Protestant-Catholic Relations on the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
By Melissa Morgan Kelley

Though dozens of events are planned this year to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Mark Ryan hopes that Covenant Theological Seminary’s (CTS) lecture series, Sept. 29-30, will examine the milestone with a unique perspective. Rather than rehashing the reasons for the split between Catholics and Protestants 500 years ago, the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute’s “Before the Watching World” lecture series is designed to examine modern-day Catholic and Protestant relations, with an eye toward cooperation and finding common ground.

“Though significant differences still divide Protestants and Catholics, there are real reasons to listen to each other, even learn from each other, so that we might give better testimony to Christ by loving one another across our differences,” said Ryan, professor of religion and culture at CTS and director of the seminary’s Francis A. Schaeffer Institute. “Our goal is to somehow get past lingering caricatures of each other’s positions to find the common ground we share as we seek to bear a more credible witness for the Lord before the watching world.”

Jerram Barrs, CTS professor of Christian studies and contemporary culture and one of the speakers at the lecture series, agrees. “It is important that we do not merely endlessly rehearse the reasons as to why the Reformation took place as if neither we nor the Roman Catholic Church have learned any more or changed in any manner since the 1500s.”

The lecture series will feature five speakers — two of them Catholic — discussing topics ranging from why the Reformation still matters today, to the pastoral legacy of the Reformation, to an evangelical and Catholic and Reformed view of faith and culture.

When asked why he accepted Ryan’s invitation to speak at the upcoming lecture series, Catholic professor Eduardo Echeverria, who teaches philosophy and systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, cited the ecumenical imperative of John 17:21-23, where Jesus prays to the Father that “all of them may be one, just as you are in me and I am in you.”

“As a Roman Catholic, I regard the Reformation as a renewal movement within the church,” said Echeverria. “I distinguish Protestantism from the Reformation. Thus, I distinguish between an essential and an accidental Protestant. The former defines his identity in opposition to Catholicism, and hence his stance is an adversarial one. … By contrast, the accidental Protestant sees Protestantism as a renewal movement within the church and is prepared to theologically rethink the issues that have traditionally divided Catholics and Protestants. The accidental Protestant regards his relationship to Catholics not as cobelligerents but as brothers and sisters in Christ who have a common cause in the Gospel.”

Whether Catholic or Protestant, there is a desperate need for new reformation across the board, according to Barrs. “Despite our numbers of members and attenders in North America, most congregations of all affiliations have little spiritual life, negligible outreach, and almost no impact on the broader culture.”

He points to the ways that Catholic and Protestant teaching and practice have historically impacted culture. “It is impossible to understand the history of Europe and North America and the ideas that have shaped these cultures without seeing the profound impact that both Catholic teaching and practice and the convictions at the heart of the Protestant Reformation had for centuries and continue to have.”

The goal is to continue this legacy of Gospel impact while holding to the heart of the Gospel, accepting the centrality of Christ’s work on our behalf, and living in moment-by-moment faith in the power of Christ. “This,” says Barrs, “is the very heart of the Reformation.”

The “Before the Watching World” lecture series will be held Sept. 29-30, 2017, at Covenant Theological Seminary, and is open to students, alumni, and guests. To learn more or to register, visit

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