This whole 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation — with Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to the door of the “Schlosskirche” (‘castle church’) on Oct. 31, 1517 — leaves me feeling ambivalent. I mean, the world as we know it couldn’t be were it not for the Reformation. But that doesn’t mean that the Reformation has only led to positive or great outcomes!
(Don’t tell the Germans — they are somewhere between “exuberant” and “out of this world” over this anniversary event. That said, their excitement might be now mediated by the number of visitors they expected at Luther sites in 2017 turning out to be disappointingly lower than hoped for.)
Ok, I want to begin positively: I am definitely a Christian believer of the Protestant style. In my worship and prayers and in my theology.
And I’m happy for the Protestant understanding of ordained ministry (and my Protestant grandmother’s greater interest in church than her Roman Catholic husband that resulted in their kids, including my mother, all being raised Protestant), lest I might have ended up a single and celibate Priest!
I also tend to prefer the democracy and freedoms of Protestant communities over the top-down episcopacies and lines of authority of the Roman church. If I thought longer, I could probably come up with a long list of aspects of our modern world and my life that I appreciate and can trace back somehow to some relation to or dependence on the Reformation.
Still, not all of what or how Protestantism has developed is unabashedly positive, or has even been particularly helpful for our world. Like much of life, the results are more both / and.
The first Protestants claimed their right to reform what was the “only church in town” in as much as they were returning a church that had ‘strayed to the point of being lost’ to its original, rightful New Testament reality. Of course, the church of New Testament times was hardly anything we — or Christians in the 16th century for that matter — would recognize as church. For example, the church in biblical times — sort of obviously when you think about it! — didn’t yet have the collected and redacted Scriptural canon that we know as the Bible! They only had the Hebrew Scriptures.
One of our inheritances from that early reformers’ strategic ‘reclaiming true Christianity’ has been a persistent cultural bias in favor of ‘the myth of origins,’ that is, a prejudice that how something began is closer to its essence than how it developed. As if all of us were most truly ourselves as newborns, rather than the adults we grew to be! Related to this myth is a skepticism about historical development — as with arguments of the U.S. Constitution, accusing a tradition of too much human-orchestrated development makes it an easy target, even suspect.
Likewise, the Protestant alternative to the ecclesial evolution of the Roman Church was Luther’s emphasis on the Bible — replacing the historical development and building of an institution with the notion that the Scriptural witness itself (‘sans’ any overt interpretive method, save the Holy Spirit!) provides all the basis needed for founding or running the church and Christian lives.
That’s a fairly complicated maneuver, a stretch really, requiring a rejection of the church that Jesus built on Peter, in favor of a book that was canonized centuries later and subject to endless unresolved and unresolvable conflicts of interpretation. In other words, if we use the Bible as our source — or resource– we might agree on the actual texts but be nowhere close to agreeing on what it means. More important, it turns out, is the hermeneutical or interpretive rule we use for understanding the Scripture.
Fundamentalists and the UCCers both claim the Bible as our rule, but if you look at what we understand from the Scripture, you can barely believe we are talking about the same book. The biblical focus of Protestantism has unleashed innumerable fights over which interpretations will prevail in churches and institutions. It has also led to an endless proliferation of sects and denominations. Protestants all say they follow the Bible, but their institutions compete for the prestige and authority to judge which biblical interpretations will be licit and orthodox. Particularly in American Protestantism, which is such a mishmash and melting pot, communions and Protestant interpretations of faith become myriad, confused and even indistinctive.
The social products of the Protestant churches likewise show both positive and negative outcomes. In Europe, Protestantism unleashed an expansion in literacy, individualism, capital markets, and political liberty that became hallmarks of Western civilization. And in America, the democratized churches were community bastions where the civic skills and resources for republican governance were taught and practiced.
But there’s great debate over the effects of the spread of Christian faith, missionary movements that were masks for colonization… efforts and drives in many cases strengthened by the competing theologies and institutions of different denominations. Missionaries brought more than just the gospel to the world’s people, for good or ill.
In church on Sunday, we’re going to forgo all the complexities, developments and history of this last 500 years. Instead, we are going to look at some of the basics of Protestant faith (see, the myth of origins again — even when I don’t believe it!). We’re going to look at some of the basics of the beginnings of our Protestant faith. I want us to consider whether or not those tenets actually hold some value for us today. We might also be thinking about whether or not there is some new message of our faith that our contemporary world desperately needs, and if only it were to be birthed, it would spread like wildfire?
See you in church,