As we approach the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther famously affixed his 95 Theses to the door of the All Saints Church and thereby set in motion the Protestant Reformation, a recent Pew Research Center survey suggests that Protestants in the United States might be more confused about their heritage than ever before.1
Despite the fact that the Protestant Reformation began as a protest of the Catholic Church, many Protestants in the United States appear uncertain of how these traditions differ. For example, according to the survey, as many as 52% of Protestants in the United States believe that faith alone is insufficient for salvation and that one’s salvation rests also on his or her good deeds. Ironically, this contradicts the traditional Protestant view of justification—known as sola fides (“faith alone”)—which was one of the defining features of the Protestant Reformation. The survey suggests also that there is equal confusion with regard to sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), with many Protestants deferring to persons and ecclesiastical traditions as sources of authority.2
These results are not unique to the United States. A related survey of Western Europe found that Protestants in every country except Norway are more likely to believe that both faith and good works are necessary for salvation—including as many as 61% of Protestants in Luther’s own Germany.3 There is little doubt that similar statements could be made of Protestants in Canada. Are Protestants losing touch with what makes them Protestant?
We might draw several conclusions from this study. Does this show the relative disinterest of twenty-first century Christians (specifically Protestants) in matters of doctrine? Does it show a certain level of historical or biblical illiteracy? Or perhaps, optimistically, does it show a willingness to dialogue or work within an ecumenical context?
Finally, it might force us to confront the question: is the Reformation still relevant today?
In October 2017, to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies and McMaster Divinity College are hosting a conference, “The Reformation in a Post-Christian World,” to address these and other questions. The conference—which is geared toward Pastors, students, and academics alike—will set out to show how the Reformation is still relevant today, and how it can actually function as a source of renewal in today’s society.
Despite this confusion, the reformers still have a lot to teach us. For more information, or to register for the conference, visit our website.
To view the Pew Research Center survey discussed above, click here.
1. “U.S. Protestants are not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later,” Pew Forum, August 31, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/08/31/u-s-protestants-are-not-defined-by-reformation-era-controversies-500-years-later/ (Accessed September 11, 2017).
3. “Five Centuries After Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe Has Faded,” Pew Forum, August 31, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/08/31/five-centuries-after-reformation-catholic-protestant-divide-in-western-europe-has-faded/ (Accessed September 11, 2017).
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*