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This year commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. | Wikimedia Commons

Debates about Christian doctrine during the Reformation didn’t play out only on church doors at Wittenberg and in lecture halls at Marburg; they led to distinct ways of practicing the faith for all Christians.

In the second installment of the semester-long “Reformation at 500” lecture series Tuesday and Wednesday, theologians and historians from Hillsdale to Spokane, Washington, discussed the life of faith as lived out in the Catholic and Protestant traditions, especially in the practice of the Eucharist.

“The Reformation is thought of primarily in terms of dogma,” said Thomas Burke, chairman and professor of philosophy and religion at Hillsdale, in his 4 p.m. lecture in Phillips Auditorium. “But one must also remember that the Reformation was initially inspired by a concern for true piety.”

Burke compared and contrasted the ways Protestant practice differed from Catholic practice according to their distinct positions on justification, the priesthood of all believers, and original sin.

“The point is the doctrine of justification was not an end in itself, but a means to a new picture of the way to live the Christian life,” Burke said. 

This included a view of the “priesthood of all believers” that reshaped the existing hierarchical structure of the church and focused on preaching instead of administration of the Eucharist in the Mass.

 “I was looking from a Lutheran perspective,” said John James, a senior classics major and treasurer of the Lutheran Society, “but I think Burke showed how different views of justification lead to Protestants’ distinct views, but then also made some distinctions within Protestantism.” 

It also led to a view of justification and sanctification that focused first and foremost on inner faith, not the Catholic view of good works that help sinners grow in piety.

But this refocusing on the inner life of faith has led to misunderstandings about the Protestant understanding of Holy Communion, according to W. Bradford Littlejohn.

“The central debate was not whether the body and blood of Christ were present, but whether bread and wine were present in the Eucharist,” said Littlejohn, who is founder and president of the Davenant Institute for studies in Christian theology, focusing on the Reformation and its later developments.

Far from dividing the material and spiritual world by viewing the Sacrament as a mere symbol, Reformed traditions upheld the belief in Christ’s real presence, refining the doctrine with greater philosophical and theological rigor, Littlejohn said. Even Catholic and Lutheran theologians, who claim that Christ is present in a bodily sense, ultimately find the real presence to be, in some sense, beyond reason. 

“Everyone agreed that Christ’s flesh couldn’t be locally present, but present only in a mode that surpasses our understanding. The difference was that for the Reformed, this mode had a name: the Holy Spirit,” Littlejohn said. 

According to John Calvin and other Protestant theologians, the Holy Spirit makes Christ present through the believer’s faith, not any outward conversion of the elements.

“The essential point,” Littlejohn said, “is that the Eucharist is a mystery to be gratefully received, not a logical exercise.” 

James said Littlejohn’s lecture brought clarity to his understandings of Reformed views on the Eucharist.

“As far as what I’d heard before, I thought it was helpful because in the past it seemed to me that the Reformed view was just more vague,” James said. “This helped clarify that they have a very established theological stance that isn’t just less defined, or more open.”

On Wednesday at 4 p.m., associate professor of history Darryl Hart, who has published a collection of essays on liturgy in the Reformed tradition, presented “The Inward Turn of Protestantism after the Reformation.” 

“Protestants balanced talk about holiness with the formal aspects of church life — initially. But with the rise of Puritanism and frustration over church life in England, Protestants in the Calvinist world began to turn inward,” Hart said. This has visible — and audible — consequences that are evident in Protestant churches today: “Presbyterians abandoned singing Psalms for singing hymns … Hymns were much more about personal experience — Hence the inward turn.”

Hart’s lecture was followed by a faculty panel at 7 p.m. with Hillsdale professors Burke, Hart, Jordan Wales, Eric Hutchinson, Korey Maas, and Adam Carrington.

The “This Far by Faith” lecture series concludes Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 with a discussion of the authority of Scripture and the church.