Today marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation sparked off by Luther nailing his 95 theses to a church door in Wittgenberg. The Reformation can be a contentious issue – it most definitely shouldn’t be anti-Catholic, nor should it be a justification for splitting the church whenever we fall out. I hope that what follows avoids raising any spectre of those problematic interpretations of the Reformation.
I’ll admit straight up that Reformation history is not my strong suit (as might have been shown already – did Luther really nail his theses to the church door?) I am interested, however, in the current fascination with the Reformation at 500 years and, in particular, the notion that the church needs a new Reformation. This idea takes several forms but usually involves the church being outdated, unfashionable, or culturally out of step – something is wrong with the church and it needs fixed. Now I’m sure we will all agree the church isn’t perfect – but do we really need another Reformation?
There are two things that I wonder about (at least two that is!) First, I wonder if the circumstances of the original Reformation indicate that issues arise from being too closely in-step with the surrounding culture; and secondly, if the inherited pattern of the Reformation has left us so “heavenly-minded but of no earthly use.” Already I see the problem in my own suggestions – I’m advocating that we need to be more embodied but less encultured…but aren’t they two very closely related ideas?
Let me unpack my thoughts a little further. One of the major Reformation slogans is, of course, sola fide – by faith alone. We cannot earn our way to heaven, but rather we enter into the faithfulness of the Father, through Christ, and in the Spirit. In no way am I doubting this formulation – it is the rock upon which we need to build. However, we must remember that in the background to this claim is that God alone justifies – not the church, not the church leader, not ourselves, nor anyone else that purportedly offers salvation. Our good works for the church or towards others cannot earn us salvation because it is from God alone. However, it strikes me that in our hurry to get away from justification by works we’ve become fixated on the salvation of the “soul” thus reducing the Christian life to no more than saying the sinner’s prayer. Of course, I express this as a polemic – I’m not sure many people actually hold to this perspective as strongly as depicted. But I do think that we’ve shied away from the necessary component of the Christian life that manifests itself in active faith, loving the neighbour, and promoting justice. The Christian life is neither an ideology to rescue the ethereal soul, nor is it simply a life waiting for heaven. The Christian life is found in embodied faith that believes God has entered creation history and continues to do so through the lives of those that follow Christ.
So, if on the one hand I am suggesting that the Christian life must be embodied, tangible, active, on the other hand I also want to suggest that we cannot be tethered to the surrounding culture. One of the main triggers for Luther’s 95 theses was the selling of indulgences and, perhaps even more accurately, the selling of indulgences by effectively a travelling salesman. Johann Tetzel’s ability to convince his audience of the need to buy indulgences seems to be nothing more (and yet nothing less) than religion’s ability to be itself consumed by consumption. Luther recognised the profiteering involved in the selling of indulgences and the error of selling salvation. Today, we are tempted to say that the church is in decline because it is out of step with culture, and yet I want to suggest that this is not as critical as we might imagine. Or at least, to be tied to the consumerist culture where our churches become shopfronts and the product becomes salvation, is an issue comparative to that which Luther objected to. Our pop culture informed songs and Starbucks-filled auditoriums can end up shaping us more to the world around than to Christ. Yes, the church needs to be relevant and yes it needs to communicate the gospel in a way that is not incomprehensible, but to replicate the consumer culture in the church risks cheapening grace and devaluing salvation.
Returning to the problem of such a suggestion – can the church both be embodied but not over-enculturated? I think it can. I think in its embodiment, the active, visible, dynamic faith of the church will be tested and affirmed as the life-changing, justice-seeking, culture-changing people that it is. The gospel, the church, and Christ, do not need enculturation to make it attractive or even to prove that it “works.” Though our own salvation does not lie in our good works, perhaps salvation for the church lies in the good work of God being manifested through the faith of the church. So do we really need another Reformation? I don’t think we do – at least not in the way many people might envisage. But I do think we need to look afresh at what the Reformation might tell us for the church today.
(Ideas and reflections in this post are personally-held so if you’d like to interact with any of these thoughts then please get in contact / comment – let us keep the conversation alive!)