Today is Reformation Day. 495 years ago today, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral to start a debate.
Immense impact! It caused Roman Catholic political power over Europe to disintegrate. It led to political independence of individual nations like never before. It set in motion the tens of thousands of Christian splinter groups that exist today. It took rising individualism and put it into warp speed, democratizing religion. It would eventually facilitate the rise of secularism and higher criticism of the Bible.
I am a Protestant. I think Popes and cardinals can be very spiritual people, but no more than any other Christian. I believe God can raise up prophets from nowhere and the Spirit can reveal himself directly to anyone. I'm not fond of doctrines like purgatory, and I'm glad ministers can marry like everyone else.
Having said that, I hope we Protestants are allowed to be objective about our own tradition as well. Is it not possible that the Roman Catholics scored some points in the debate or were more right than Luther in some areas? I come from the Wesleyan tradition, which came out of Anglicanism. I view Anglicanism as somewhat of a moderating form of the Reformation, somewhere in between the high Protestantism of the Lutherans/Reformed and Catholicism. As a Wesleyan I am more apt to critique Luther than some other Protestants are.
So despite the longstanding arguments between Wesleyan-Arminians and Calvinists, the Lutheran tradition is actually further away from us in some key respects than the Calvinist. For example, Luther drove an incredibly sharp wedge between faith and works, so much so that Lutherans don't like to talk about sanctification, about becoming more holy in this life.
By contrast, the Wesleyan tradition is closer to the catholic on this issue. We believe not only that God wants to make us more and more righteous in this life. We believe that you can walk away from God after he forgives you by deliberate acts of defiance. With Paul, we believe that "We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
Do we believe in sola fide, "by faith alone"? We would say we do. Lutherans and Calvinists might say we don't. We would say we do because works never help a person become justified. They might say we don't because we believe that human will (by God's grace) cooperates with God's will in faith, and because our lack of cooperation with God's will, which leads to sinful deeds, can "unjustify" us. (By the way, Paul is on our side)
I would say that all Christians today believe in sola gratia (by grace alone) and sola Christi (by Christ alone), including the Roman Catholic Church. This is an area where the RCC has itself reformed its understanding. It is only by the grace of God that anyone can be saved. No human could ever have enough merit on his or her own to deserve God's favor. It is purely a matter of God's grace and anything we do is in response to that grace.
Similarly, it is only through Christ that anyone can be saved, by God's design. Although the Roman Catholics have priests, sacraments, and heavenly intercessors like Mary, they are all understood to be channels through which Christ's merits flow. The RCC today would agree that salvation is through Christ alone, mediated further through other channels.
Sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) is another one where the Wesleyan-Anglican tradition is more open to tradition, experience, and reason as channels of truth than some versions of Protestantism (the so called Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Prima scriptura (Scripture first) might be a better designation. Of course Luther and Calvin freely engaged the church fathers, so Wesley is probably not much different than them on that score.
But he lived during the Enlightenment, and so reason of that sort arguably flows in his veins more than them. Similarly, he was influenced by Pietists and was accused of being an "enthusiast," so experience of that sort arguably also flows in his veins more than them. Can we just say that a Wesleyan might be more open to natural revelation and pneumatic exegesis than your average evangelical or fundamentalist?
So Happy Reformation Day! Three cheers for Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, Zwingli, Knox, Zinzendorf, Arminius, and Wesley! [Add the fountain head of your Protestant group here]