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Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in October, 1517. | Wiki­media Commons

What sort of event can spark a debate that lasts more than five cen­turies? Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses in October 1517 can — and the “Ref­or­mation at 500” lecture series is getting a head start on the com­mem­o­ration of this central moment in Ref­or­mation history.

Vis­iting lec­turer Ryan Reeves and a group of Hillsdale College the­ology, religion, and history pro­fessors opened up the semester-long dis­cussion Sept. 18 and 19 with a focus on an issue that is often con­sidered central to the 16th-century strife in the Roman Catholic church: jus­ti­fi­cation and sal­vation.

“When a group of faculty from various tra­di­tions began to meet last spring, we agreed on two things: that this year does mark the 500th anniversary of the Ref­or­mation — we’re his­to­rians, not math­e­mati­cians — and that the dis­cus­sions between Catholics and Protes­tants on this campus are not always as rig­orous, critical, and his­tor­i­cally grounded as they really ought to be,” Chaplain Adam Rick said to an audience of about 100 in Phillips Audi­torium. “So we agreed on a third thing: that the 500th anniversary of the Ref­or­mation was as good a chance as any to clear the decks a bit and inject the con­ver­sation with some light.”

Assistant Pro­fessor of The­ology Jordan Wales set the scene with a history of under­standings of grace before Luther, espe­cially in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who saw jus­ti­fying grace as a rela­tionship with God.

“The the­ology of grace has been dis­tilled and refined, but it has not stood unchal­lenged,” Wales said.

The next speaker, Ryan Reeves, a pro­fessor of his­torical the­ology at Gordon-Conwell The­o­logical Sem­inary and creator of a respected YouTube channel cen­tering on church history and the­ology, asked the provocative question, “Did Luther Under­stand Grace?” The answer — con­sidered in light of Luther’s context and under­standing of mul­tiple readings of the term “jus­ti­fi­cation” in late medieval the­ology — was “yes.”

“Luther was totally allergic to all the ways we think we’re doing [jus­ti­fi­cation] our­selves and forget grace,” Reeves said. “In that way, he got it right.”

Jus­ti­fi­cation and sanc­ti­fi­cation, issues that led the­olo­gians and reformers in such widely divergent direc­tions, were actually more flexible in the late Middle Ages, and Luther sought assurance on the belief he found central to faith: jus­ti­fi­cation.

If debates stem from “ter­mi­no­logical con­fusion,” as Reeves said, does that mean the cen­turies-long debate could be simply a matter of defining our terms and finding common ground? The drafters of the Joint Dec­la­ration of 1999 seemed to think they had solved this problem when they signed a statement that claimed Catholics and Protes­tants agree on the essen­tials regarding jus­ti­fi­cation.

But in the third lecture in the series, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Korey Maas said that claim may skim over some important remaining dif­fer­ences.

“The dec­la­ration doesn’t clarify existing con­fusion about terms, and it changes the meaning for accepted terms,” Maas said. This could lead not to agreement, but to further con­fusion about what important doc­trines mean for dif­ferent church groups.

Stu­dents and audience members stored up their ques­tions for a panel dis­cussion at 7 p.m. with all the pre­senters, as well as Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Matthew Gaetano, religion and phi­losophy deparmtent chairman Tom Burke, and Assistant Pro­fessor of Religion Don West­blade.

The first question was about free will and pre­des­ti­nation, a topic closely related to Augustine’s theory of grace (in case anyone still thinks Hillsdale stu­dents don’t think big). The second was about Luther’s view on grace and the immutability of God, from junior Ellen Friesen, a history major who is taking classes on Patristic The­ology and the Ref­or­mation this fall.

“I have a lot of ques­tions still, and I’ll def­i­nitely be going into office hours and emailing Dr. Reeves,” Friesen said. “But I think I appre­ciated the spirit that the talks embodied even more than the content. They were honest about what they believed and were willing to discuss it.”

This spirit was evi­dence of a search for unity without sac­ri­ficing the beliefs of indi­viduals and church bodies, Friesen said.

“Acts says that the com­munity of believers was one in mind and heart. Dia­logue like this answers the question: Are we one in mind? Do we confess the same things?” Friesen said. “To say the doc­trine doesn’t matter stops all dia­logue. But to neglect striving for unity is an issue of the heart. And that’s where prayer comes in.”

The “This Far By Faith” lecture series will con­tinue Oct. 17 and 18 with a focus on piety and the sacra­ments, and Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 with a dis­cussion of Christian authority and Scripture.

“Our only request for you is that you come ready to learn. Engage deeply. Ask hard ques­tions. Assume good faith. Wrestle. Cri­tique. Learn,” Rick said. “We realize we come to these con­ver­sa­tions with con­vic­tions of our own, and that’s okay. Our goal isn’t to change minds or self-con­grat­ulate. Whether you are Protestant, Roman Catholic, or none of the above, it is our hope that you will find your own mind strengthened and refined.”