The 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth in 2009 gave rise to a year of debate about the world-historical significance of the French Reformer. Everything from politics and economics to art and philanthropy were cited as having been influenced (even “transformed”) by Calvin’s life and work. Much of what was claimed was highly debatable, though it does make for interesting discussion.

But what seemed to be missing from most of the Swiss city of Geneva’s marketing materials for the anniversary celebration was reference to Calvin’s very practical and immediate impact on the church and its ministry, such as the reforming of idolatrous Roman aspects of worship, the establishment of the “consistory” or body of elders to care for and govern the local church, and the centralizing of Word and Sacrament for Christian ministry.

With the quincentennial of the Reformation approaching in 1517, I anticipate the same kind of lively discussion about Luther’s legacy. What was his impact, after all this time? That’s a good discussion to have, one that is already underway. How fascinating it is to note that the person closest to the truth at this early planning conference in Germany was a Roman Catholic architect! Sometimes truth comes from the strangest of places . . .

It was an evening with a lot going on at many levels, although not once did Luther’s core premise come up – that man is saved by faith and grace alone, and that the pious acts that Catholics thought could help played no role in salvation. The word “God” was seldom used during the evening, and if memory serves, the name “Jesus Christ” wasn’t mentioned a single time.

The question that remained unanswered at the end was: what is the 500th Anniversary celebration in 2017 actually going to be about? Revisiting and strengthening evangelical faith? Or a festive and soon-forgotten occasion with colloquia, ceremonies, entertainment?

Which is not to say that what the nine distinguished “outsiders” told EKD representatives was stupid. On the contrary: it was a sum of what a broad spectrum of society feels towards religion. And God didn’t come into it.

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