500th Anniversary of the Reformation: Legacy and Challenges


Church of Serbia – 15/11/17

The student government of the Orthodox Theological Faculty of Belgrade, in partnership with the Evangelical Union of Students, organized a debate titled, “500thAnniversary of the Reformation: Legacy and Challenges.” Students had the opportunity to hear from Church historian Dr. George Hancock and from Dr. Roland Werner, a well-known Protestant theologian, philologist and philosopher, who has written over forty books.

Introducing his remarks, Professor Hancock mentioned that his faith in Christ’s resurrection was formed in the Orthodox Church when celebrating Easter. He went to a cemetery together with his family, and there heard a sermon from a priest about the future resurrection of all of our loved ones. He praised the Orthodox Easter vigil, and said that it is the most beautiful church service which he has seen in his life.

Then he turned to the question of the influence of the Church fathers on the Reformation. He emphasized that St. Augustine had the greatest influence on Martin Luther and Jean Calvin. Luther himself said, “If I am in error then St. Augustine was in error, and if St. Augustine was in error, then St. Paul was also in error.” Jean Calvin’s writing is founded on the writings of the Church fathers. In Institutes of the Christian Religion he dedicates a full eight pages to quotes from St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Chrysostom, John of Damascus, and other Church fathers who lived before him. Even if he agreed with Augustine theologically, Calvin did not want ordinary people to be weighed down by his wordiness, which could be difficult to understand, and therefore he simplified it when writing his own theological teachings. On the other hand, having noticed that students often only read what someone else has written about earlier writings, Professor Hancock appealed to them to read the original writings of the Church fathers, theologians from the Middle Age, and the Reformers, which will enable them to notice differences and learn more.

Professor Werner gave a bigger picture of the beginnings of the Reformation and the life of Martin Luther who, October 31, 1517, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and thereby changed world history. As a Catholic monk and a German as well, Luther was a perfectionist, who took both religion and the Bible very seriously, which can be seen from his belief that the Bible was too holy for him to teach to others. However, as a member of the clergy, he was required to. The more he studied the Bible, the more he noticed aspects of the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church that were not in line with the Bible. For instance, that the Pope is the head of the Church, and that priests are not allowed to marry. In the Bible it says that an elder should be husband of one wife (Titus 1:6), as is practiced in the Orthodox Church. Another thing that Luther and the Orthodox Church agree on is that Catholics are wrong in their teaching on Purgatory. Luther did not want to bring anything new to the Catholic Church or to start a new Church, rather he wanted to reform the Church and return it to its healthy roots.

Professor Werner shared factors that were very important in the Reformation:

  1. The invention of the printing press.
  2. The fall of Constantinople (when many Orthodox Greeks went West, bringing with them the Greek New Testament, which enabled the translation of Scriptures into other everyday languages from the original Greek language, and not only from the Latin, which was the only translation available in the West).
  3. Rediscovery of the mother tongue, following the example of the Eastern Church, whose members read the Bible in their own native languages.

Professor Werner sees individualism as the greatest danger within the Protestant Church, because individual believers believe that they can be their own “popes,” which leads to divisions between them and those close to them. And in the end he reiterated that the goal of every Christian should be to learn from one another and to discover the wealth of truth to be found in each Church. This will help them grow close to God and to one another.