Stanley Hauerwas on the Reformation

Leroy HuizengaBlog8 Comments

The iconoclastic Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Theological Ethics at Duke Divinity School and perhaps America’s most significant theologian, delivered this sermon for Reformation Sunday in 1995. Since then, it’s become something of a classic and so like many others will do today I reprint it here in full:

I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.
Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.
For example, note what the Reformation has done for our reading texts like that which we hear from Luke this morning. We Protestants automatically assume that the Pharisees are the Catholics. They are the self-righteous people who have made Christianity a form of legalistic religion, thereby destroying the free grace of the Gospel. We Protestants are the tax collectors, knowing that we are sinners and that our lives depend upon God’s free grace. And therefore we are better than the Catholics because we know they are sinners. What an odd irony that the Reformation made such readings possible. As Protestants we now take pride in the acknowledgment of our sinfulness in order to distinguish ourselves from Catholics who allegedly believe in works-righteousness.
Unfortunately, the Catholics are right. Christian salvation consists in works. To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of — or perhaps better, because of — the world’s fragmentation and divisions. Unity, after all, is what God has given us through Christ’s death and resurrection. For in that death and resurrection we have been made part of God’s salvation for the world so that the world may know it has been freed from the powers that would compel us to kill one another in the name of false loyalties. All that is about the works necessary to save us.
For example, I often point out that at least Catholics have the magisterial office of the Bishop of Rome to remind them that disunity is a sin. You should not overlook the significance that in several important documents of late, John Paul II has confessed the Catholic sin for the Reformation. Where are the Protestants capable of doing likewise? We Protestants feel no sin for the disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to confess our sin for the continuing disunity of the Reformation. We would not know how to do that because we have no experience of unity.
The magisterial office — we Protestants often forget — is not a matter of constraining or limiting diversity in the name of unity. The office of the Bishop of Rome is to ensure that when Christians move from Durham, North Carolina to Syracuse, New York, they have some confidence when they go to church that they will be worshiping the same God. Because Catholics have an office of unity, they do not need to restrain the gifts of the Spirit. As I oftentimes point out, it is extraordinary that Catholicism is able to keep the Irish and the Italians in the same church. What an achievement! Perhaps equally amazing is their ability to keep within the same church Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans.
I think Catholics are able to do that because they know that their unity does not depend upon everyone agreeing. Indeed, they can celebrate their disagreements because they understand that our unity is founded upon the cross and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth that makes the Eucharist possible. They do not presume, therefore, that unity requires that we all read Scripture the same way.
This creates a quite different attitude among Catholics about their relation to Christian tradition and the wider world. Protestants look over to Christian tradition and say, ‘How much of this do we have to believe in order to remain identifiably Christian?’ That’s the reason why Protestants are always tempted to rationalism: we think that Christianity is to be identified with sets of beliefs more than with the unity of the Spirit occasioned through sacrament.
Moreover, once Christianity becomes reduced to a matter of belief, as it clearly has for Protestants, we cannot resist questions of whether those beliefs are as true or useful as other beliefs we also entertain. Once such questions are raised, it does not matter what the answer turns out in a given case. As James Edwards observes, “Once religious beliefs start to compete with other beliefs, then religious believers are — and will know themselves to be — mongerers of values. They too are denizens of the mall, selling and shopping and buying along with the rest of us.”
In contrast, Catholics do not begin with the question of “How much do we need to believe?” but with the attitude “Look at all the wonderful stuff we get to believe!” Isn’t it wonderful to know that Mary was immaculately conceived in order to be the faithful servant of God’s new creation in Jesus Christ! She therefore becomes the firstborn of God’s new creation, our mother, the first member of God’s new community we call church. Isn’t it wonderful that God continued to act in the world through the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe! Mary must know something because she seems to always appear to peasants and, in particular, to peasant women who have the ability to see her. Most of us would not have the ability to see Mary because we’d be far too embarrassed by our vision.
Therefore Catholics understand the church’s unity as grounded in reality more determinative than our good feelings for one another. The office of Rome matters. For at least that office is a judgment on the church for our disunity. Surely it is the clear indication of the sin of the Reformation that we Protestants have not been able to resist nationalistic identifications. So we become German Lutherans, American Lutherans, Norwegian Lutherans. You are Dutch Calvinist, American Presbyterians, Church of Scotland. I am an American Methodist, which has precious little to do with my sisters and brothers in English Methodism. And so we Protestant Christians go to war killing one another in the name of being American, German, Japanese, and so on.
At least it becomes the sin of Rome when Italian Catholics think they can kill Irish Catholics in the name of being Italian. Such divisions distort the unity of the Gospel found in the Eucharist and, thus, become judgments against the church of Rome. Of course, the Papacy has often been unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don’t even know we’re being judged for our disunity.
I realize that this perspective on Reformation Sunday is not the usual perspective. The usual perspective is to tell us what a wonderful thing happened at the Reformation. The Reformation struck a blow for freedom. No longer would we be held in medieval captivity to law and arbitrary authority. The Reformation was the beginning of enlightenment, of progressive civilizations, of democracy, that have come to fruition in this wonderful country called America. What a destructive story.
You can tell the destructive character of that narrative by what it has done to the Jews. The way we Protestants read history, and in particular our Bible, has been nothing but disastrous for the Jews. For we turned the Jews into Catholics by suggesting that the Jews had sunk into legalistic and sacramental religion after the prophets and had therefore become moribund and dead. In order to make Jesus explicable (in order to make Jesus look like Luther — at least the Luther of our democratic projections), we had to make Judaism look like our characterization of Catholicism. Yet Jesus did not free us from Israel; rather, he engrafted us into the promise of Israel so that we might be a people called to the same holiness of the law.
I realize that the suggestion that salvation is to be part of a holy people constituted by the law seems to deny the Reformation principle of justification by faith through grace. I do not believe that to be the case, particularly as Calvin understood that Reformation theme. After all, Calvin (and Luther) assumed that justification by faith through grace is a claim about God’s presence in Jesus of Nazareth. So justification by faith through grace is not some general truth about our need for acceptance; but rather justification by faith through grace is a claim about the salvation wrought by God through Jesus to make us a holy people capable of remembering that God’s salvation comes through the Jews. When the church loses that memory, we lose the source of our unity. For unity is finally a matter of memory, of how we tell the story of the Reformation. How can we tell this story of the church truthfully as Protestants and Catholics so that we might look forward to being in union with one another and thus share a common story of our mutual failure?
We know, after all, that the prophecy of Joel has been fulfilled. The portents of heaven, the blood and fire, the darkness of the sun, the bloody moon have come to pass in the cross of our Savior Jesus Christ. Now all who call on that name will be saved. We believe that we who stand in the Reformation churches are survivors. But to survive we need to recover the unity that God has given us as survivors. So on this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation – not as a celebratory moment, not as a blow for freedom, but as the sin of the church. Pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity in our midst between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may as tax collectors confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together in one might prayer that the world may be saved from its divisions.

8 Comments on “Stanley Hauerwas on the Reformation”

  1. Brilliant.

    I cited this last year in an article over at First Things, wherein I asked the question: What’s the proper color for Reformation?

    Needless to say, that didn’t go over so well…

  2. I won’t speak for the Radical Reformers, but the Lutheran Reformation, at least, did not cause a division in the church. The Church of Rome is responsible for that when she turned a deaf ear to the Word of God spoken by a monk and doctor of the church and excommunicated him.

  3. I believe there is room for other perspectives on the reformation than this. I would think you owe your followers more than Hauerwas on the reformation. Perhaps Pope Benedict? I concur with Matt to start with.

  4. @Matt: That’s one way to tell the story. But let’s not pretend Luther didn’t have his own issues, owing to his likely mental illness and Teutonic temperament. Coarse and gruff, he relished a fight. Of course it’s obvious Rome fouled up profoundly in dealing with Luther, as in broad strokes the Catechism concedes as it affirms non-Catholic Christians:

    Wounds to unity

    817 In fact, “in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame.” The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body – here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism – do not occur without human sin:

    Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.

    818 “However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

    “Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth” are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: “the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements.” Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in themselves calls to “Catholic unity.”

    @Deone: Not trying to be comprehensive, or to say only what Hauerwas said. Not sure what I owe anyone, and I think you three are my only followers anyway.

  5. Couldn’t help but eavesdrop on your conversation with Matt–do we really want to blame Luther’s “Teutonic temperament” for the break-up of the Church? What about Leo’s stubborness, Cajetan’s arrogance or Erasmus’ indifference? Why does it seem that all the Church’s failings are just mistakes and the rest of us get labeled as sinners?

    And didn’t the catechism say other than what you recited for Matt before the revisions?

    By the way, Karl Barth called Dietrich Bonhoeffer a blond Teuton once when he had the audacity to challenge him –just sayin’

  6. I think we do, in many ways; after 1519, I think, it’s hard to find a conciliatory bone in his body. And it’s not just Rome. He severely abused Zwingli verbally at the Marburg Colloquy, and when he heard Zwingli died on the battlefield Luther said he had little hope for him, given Zwingli’s theological positions, especially on the Lord’s Supper. So yes, Luther’s personality is larger than life, and it’s a big reason history went the way it did. Of course, Luther also happened to find himself on stage at a particular historical moment, a perfect storm consisting of Roman avarice and stupidity, degeneracy of Christian morals and faith, and the new technology of the printing press.

    As far as the Catechism, I’m not sure what you mean by revisions — if you’re talking about the differences between the 1992 and 1996/7 editions, or if you mean the Baltimore Catechism or something else. In any event, the Catechism cites Vatican II documents significantly in this section — Lumen Gentium and Unitatis Redintegratio in particular. But again, the idea that Christians are Christians, real members of Christ through baptism, even if not in full communion with Rome, goes back to Ephesians and through Augustine in the Donatist Controversy to the present day (see here:

    I have a Teutonic temperament, as does Matt, I think, so I was poking a little fun at us. Bonhoeffer of course is a martyr, a hero. Interesting, though, that his ecclesiology was at once mennonite (cf. Life Together) and also somewhat catholic (cf. his disseratation, Sanctorum Communio [The Communion of Saints]).

  7. revisions after VII of course–I am well aware of what the Bible says in Ephesians as well as what Augustine had to say as well as what the VII docs “concede” as you say.

    you are pushing it on Bonhoeffer’s theology–which like yours evolved and our understanding of him is of course, still evolving. He was under 21 when he wrote his first dissertation.

    what would Luther have been if he had been executed under the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V if Bonhoeffer is a martyr and hero?

    What do you think is Luther’s status now?

  8. The barriers to Reformation and source of division in the 16th Century were not, primarily, the temperament of Luther, but, as he lists in Appeal to the German Nobility, the Roman view that the Papacy could not be held accountable by:

    1. The Laity
    2. Holy Scripture
    3. Church Councils

    The Roman attitude that the church hierarchy could never be challenged or corrected is the root of disunity. Pastors and religious should always be open to hearing correction from the laity, the Scriptures and brother pastors. If this had been the attitude of Italy in the 16th Century there would have been no division.

    Hauerwas puts the blame on the wrong side of the Danube.

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