21. After Luther what? Benedict XVI on new forms of Christianity and secularization

October 3rd, 2011

In his recent visit to Germany (22-25 September 2011), ecumenical issues had center-stage in Pope Benedict’s agenda. Visiting the Erfurt’s convent, where the young monk Martin Luther had studied theology, the Pope met representatives of the Protestant church in Germany (EKD) and delivered an interesting speech whose theme was Luther’s main passion and his legacy in the present-day’s ecumenical scene. Let’s briefly review it.

1. The actuality of Luther’s question

After expressing words of appreciation for the occasion, Benedict rightly points out that Luther’s fundamental question (“How do I receive the grace of God?”) has on-going spiritual significance for us. Although many people do not seem to have troubled consciousnesses before God, God’s position towards us and our position before Him are “real” issues for the whole of mankind. The Pope wants to stress the interplay between the existential import of faith (“How do I …) and God’s salvation (“… receive the grace of God?”) that was central for Luther.

The other main point about Luther’s importance lies in his “thoroughly Christocentric” thinking and spirituality. For Luther, as it is reviewed by Benedict, God is no mere philosophical hypothesis, but has a face and has spoken to us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, “what promotes Christ’s cause” is the driving concern of the German Reformer.

This first part of the speech is a respectful and fair summary of Luther’s theological vision, but even more interesting is the second part where Benedict indirectly touches on the question of what happened after Luther.

2. After Luther … two directions?

In the second part the Pope addresses the present-day ecumenical situation. It is quite clear that after surveying Luther’s message, he wants to reflect on where Luther’s legacy is to be found today. According to Benedict there are two streams, both of them causing some concerns to him. The “geography of Christianity” is characterized by a “new form of Christianity” which is readily identifiable with Evangelical and Pentecostal spiritualities, although these terms are not used in the official text, but have been referred to by journalists reporting on the event. We will need to say a few remarks about this “new form of Christianity” which the Pope relates to Evangelical Protestantism.

The other stream is secularization whereby “God is increasingly driven out of our society”. In our secularized context, the Scriptures seem locked into a remote past and faith is watered down. Is it a description of the failures of liberal Protestantism? Benedict is saying that Luther has been a great figure of the world-wide church but after five centuries his heirs are either going astray in a “new form of Christianity” or somewhat responsible for the downgrading of secularization.

Where is Luther to be found today? Is the Pope gently but firmly saying that Luther’s legacy is a failure? Is he also implying that the correction for both dangerous directions is to recover the (Roman) catholic dimension through an appeased ecumenical engagement with Rome?

3. Evangelicals according to Benedict XVI

Let’s go back to the reference to “A new form of Christianity”. It is interesting to notice how Benedict describes it, remembering that description is also evaluation:

–       It is a “new form of Christianity”. We are given the impression that Evangelicalism is a new religious movement, with little if any sense of history and tradition. Whereas the RC Church cherishes (sometimes idolizes) continuity, Evangelicals are people of discontinuity, always wanting something “new” but not building on the past. It is sad that we mirror the newness of the Christian faith at the expense of the “old Gospel” passed through history.

–       It is “spreading with overpowering missionary dynamism”. The Pope acknowledges that the Evangelical movement is the form of Christianity that is increasingly expanding world-wide. He says that this information comes from bishops from around the world that constantly tell him so. The Vatican recognizes the missionary impetus and zeal of the movement.

–       Its dynamism sometimes happens “in frightening ways”. There are methods, dynamics, practices of Evangelical missions that scare the Pope. Is this a critique of unethical forms of proselytism? Or is it a more general dissatisfaction with regard to Evangelical activism and its lack of “respect” for territorial and established churches?

–       It is a form of Christianity marked by “little institutional depth”, i.e. with little ecclesiological awareness and little ecclesiastical apparatus. Evangelicalism is more para-church than church proper. Fair comment.

–       It is also marked by “little rationality”. Is he thinking to “signs and wonders”, “health and  wealth”, “experience vs rational”, “easy-believism” types of Evangelicalism? Certainly, he is saying that Evangelicalism as a whole is not a champion of rational thinking.

–       Even worse, this form of Christianity has “even less dogmatic content”. The Pope is passing judgment on the doctrinal superficiality of much Evangelicalism. According to him, Evangelicals do not excel in being reasonable people, but are not doctrinal people either. Beyond a vague spirituality, there is little left in his perception.

–       Finally, it also has “little stability”. The impression we give as a movement is that of instability, excessive fragmentation, lack of cohesiveness, on-going state of flux that is leading nowhere.

 These comments on Evangelicalism are not new. Pope Benedict had already mentioned some of them in the 2011 book-interview Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. [1] They could be dismissed as unwarranted caricatures. Actually, they are not. Although painful, it is healthy to ask ourselves what kind of witness do we give to the observing world. The logic of Benedict’s interpretation of present-day Protestantism seems to indicate that Luther’s heirs, be they Evangelicals or liberals, are performing poorly. All those who share Luther’s passion for God and love of Christ should react and live out a faith that is biblical, apostolic, protestant, awakened (always reforming) and missionary, i.e. Evangelicalism at its best. Will the Pope change his mind?


Leonardo De Chirico





[1] See Vatican Files n. 3, “Papa dixit. The recent interview with Pope Benedict XVI” (6th December 2010).

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