The Protestant Reformation is not a historical event frozen in a distant past, said a panel of leaders and scholars at the International Religious Liberty Association’s 8th World Congress in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, United States, on August 23. On the contrary, the watershed 16th-century occurrence must be revamped and rethought if we are to make the most of its core principles, they said.
“It is important we include the Reformation in the context of religious, peaceful coexistence,” said Andrews University Professor of Church History and International Religious Liberty Institute director Nicholas Miller, who moderated the panel. “After all, reformers Luther and Calvin also persecuted Anabaptists.”
Brief presentations on the historical aspects and issues of the Reformation and its meaning in contemporary society gathered experts from various backgrounds and training. The resulting interchange added to an ongoing discussion that, as they acknowledged, is not—and should not be—over.
Doctrine vs. Practice
“According to the Reformation, truth is reason, propositional statements,” said General Secretary of the Mennonite World Congress César García. “There is an idea that if we get our doctrines right, we will know God.” Drawing on a personal experience about the time he tried to win an atheist by outdoing his arguments, García explained that logic and apologetics by themselves are not enough.
“We need to go back to understanding Truth as a Person, as something that I can learn when I have a personal experience,” he said. “It is essential we find a balance between propositional truth and human experience.”
An Ongoing Process
Agreeing with García’s call for Christians to practice their faith as a personal experience with Christ, Seventh-day Adventist Church president Ted N.C. Wilson also reminded attendees not overlook that the Reformation was founded on the availability of Scripture to the people.
“If we want to underscore the wonderful principles of Reformation, we must be connected with God through His Word,” he said. “If we go back to the Bible and refer to what God has indicated, we’ll also fulfill the wonderful injunction of being true to the Reformation.”
Wilson said it is the reason that we should avoid the trap of thinking of the Reformation as just a historical event to be celebrated.
“It must be an ongoing event in the life of every Christian,” he said. “It must bring people closer to the Bible and to Jesus.”
A Contemporary Application
“How can we work to promote religious tolerance?” asked Executive Secretary for Human Rights and Communication of the Council of European Churches Elizabeta Kitanović, before answering, “We must build trust in communities to fight intolerance.”
Far from mere theoretical definitions, Kitanović explained what her organization is doing in Europe to prevent intolerance through rights education programs, to protect against all kinds of discrimination, and to connect churches with human rights.
In a post-Christian Europe, these initiatives might be easier said than done, interjected Miller in a follow-up Q&A session. But it does not mean they are not important.
“It has been shown that spirituality and religious freedom are connected,” he said. “When one declines, the other decreases too. So, how can we appreciate religious freedom as a fundamental human right?”
While sharing some concrete examples, Kitanović explained that her organization is working with young people, explaining to them why [religious freedom] is important, why human rights matter, and teaching them never to take human rights for granted.
A Call to Advocacy
In response to terrorism, states are closing in on some of the hard-fought religious freedoms won after the Protestant Reformation, said John Graz, retired IRLA secretary-general and Church and State Study Center director at Collonges-sous-Salève, France.
Graz proposed there are at least five things religious freedom advocates can do, including defending religious freedom as a human right, advocating for it at public events, and building a network of friends in society and governments who support it.
“Associations such as ours can also be more active in advocating for religious freedom,” he said. “And we should involve churches and religious organizations in its promotion.”
“But, why should religious rights be defended in particular?” asked Miller. “It is a question even governments ask religious freedom advocates.”
Graz said he believes that as Christians, we are following in the heritage of the Reformers, which makes religious freedom our personal and corporate mission.
“If we don’t defend and promote religious freedom, we don’t deserve it,” said Graz. “Freedom is a gift, but it is not a free gift. It took centuries of persecution.”
In that context, Graz said we should be grateful for the freedom we have.
“Just imagine what our life would be without religious freedom,” he said.