he had some positive interactions with Anabaptists. Oecolampadius was a voice of moderation at the contentious and catastrophic Marburg Colloquy between Luther and Zwingli (1529); Luther thanked him for speaking in a friendly manner and less sharply than Zwingli spoke.

4. Gasparo Contarini (1483–1542). Contarini was an Italian cardinal and was the papal legate at the last great effort to re-unite Catholics and Protestants before the Council of Trent. The meeting took place in Regensburg (Ratisbon) in 1541. Notably, the Catholic and Protestant representatives agreed on article 5: “Living faith is that which both appropriates mercy in Christ, believing that the righteousness which is in Christ is freely imputed to it, and at the same time receives the promise of the Holy Spirit and love. Therefore the faith that truly justifies is that faith which is effectual through love [Gal. 5:6].”

5. Martin Bucer (1491–1551). Another voice of moderation both at the Marburg Colloquy and at Regensburg was Martin Bucer. Bucer was the leading reformer in Strasbourg, a city renowned for its tolerance. From Strasbourg, he had a positive influence on German-, French-, and English-language Lutheran and Reformed theology. He welcomed Calvin during his three-year exile from Geneva. At the Regensburg colloquy, Bucer confessed: “Both sides have failed. Some of us have overemphasized unimportant points, and others have not adequately reformed obvious abuses.”

6. Philip Melanchthon (1497–1560). Philip Melanchthon was Luther’s right-hand man in Wittenberg and the first major theologian of the reform movements. He was the author of the Augsburg Confession in 1530, the first great Protestant confession of faith. Along with Contarini, Bucer, and others, Melanchthon participated in the failed Regensburg colloquy. Because of his friendly relations with the Reformed and his willingness to compromise with Catholics and Reformed, some of his fellow Lutherans accused him of soft-pedalling.

And now I include a select few from the next generation. These are people who lived to see more of the divisions than did their predecessors:

7. Franciscus Junius (1545–1602). Franciscus Junius, Sr., was a skilled linguist and Bible translator, as well as a sought-after theologian who taught in Heidelberg and Leiden. He is an excellent representative of the Reformed perspective, who advocated what could be considered (in later terms) a supralapsarian doctrine of unconditional predestination. His defense of this position was joined to an irenic disposition that made him willing to confer with others who disagreed (as he did with Arminius). His desire for broad unity among Christians with diverse opinions is reflected in the title of one of his books, Eirenicum [that is, Peaceable]: On the Peace of the Catholic Church.

8. Richard Hooker (1554–1600). Richard Hooker represents the Anglican tradition and was its foremost theologian of the sixteenth century. His Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity is his best known work. Among other gifts, Hooker would bring to the council a balanced view and appreciation of Scripture, church tradition, and reason as sources of theology and parameters for theological discussion. On the value of catholic tradition, he wrote, “Neither may we in this case lightly esteem what hath been allowed as fit in the judgment of antiquity, and by the long continued practice of the whole Church; from which unnecessarily to swerve, experience hath never as yet found it safe.”

9. Jacob Arminius (1559–1609). In addition to being a talented theologian who is known for opposing important Reformed doctrines from within the Reformed camp, Jacob Arminius also addressed the issue of divisions in the church. Like Luther before him, Arminius also envisioned a council, not to settle matters with the pope, but to bring harmony to the Reformed churches that were on the verge of fracturing. His address to Leiden University, of which he was rector in 1606, was entitled, “On the reconciling of religious differences among Christians.” In it, he clearly describes the causes of division and suggests remedies. He also suggests certain criteria for the council that he hoped would convene. Outside the door of the council’s meeting hall, he said that a sign should be placed that reads, “Let no one that is not desirous of promoting the interests of truth and peace enter this hallowed dome.”

Imagine if these figures, or people like them, had been gathered at a hypothetical sixteenth-century ecumenical council to hammer out the theological disagreements of the day. Imagine, furthermore, if the western Church had maintained unity while addressing abuses and allowing a tolerable measure of theological diversity. How would the ecclesiastical, theological, social, moral, and political landscape be different today?

Of course, not only was such a council chronologically impossible, but this discussion and list reflect desires that can be seen most clearly in hindsight and thus are probably unfair to the sixteenth century and its concerns and prejudices. But it is still okay to daydream, right?

1 Comment

Daren Allee
Daren Allee
Nov 01, 2022

Beautiful dream. Thank you for giving us such a cornucopia of worthy examples in our times of struggle on so many fronts, national and ecclesiological. Perhaps we can yet fufill our Lord's last request, that we "may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me." God help us.

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