‘Reformation!’

by Andrew Stobart.

One of the ironies of our use of the word ‘Reformation’ is that its strong association to the tangle of sixteenth-century movements that began with the monk from Wittenberg is in fact at odds both with the main burden of those movements and the etymology of the word itself. Reformare, its Latin root, literally means ‘to shape again’, much as a piece of clay, having held one shape for a short while, might be taken by the potter and fashioned into something more becoming, or more needful. To speak, as we have done this week (31st October), of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is thus something of a misnomer, since it suggests that there was something ultimate about the defiant propositions of the likes of Luther that cannot now be refashioned. Rubbing shoulders with some from the ‘Reformed’ tradition today justifies this perception: Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms are sometimes treated as a clarion call for ‘soundness’: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

While appreciating the sincerity of this regard for sixteenth century ecclesial activists, it is, respectfully, simply not true that the Reformation is the one and only reformation. The literal or metaphorical nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg[1] was certainly a reformation, but we would be foolish to stand on its stated tenets today and repeat Luther’s words verbatim, thinking thereby that we have secured the ‘soundness’ or ‘faithfulness’ of our present church’s life and doctrine.

Take one of the keys that Luther used to unlock the good news of Jesus for his contemporaries: ‘justification by faith’. In the past two decades, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has been affirmed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1999, the World Methodist Council in 2006, and the World Communion of Reformed Churches this year. It would be easy, then, to consider ‘justification by faith’ as one of the Reformation’s greatest doctrinal triumphs. And yet, has the sharing of ‘justification by faith’ in actual fact brought today’s church – across all denominations – closer to the church God intends, or not?

The late Lutheran theologian, Robert Jenson, puts the issue starkly:

‘Precisely to be itself, the gospel is never told the same way twice. The formulas which yesterday opened Jesus’ future will tomorrow bind to the past. “We are justified by faith alone,” said Luther, and liberated four generations. When preachers say these words today, supposing themselves to be following Luther, they bind us to the terrible law of having to save ourselves by the quality of our sincerity, for that is what “faith” has come to mean since the eighteenth century. And who knows what “justified” might mean, without lengthy explanations?‘[2]

It is not good enough, for those who wish to faithfully preach the good news of Jesus, simply to restate the faithful formulations of the past. Words morph in meaning; cultures lose shared plausibility structures; the practical realities of everyday life become framed by new technologies, new possibilities, and new fears; and, most important of all, the lively God of Jesus Christ adamantly refuses to be the God of the long dead, but rather of the living present.[3]

‘Justification by faith’, for the most part, is no longer the fear-shattering good news it was for the conscience-stricken monk Martin Luther, or for his contemporaries who lived under the threat of a fiery future for themselves and their loved ones unless they reached deep into their pockets.[4] This is not to say that justification by faith is now redundant; far from it. Justification by faith remains critical to salvation’s sole origin in the kindness of God, irrespective of the moral success or otherwise of those who are candidates for such salvation (which, by the way, is everyone).

However, just as Jesus didn’t preach ‘justification by faith’ but rather the present availability of God’s Kingdom; so too must Jesus’ disciples today bear witness to whichever leading edge of grace that shatters today’s tomb of human self-sufficiency and renders us defenceless before the beauty of divine generosity⎯or, to put it another way, which announces God’s reformation of us.

 Bearing witness to this power of God to refashion us[5] demands our alert attention. It is all too easy to mimic the formulas of the past, in the hope that the immediacy with which they brought the challenge of God’s active presence to their hearers will somehow, by sheer sincerity on our part, rub off on ours. Doing so, though, shows how little we truly understand the habitat of our faith, and how little we trust God’s creativity, new every moment. How is the risen Christ poised to speak into our lives today, to unlock God’s Kingdom to us in all its transformative power? If ‘justification by faith’ will do, then so be it. But a brief survey of the ecclesial landscape would suggest that our gospel-telling needs another reformation.[6]

The prophet Ezekiel had stern words for those who cried “Peace!” when there was none. It was as if they were whitewashing a flimsy wall to give it the appearance of permanence. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may we not do the same, seeking to hide the fragility of our contemporary church life with the whitewash of the sixteenth-century reformation. When we cry ‘Reformation!’, may there actually be reformation, fit for now, and for here. Triune God, refashion every aspect of our lives this day, so that, in you alone, our lives might be overwhelmed with the hope and purpose of your Kingdom.

 

[1] It hardly matters if, as scholars now think, Luther didn’t actually don his tool belt that legendary morning in 1517 in preparation for an act of theological fly-posting aiming to bring down the established order; his Theses were a Rubicon of sixteenth-century European history.

[2] Robert Jenson, Story and Promise (Ramsey: Sigler Press, 1989), 11.

[3] See, for instance, Matthew 22:32.

[4] The sale of indulgences, which was the presenting issue for Luther’s reformation, had been advertised by Johann Tetzel, the highly successful mogul of the indulgence-trade, in a crudely simplistic way: ‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.’ (So wie das Geld im Kasten klingt, die Seele aus dem Fegfeuer springt.)

[5] See Acts 1:8.

[6] For further reflection on ‘justification by faith’ and its potential rehabilitation today, see Andrew Stobart, ‘Justification by faith’, Holiness Volume 3 (2017) Issue 2 (Holiness & Reformation), pp. 301–316, available online at www.wesley.cam.ac.uk/holiness.

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3 thoughts on “‘Reformation!’”

  1. Luther’s catchy phrase on scriptural authority comes to mind here: “Was Christus Treibet” Whatever pushes/promotes Christ. Leading me to wonder whether He would have probably agreed with you.

    The struggle that the contemporary Church has in any age is to realise that what promoted Christ in the last age, might not be as effective in this one. That doesn’t mean that Christ changes, but simply that getting His Gospel through requires different language and different emphasis.

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  2. Thanks Andrew. It suggests to me that ‘ecclesia semper reformanda’ (the church always in need of reform) is perhaps a more important Lutheran insight for the Church in every age even than the, albeit powerful, rediscovery of justification by faith for the 16th century and what followed.

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  3. I think some of do realise – have realised this for a long time but sadly there have not been those willing to say so from the pulpit.

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