Dogmatic Perspective: Viewing the Reformation through the lens of doctrines that divide, unite
(SNR) - The Diocese of Lincoln’s Office of Evangelization presented a five-part series about the Reformation during the annual “coffee house” series at Gianna’s Java & Gelato in Lincoln.
October 17, 2017 was marked as the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As the Protestant population within the diocesan boundary is more than six times the Catholic population, the series was held to equip Catholics with a thorough understanding of the Catholic perspective on the Reformation.
The speakers prepared short recaps of their talks for the Register. The full videos of each talk is available online. Vern Steiner was the guest speaker at the first coffee house event Nov. 12. He provided a thorough dogmatic perspective, and a brief summary is included.
By Vern Steiner
For there to be meaningful conversation about matters on which Christians are united or divided, it is important for both Catholics and Protestants to understand what we mean and do not mean by ‘dogma.’
For Catholics ‘dogma’ identifies a formulation of divine revelation that is definitively proclaimed by the Church as binding on all the faithful. Since Church dogma has a principled basis in a revealed deposit of faith, not in the opinions of individual interpreters, Catholics cannot simply abandon any of our dogmas or revise them at will or choose ones more to our liking from a wide selection on the denominational buffet.
This does not mean that everything Catholics say and do reflects Church dogma, even if it should. It certainly does not mean that everything the Church’s critics and detractors, including fallen-away or ex-Catholics, represent the Church as believing and teaching fits that category. Failure to appreciate these differentiations explains in large measure why Christendom tore asunder in the 16th century, and why Christians remain divided today. It was not then, and it is not now, principally a rupture over matters of dogma properly conceived.
When it comes to actual Church teaching, faithful Catholics and confessing Protestants have far more in common than in conflict—a shared understanding of the Trinity, recognition of Scripture as God’s authoritative word, love for Christ and the gospel, devotion to virtuous and moral living, respect for the sanctity of life, exaltation of marriage and family, and adherence to most of the articles in the Creed. Theologically speaking, at least evangelical Protestants have a greater degree of shared faith with Catholics than with many, if not most, other Protestants. This should be cause for genuine celebration, despite the erroneous insistence by some that we remain deeply and irreconcilably divided over essential doctrines.
Some of the objections Protestants offer in opposition to the Catholic faith over such matters as the gospel, justification, works, Mary and the saints, purgatory, the papacy, and confession appear to be doctrinal in nature.
On further reflection, these issues boil down to the different answers Catholics and Protestants give to three prior and deeper questions, as relates to (a) interpretive authority: Who decides what is true?, (b) ecclesial conception: What kind of a thing is the Church Jesus established?, and (c) the sacramental life: How is God present and active in the world? Virtually all of our differences, including those encapsulated in the Reformation solae, trace to variations on these themes, which, accordingly, define for us key points for constructive conversation.
Viewed in this light, a number of definable steps can and should be taken by both Catholics and non-Catholics to move beyond the 500-year-old rupture and to restore the unity for which Jesus prayed, the apostles pleaded, and the world desperately waits. The pursuit of ecclesial unity is itself a doctrinal mandate, which faithful Christians cannot ignore or regard as desirable but optional.