February 08, 2018 / Issue Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2017 / Profile

Hans Boersma on the Tragedy of the Reformation

By Hans Boersma & Derek Witten

Hans Boersma

Hans Boersma is the J.I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College. Before coming to Regent in 2005, Hans Boersma taught for six years at Trinity Western University, in Langley, BC (1999–2005). Hans Boersma's main theological interests are Catholic thought, the church fathers, and spiritual interpretation of Scripture.In 2018, Eerdmans will publish his latest book, Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition.

Derek Witten

Derek Witten is Senior Writer and Editor at Regent College and Managing Editor of the Regent World.

And how to respond with hopeful lament

For Hans Boersma, the first response Protestants—and all Christians—should have toward the Reformation is lament. We should lament because the Reformation split the body of Christ, and Christ desires his body dwell in unity. But just because it was a tragedy doesn’t make it entirely the reformers’ fault. In this interview, Hans widens the lens through which we view the Reformation: he traces the currents of thought that led to a split between earthly and heavenly reality, which in turn, informed the Reformation, and continue to influence modern Christian thought and life. He encourages lament at the tragedy of the Reformation, but also offers a hopeful look into what can be done (and what already has been done) to work toward reunification. 

You've described the Reformation as a tragedy. Why?

The Reformation was a very understandable thing. But not everything understandable is a good thing and a thing to be celebrated. There are two main reasons why I think the Reformation is not something to celebrate but is primarily something that we should lament—that it is primarily a tragedy. 

One is it broke the unity of the church. That's perhaps the most important reason; it is an ecclesiological reason. Whatever we may think about the rights or wrongs of the Reformation, whether we're looking to from a Catholic perspective or from a Protestant perspective, either way: the Reformation broke the church. Considering the great value that Scripture places on the unity of the church, it seems to me we should look at that as a tragedy. Whenever the church breaks it is a tragedy. 

The second thing: the Reformation I think is one step in a theological and cultural development. And you could sketch these developments by talking about how nature and the supernatural are related to each other—how nature and grace, or heaven and earth are related to each other—and it seems to me that beginning in the late Middle Ages heaven and earth more and more got torn away from each other, more or more got separated from one another. And I think, at times, the reformers were aware of that, but at other times it seems to me they were not. 

And the Reformation I think is one of the steps along the way that later on through the period of the Enlightenment, and through modernity leads to a more and more radical separation between heaven and earth, between nature and the supernatural. So that eventually, eventually, in the modern period we come to say: "well, we really don't need the heavenly realm because we get along without it just fine."

You mentioned that this shift started earlier in the middle ages—well before the Reformation. Does that take some of the blame off the reformers for the disunity of the church?

I think it does, absolutely. I think it would be quite inappropriate to simply say "well, the Reformation is something that we should blame on the Protestant reformers" or that we should say "The separation between nature and the supernatural is something for which we should primarily blame the reformers." There are a number of developments. In the lecture that's online, I sketch five of those theological/cultural developments that lead to dis-integration between heaven and earth, between nature and the supernatural. Four of those five pre-date the Reformation. And the fifth one, while it does not predate the Reformation actually is a Roman Catholic development! And that is the notion of pura natura, of pure nature. Thankfully the reformers never claim that we should adhere to such a thing as pure nature. So no, this is not at all simply to blame the Reformation. Some of those developments, I think, affected the reformers and affected later Reformed and Evangelical theologians. So it's not as though the Reformation tradition is without blame in any way. But it's too quick and too easy, I think, simply to blame the Reformation.

What do you think are the greatest gains the Reformation gave us?

Let me first say that in in the lecture I try to avoid the kind of thinking, what are the strengths of the Reformation, what are the weaknesses of the Reformation—the tallying things up. I don't want to tally things. There are lots of positive things on the positive side of the scales as it were for the Reformation, and they should be mentioned. But what I do in the lecture is I go under the surface as it were and I ask the question what is the relation, how does the Reformation relate to the relationship between heaven and earth and nature and the supernatural. And that I think it's something I want to draw to the fore.

But when it comes to the actual question you are asking about, about some of the greatest gains of the Reformation, I think there is the focus on Scripture, scriptural preaching. There's a sense of community, ecclesial community that comes out as a result of the preaching of the word. God's people should come together and should focus on fellowship together. That's often stronger in Reformation churches than in Catholic churches I think. The tradition of hymnody within the Reformation is, I think, profound. The sense of catechetical instruction in Reformation churches is often, not always, but often lacking in Catholic churches.

Particularly since the 18th century there's a strong emphasis on missions within the Pietist and Evangelical strains of the Reformation. It's not absent certainly from the Catholic tradition. You see it in the 16th century in the Catholic tradition as well. But it's I think a particular strength of the Reformation tradition since the 18th century.

What would you say are concrete ways this trend toward the “separation of heaven and earth” is affecting Evangelicals today.

The worst effect overall is that we tend to live, or we were tempted to live, as though God did not exist. We've become practical atheists so often. We're living, or at least we're tempted to live, in our day-to-day lives, as though our lives were dictated simply by this-worldly cause and effect, by natural realities. We're living, I think, insufficiently in the hope of eternally living in the fellowship of God and the saints. The forward and upward turn to the vision of God, to other-worldly realities, goes missing, I think, when we focus just on natural realities as if they were not impinged upon by greater, by divine realities. There's a secularizing, there is a naturalizing of our lives as a result.

Another thinker who talks a lot about disenchantment is Charles Taylor. But he, if I read him correctly, says that we can't go back to what we had before, that we need to re-envision Christianity in light of disenchantment. You would disagree with this?

I don't agree with that no. 

So you think we can go back in a way?

Let's put it this way: I think the universe is enchanted. It's not a matter of can we go back to an enchanted world; the world is enchanted, whether you or I see it or not. What we need through the Spirit's working is to have our eyes open for it. The problem is not with the world, it's with us. I am a Christian Platonist, and for Christian Platonism, it's not as though the world of being changes into a world of becoming, as Louis Dupré thinks for example—and perhaps Taylor as well, I'm not sure.

But we can go back, in the sense that we can go back to the faith of our fathers. Certainly we can. It's a matter of conversion; that's what it's called. To the degree that we don't see, we're sinful. So we need to dare I think; we need to have more guts and name things for what they are. It's not as though the world is a secular world. The world is God's enchanted world. It's the world that's infused with the presence of God. We don't recognize it and we don't act on it, too often. And so it's our attitudes that need to change, it's our sense of feeling at home in this world as if it were the ultimate place that needs to change. We need to recognize much more that we're called to something else. I often think that we simply have it too good. And as long as you have it too good materially, you are not going to want to change.

What do you think are practical on the ground ways that we can start to rebuild this worldview in Evangelical churches.

There's no program. That's number one. There's no program; there's no method. In our contemporary society and also among Evangelicals, we're often quite good at programs. But there is no program to re-enchantment, and the reason for that is, as I just indicated, that re-enchantment has to do with conversion. There's no program for that.

You're not going to write a book called Seven Steps to Re-enchantment?

No! I absolutely hate how-to books.

It's a matter of conversion. And that is something that the Spirit works in us. It is something to which we need to open ourselves up. It's something for which there's no method. That's not to say you cannot act faithfully in the hope that God will bless it and in the hope that the blinders will fall off as it were and that we regain vision. Certainly, there is.

Some of the things I think are really important are one: the re-envisioning of time through the liturgical year. We need to have a much more central place for the liturgical year so that our realities are shaped not by the secular age but by what Taylor calls the higher time of the church. That's one.

Immediately connected to that: we need to have liturgies that are not simply reflective of your average rap concert or rock concert, but that instill a sense of reverence toward God. So we need to envision as Evangelicals our liturgies, which too often are simply appalling. And I think we need to work harder on catechesis. Some of our churches, thankfully are starting to do that, it seems, again. It's been neglected too often in too many places for too long. The students that come to Regent now are just as smart as they ever have been but they're not as knowledgeable about Scriptures and the teachings of the church as they used to be. I think that's a loss. You cannot be shaped by a story that you don't know.

There are a lot of efforts under way in the last few decades to undo the tragedy of the Reformation—the split in the body of Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics Together is one example. What role do you see these issues of the enchantment or disenchantment of the world playing in those re-unification efforts?

Well two comments maybe. One is, the unity of the church is not going to be resolved by high level ecumenical discussions by themselves. They need to be echoed by on the ground contact among believers of various churches—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical. If you think for example about the well-known statement on justification, the Joint Declaration in 1999, it deals with the material principle the Reformation: justification. And Lutherans and Catholics and now also Methodists and Reformed, are all onboard with this and are all saying “yes, in terms of the one central key issue of the Reformation we actually don't have any outstanding serious disagreements any longer.” Yet, on Sunday morning we go each our separate ways. And the reason I think is that reunification of church isn't only a top-down thing but is also a bottom-up thing, if those terms apply. But you know what I mean: it's something that needs to come through these kinds of discussions in part, but it also requires that we as Christians we meet, we do things together etc.

Let me put it this way, others in their churches had the contact that I have with some of my Catholic friends—if others had that, we would know of one another that we're brothers and sisters. And we would work very very hard at unity—harder than we do today.

And the other thing that I want to say is that there are and there continue to be serious doctrinal issues between Catholics and Protestants that I don't know how we would resolve them, frankly. There are issues that, as a Protestant—and I suspect Catholics also from their perspective—don't see how they could resolve. And my hunch is that [these issues] have a great deal to do with how we look at the world more broadly speaking. My hunch is that the sacramental ontology that you're talking about has a great deal to do with it.

We talked earlier about how our loss of a sacramental perspective has affected both Catholics and Protestants. I think that's true. It has affected us in different ways. It has affected us both, and we're both as a result liable to the dangers or the problems of modernity. But when it comes to specific theological disagreements—say Maryology or the Eucharist—my hunch is if we talked together about how a sacramental perspective on these particular issues affects our thinking about it, we might at least come to a greater recognition of why, precisely, we disagree, and might also be able to see historically how these increasing divergences have taken place.

What’s a recent development that you think is positive hopeful in terms of rebuilding unity.

The most hopeful thing I think is the one that we already briefly touched on: the Joint Declaration on Justification. And in terms of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, there is the Gift of Salvation Statement, which basically echoes—it's around the same time; it says about the same thing—about justification: that on this point we all believe that in some way justification is by faith alone. And we believe that justification is an ongoing process, and that God in that process transforms us. And it also seems to me that recent New Testament insights particularly through the New Perspective on Paul—NT Wright and others—there's a change in the doctrine of justification. It's an understanding that's quite different from that of the reformers. And it's an understanding that I think is biblically warranted. And that can put the main issue of the Reformation at rest. That should put the main issue of the Reformation at rest. And I think for many it has.

Unfortunately, since that time, other issues have evolved, that may seem to put unity again out of reach—particularly questions of authority related to, you know, how certain developments within Catholic thought relate to biblical teaching and so on. But on the central issue of the Reformation itself, the material issue, there's no real disagreement, I don't think. That's a great gain. And at the same time it makes it a really sad thing because you would have thought that if we'd reached unity on that point we would have, you know, been in one church again.

In September, 2017, Hans Boersma delivered a lecture for the Newman Association of Vancouver. In it, he discusses the same theme as this interview at greater length, and historical rigour. To read, click here.

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