Celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
Commencing 18th June, at our Ministers suggestion, while he was away at various meeting and at the World Communion of Reformed Churches Council in Germany, we invited ‘guest’ preachers from our parent denominations to speak on ‘the Reformation in respect of their denomination’.
Simon was our third guest!
This is what I was thinking about as I planned what I would say. Whether it’s what was said on the day is another matter…
Names, slogans, and actions…
As someone who represents a church with ‘Reformed’ in its title, I want to reflect on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation by thinking about the kind of names it generated, and not just thinking about it as a past event, but to think about how God might be re-forming the Church today.
One reason why reflecting on this now is that we might be on the cusp of another big shake up of Christianity. In 2008, Phyllis Tickle wrote ‘The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why.’ She summed up her analysis by saying, ‘For western Christianity, the Protestant, or Great Reformation was about five hundred years ago. Five hundred before that you hit the Great Schism, when the church divided between east and west. Five hundred years earlier you have Pope Gregory the Great, who helped bring the church out of the dark ages.’
She says, ‘People are looking for a new and different encounter with God. The strength of Protestantism was its rationalism—it took religion to the head. But today people want religion that also touches their hearts. It’s not anti-intellectual; mind and reason are still very important. But people want more than just an intellectual challenge. They want something that moves them emotionally, as well. It is bringing the heart and the head together.’
I wouldn’t say that Luther was unemotional, he was racked by guilt and passionate about the gospel, he wanted to challenge corruption in the Church when he formulated his theses, not just put up intellectual propositions.
Neither do I think you can pick out a few things the same length of time apart and call them a pattern. BUT, we know that things are changing; we just don’t know how much, how fast and which mainline denominations can weather the storm.
So let’s look back to look forward.
Let’s think about what having our roots in the reformation means, and what fruit we are called to bear for the future.
The reformation is the name given to the religious changes in the 1500s. Movements with names and leaders emerged during those years, although the process and the arguments had begun before.
There are some who look at it through a political lens, and see the formation of Europe from the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire as nation states emerged, national identities, and religious expression to go with them. That’s certainly true to the extent that Luther had political protection when his ideas set him against Rome. That protection also limited the compromises he might have made with other reformers. It’s also true that Thomas Cromwell used Henry VIIIs predicament to move forward the reformation in England, as a way of joining the new Europe, rather than leaving it.
I would say that something similar happened in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down: the churches were full of people discussing identity and freedom.
But the reformation was not primarily political.
There are those who look at it through a psychological lens, considering Luther’s inner motivations and the dynamics with the institutional church. And there is enough written record, vinegary personality and shifts in thinking to do this kind of retrospective. It is also possible to make a case for the reformation allowing for the emergence of the primacy of personal conscience and the development of individualism.
But the reformation was not primarily psychological.
The reformation was about religious people living in a religious age, when salvation was the key to life and demons were ready to drag you down.
The reformation was primarily a spiritual movement: fuelled by the rediscovery of the free gift of God’s love and longing for a church that could communicate that to a world in need of God.
Amen to that. That’s what we’re always about: discovering again and again that we are loved by God and precious to God, and we are called to be God’s partners in showing and sharing that love.
That’s the first thing I want to highlight about the reformation; it was driven by the gospel, the good news of God’s love revealed in Christ, made real for us through the Holy Spirit. The early reformers were called the ‘evangelisch’ – the ‘gospellers’. Any attempts today that pretend to be reform based on style or management or tradition, won’t get anywhere unless they are driven by taking the gospel deep within us, so that it can be a spring gushing up to others.
So we have ‘gospellers’ as our the first name to note, with the gospel as the driver of the reformation.
We also have our first shadow. Luther wanted to rid the church of corruption, to bring reform, and the spirit of the gospel should bring love and unity. Instead, the mix of politics and pride led to disagreement and fragmentation, which continues today with over 100 different Presbyterian churches in Korea alone.
The result of Luther’s stirring, was a series of assemblies of the Imperial Estates of the Holy Roman Empire. These assemblies, called diets, debated the changes that could and couldn’t happen. The most famous is the Diet of Worms which declared Luther a heretic. But there was another diet in Speyer in 1526 which overturned this and allowed states freedom to ‘so live, rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty.’ That in turn was overturned by another diet in Speyer in 1529, and after that the states that had begun to enjoy the freedom and assert their own identity made a legal protest.
So we get our second name, ‘protestant’: protesting against Roman Church restrictions of national and religious freedom. We also get the challenge to Christendom as a unified religious and political force, at the very time it was also under threat from Turkish forces to the east.
And with our second name we get our second shadow. A definition of identity that does not spring from the positive things that we are, but from what we are not, what we are against. That’s something we can relate to, with T shirts saying, ‘I support Wales and whoever is playing England!’ We need to recover an identity as a nation and a church that does not spring from what we are against be it neighbours next door, over the border or over the sea, but from who we are as Cymru, citizens together, filled with God’s love, showing compassion.
Within the protestant movement, there were different centres and different leaders, all trying to reinterpret the Bible for their times and disagreeing on things which ultimately led to people being burned as heretics. There were the Lutherans in Germany and in Switzerland there were those influenced by Calvin and Zwinghli. All of these looked for some kind of partnership with the political governors of their city or state, and are known as the magisterial reformers because they looked to the church to tend people’s spiritual lives and the state to force them into church and be morally upright. There were also radical reformers who wanted to create pristine Christian communities, holding things in common and regulating themselves. Such groups included the Anabaptists, who were viewed with suspicion by everyone else and then persecuted. From that radical movement grew our Baptist and congregational ancestors in faith.
So within those who could be described as protestant we have different strands emerging, with different relationships to the state and political power structures.
With that comes the shadow of not knowing when to challenge the state, which left many of the churches floundering in Nazi Germany. Or not being engaged enough to influence the state, so that the ideal of love is not translated into a just and fair society. I’m not sure if that’s part of our problem in the UK today.
The reformers in Geneva following Calvin were given the label ‘Reformed’ and the World Communion of Reformed Churches currently has around 85 million members of which the United Reformed Church is a small part.
When I describe the ‘Reformed’ part of the name, I tend to use the slogans that are often used to describe the reformation. There are five, and we might add one which is particular to the Reformed family.
The first four all relate to salvation. By faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, through Scripture alone. In Latin, which was the language of argument at the time: sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, sola Scriptura. Let’s just look at each briefly, and we’ll see that they too have a shadow side.
By faith alone through grace alone: this is the rediscovered gospel in a nutshell; in contrast to anything we do in our own strength, we are saved by God’s initiative, God’s free gift of love.
The shadow side is that we make faith itself something that is a merit badge. Some people think that believing things which don’t make sense is a marker of how strong their faith is. It turns grace into something that is earned by believing. But faith is a relationship word, related to trust, which is itself is the relationship word for truth. And grace is a free gift. Being saved by faith through faith is about grabbing hold of the lifeline that God throws us, receiving the gift God gives us, running into the open arms of God’s hug inviting us.
Through Christ alone means that we see this working out most clearly in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In him God’s love is earthed and in his example we see the way to respond to God’s love. As John’s gospel puts it, ‘God so loved the world that he gave his son.’
But because the verse runs on and says, ‘so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’, many in the Reformed family have put more effort into working out who is in and who is out, who believes adequately and who does not, rather than working on communicating God’s love for the world. It is the shadow side of turning grace into rules, and limitless love into measured response. For the reformers ‘solus Christus’ was as much a contrast to thinking that we can save ourselves, than an exclusive claim to be the only way to God. For Luther ‘through Christ alone’ was a way of realising our reliance on God: when you stand at the foot of the cross and all your hopes for a new order have died, then you realise that human attempts to save ourselves are doomed to failure. It’s then that we learn our need of God and can be open to his saving love.
The fourth, ‘through Scripture alone’ has often been seen as meaning that every word in the Bible is necessary for salvation, leading to a literalism that is unhelpful in today’s world. I believe that it is better understood as you can find enough in the Bible to discover God’s plan for salvation. The Bible is sufficient to find salvation.
The reformers really wanted their theology and practice to be consistent with the Bible, in contrast to the weight given to tradition and scholastic reason in the Roman Church. They also wanted people to have the Bible in the language they spoke every day, so that they could understand God’s word for them. Ironically, this led to two different shadows. The first is that they failed to understand how their context conditioned their interpretation, and that the written word was most important for revealing the living Word of God amongst us in Jesus, and for that it was important to understand that the Spirit that inspired the writers also inspires the interpretation of the readers. There is always a risk of putting our interpretation of the Word of God in place of the relationship with the God it is intended to reveal.
The other ironic shadow is that in trying to elevate scripture and make it accessible, a tradition of translation developed which meant there was not one scripture to point to, but many interpretations, which in modern eyes dents the claims that it is ‘true’.
I can live with these slogans, and I hope I have explained them in a way that makes sense. But each relates to ‘salvation’ and whilst at the time of the reformation that was clearly about getting to heaven and escaping hell, I am not sure that is sufficient for people to turn to God today. ‘Salvation’ is a jargon term, and we need to unpack it to answer, ‘saved from what?’ ‘Saved for what?’ and ‘Why do I need to be saved? I’m not that bad really…’ We’ll come back to that in a minute, when we have looked at the other slogans.
The fifth ‘sola’ is ‘soli Deo Gloria’; to the glory of God alone, which was an antidote to the powerplays and corruption of the church at the time. Behind it is also the reformers belief in a sovereign God who has a plan and a mission. This troubles me when I hear the stories of people leaving family behind in the Grenfell Tower fire, or hear about children being abused or killed. The modern mind says how can God be all powerful and all loving if this kind of thing happens? I’ve said in the past that God’s power is love, and in one way that resolves the challenge in the question, but it doesn’t answer the question in people’s minds. It is one we need to keep wrestling with as we try to understand God who showed his solidarity with our suffering through the cross.
The additional slogan which is used by reformed churches is ‘semper reformanda’, always reforming. This isn’t about change for change’s sake, but constantly trying to discern the mind of Christ and be more like Christ. Which also means being immersed in our context and expressing our message in ways that people can relate to. It means living out our faith, putting flesh on it, being incarnational. We are in rapidly changing times, and the church has not kept up with the change. Perhaps some want the church to be a place of stability in the midst of change, but it is God’s love that is constant, not the way we express it. Some want to be so identified with a particular sub-culture or aspect of life, that they let go of the inclusive love of God, but it is that all embracing love that we are called to experience and share. We are called to let ourselves be re-formed by God for being part of God’s mission in our current context.
We are in a world where more individuals seem to have mental health problems and an unhealthy work-life balance and difficulty passing on values to the next generation in a time of rapid change. We are in a world which is broken by violence and war, with massive movements of people, and hatred blowing like an ill wind. People long to find inner peace and harmony with those around them and creation. People long for justice and fairness. Future generations need us to be responsible adults in making choices about how we relate to the one planet that is our shared home. This is the shalom, the dynamic peace with justice infused with God’s love of which the Bible speaks. This is salvation as seen in the Old Testament. It requires action to share in God’s creativity, compassion and covenant community. It requires love of God, faith in what God has already done in our lives, and hope for the future. It is about being God’s partners in God’s work in the world, knowing that a relationship with God begun on earth does not end in death, but carries us through to fulfillment, gathered in God’s love. This is salvation. By grace, through faith, seen in Christ, the living word revealed in Scripture. To the glory of God. Amen.
Phyllis Tickle quotes from http://vancouversun.com/news/staff-blogs/christianity-undergoes-revolution-every-500-years-including-now