"Forgetting" the Reformation
A spiritual exercise I intentionally practice every few years involves “forgetting” what I think I know about God, faith, and faithful living. Of course, I don’t really “forget” these things but I do my best to identify and bracket these things and try to read the Bible again with fresh eyes and clear heart. It is always good to do this with other similarly committed believers. You can hold each other accountable, help us identify each other’s blind spots, and share the hope of growth and new life.
In North America most of us are shaped by the western tradition of thought and life. This tradition has its great strengths, to be sure. But it has blind spots as well, debilitating blind spots. We do well to focus on these blind spots as exercises in “forgetting” to open ourselves to a fresh reading and reflection on scripture.
Five of the central planks of theology done in the western tradition that negatively impact faithful Christian life and thought are its view of God, its view of reality, its view of a reason, its view of a Christian life, and its view of money. To “forget” these influences involves bidding adieu to Aristotle, Plato, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and Adam Smith. Today we say good-bye to Plato.
“FORGETTING” the Reformation
The Reformation movement of the 16th century initiated by Martin Luther’s attempt to reform a corrupt Roman Catholic Church resulted in many far-reaching consequences for the western world. For our purposes I intend to focus on only one, one we need to “forget” for our spiritual well-being.
We don’t need to set aside the Reformation the way we did Aristotle, Plato, and the Enlightenment. Each of the latter distorted our experience and understanding of Christian faith. The Reformation, however, reopened the Christian faith, the genuine gospel, for many who had never really heard it through the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s movement exploded and rapidly morphed into the formation of a new church rather than a reform movement in the Catholic church. Much good came from this movement, much we would be much the poorer for not having.
Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, had never heard the gospel in all his time in the church. Tormented by his sin and sense of God’s displeasure over it, the overriding question for Luther (and for multitudes in his time) was “Where can I find a gracious God?” His rediscovery of the saving free grace of God spread the wildfire across Europe and over into the British Isles. The Spirit of God moved with new and fresh power reshaping the face of the church and the world in his wake. Gratitude for this work of the Spirit and the men and women God used to effect it has to be our first response to this remarkable movement.
Still, every movement has it time and place. We no longer live in late Medieval Europe dominated by a corrupt Catholic Church (well, at least it doesn’t dominate the whole populace any more) who used the fear of an angry God to control the people. The situation the Reformation emerged from and to counter is no longer our situation. Rediscovery of the gospel of the free grace of God is the Reformation’s permanent gift to the church in its journey through history.
The gospel of the free grace of God is indeed an answer to the tender conscience of anyone beset by a sense of having failed God and fearing his punishment for these failures. The fearful sinner is not the only issue the gospel, God’s all-embracing good news touches on however.
In our age the question hovering over us is not “Where can I find a gracious God?” but “Where can I find a gracious neighbor?” This is not a question about individual standing before God but about the church. And indeed the good news of the gospel is that through Jesus Christ and his life, ministry, death, and resurrection God has raised up a people who demonstrate the gracious mercy and peace of God and through whom he is blessing the world. The gospel tells us God is “the” gracious neighbor and his people “gracious neighbors” in a broken and hostile world. This is an extension of the Reformation insight that takes us beyond the original issue that sparked it off.
In addition to moving the focus of the gospel beyond the individual to the community, our setting moves us from the question of guilt (Luther’s problem) to a different concern in our time: shame. We suffer today in the western world more from a sense of shame (“we are wrong”) than guilt (we have done wrong). The gospel of God’s free grace enables us to respond to this present concern by articulating it in terms of God’s original intent for us.
Created to be God’s image-bears, his royal representatives who protect and nurture the creation, we rebelled and went our own way. We are broken people as well as those who break faith with God and each other. The gospel not only addresses our failures, it also addresses our sense of being failures. The shame of our brokenness is met and surpassed by the gospel’s announcement that God’s deepest desire is to reclaim us (dealing with our failures) and restore us to our primal dignity and original vocation. In the 16th century the former was the issue and needed to be addresses – and was! Rightly so.
But in a new time such as our own, the gospel needs to flex its muscle and speak to the shame that seems to be the issue of our day. To continue to require the gospel be articulated in the terms set by the 16th century rather than those of this day is a straightjacket we cannot afford to saddle ourselves with.
The Reformation, a good and necessary response to its day and dynamics, has, as we have seen, not worn well. It’s focus on the individual’s relation to God has blinded us to the profound and urgent need to see God’s work in terms of his corporate people, the church and the “gracious neighbors” we need to be. Nor does it, in its 16th century dress, enable us to compellingly and effectively address the need and dynamics of our day. There is still one further failing that we need to look at here.
None of the main reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) or their movements raised any fundamental questions about the propriety of the church’s being subservient to or a functionary within the sphere of a government’s national interest. And the United States and the west at large has suffered grievously from this failure. That the church in America has not been able to maintain its own critical distance and voice from the US government as well as the “Americanism” that the gospel has morphed it in this land, is perhaps “the” single most damaging heresy that has beset us here. And the Reformation of the 16th century is of little or no help to us on this most vital matter.
Wistfully perhaps, gratefully certainly, we must bid this great 16th century movement adieu. Retaining its permanent gains as one powerful aspect of the biblical gospel, we must reclaim this gospel’s fullness (as noted above) to address the needs and dynamics of this day. If this entails a certain critique of today’s use of the 16th century Reformation paradigm (not it’s 16th century use) as definitive of the gospel, then so be it. It is in this sense and for the reasons outlined above that I hope we can “forget” the Reformation.