Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Responding to Reformation Day Concerns

I was still all giddy with the festive joy of my Reformation Day celebrations, when I read the recent post by Michael Spencer (a.k.a., the InternetMonk) attempting to let some air out of my balloon. You can read his post at his blog here.

Needless to say, I nearly spilled my beer when I scanned his list of bullet points. Here was a blogger I respect seemingly offering to repent of his earlier view that the Reformation was a good thing.

If you’d like a quick refresher on what the Reformation was basically about, listen to our latest episode, entitled the “Reformation Day Special”. In it, Matt and Richard and I try to review some of the background of the Reformation and offer our perspectives on why the Lutheran Reformation still matters today. So that’s my plug for the show.

Now the iMonk is someone I take seriously. I admire his stated commitments to the Gospel of transforming grace, AND the historic confessions of the Church. So when he characterizes (in the end) the significance of our Reformation Day as primarily celebrating division within Christianity, I have to stop and evaluate what he’s saying. I’ve never found him to just be venting bombastic rhetoric, so every son of the Reformation should give what he’s written some consideration.

He begins with two very important insights:

-I no longer believe the Reformation, as it’s commonly described by Protestants, is the distinct event we’ve made it out to be.
-I no longer believe Luther ever intended to slay the Catholic Church and establish the wonder of contemporary Protestantism.

Emphatic “Amens” register deep agreement with both statements. The Reformation was not a single, orchestrated event or series of events. It wasn’t even exactly a movement within the Church, although that certainly comes closer in my view.

Before it ever became a movement, however, it was a confession of faith. Believers heard the Word of God, as if hearing it fresh, and the Holy Spirit moved them to confess before men what they believed in their hearts.

The thing about confessions of faith is, they evoke differing responses in the hearers; some realize upon hearing it they want to confess to the same faith, perhaps even using the same words; others are put off by it and want the confessor to either stop confessing with his mouth, or alter his confession.

A good example of this is the New Testament confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” which is found in Philippians, chapter 2. Do you believe it? Do you want to confess it before men? Everything rides on which of the two responses I mentioned above are evoked in you by those words. When Jesus asked his disciples (Mt. 16), “Who do men say that I am?” he got back a short list of answers, reflecting the buzz about Jesus that he generated as he went from town to town. Of course the follow-up question he asked was not to gain information but to set up a vital moment of confession: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Martin Luther, called by the Holy Spirit to be a child of God through Holy Baptism, was sincerely trying to live out his Christian faith, which included a compulsion to confess his Savior, Jesus. In doing so, he was taking his responsibilities as a Catholic seriously.

Martin Luther, called by the Holy Spirit to be a doctor of theology for the whole Church through his appointment to the theological faculty at Wittenberg, was compelled to use his learning and God-given talents to help the Church clarify and correct its confession. In doing so, he was taking his responsibilities as a called doctor of the Church seriously.

Others learned from him, both from his teaching, and from his example. Many in that time period recognized Luther as their “leader,” even though he was not leading from a pre-established agenda.

In a sense, it’s not fair to imagine Luther even leading with a clear idea of where the movement was headed. He certainly did not plan to set up an alternative Church. In fact, during the early years of the Reformation, he repeatedly implored the pope to call an ecumenical council, revealing that Luther still dared to hope a council under the leadership of a Gospel-confessing pope might be able to set the Church aright.

-I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.
-I’m especially convinced that a lot of the typical “Luther story” is probably historically inaccurate. Not necessarily untrue, but plenty of mythology in the mix.

If the references to “mythological” and “mythology” are meant to suggest that a bunch of pious tall tales are all intermixed with historically accurate reporting, I say that’s possible, but then the burden of proof should be on the one making the claim. I wonder what made-up Luther stories he might be thinking of.

On the other hand, if “mythology” is just shorthand for saying the events and motives and politics were cleaned up or simplified to fit, after the fact, a commonly accepted interpretation of the Reformation’s significance, then I’ll buy it. That’s what people do when they look back to explain what and why things happened. This is what I think Michael means, because he doesn’t leave “historically inaccurate” to stand on its own, but adds that the stories are “Not necessarily untrue.”

-I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.

Precisely. I wasn’t as though the Christian Church had ceased to exist sometime between the Second Century and 1517. I think it is valid to say a truer and clearer way to confess the Christian message was laid out through the labors of the reformers.

-I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
-I now believe that tradition is a very good word.

All right, the Monk is correctly drawing a distinction between the Reformation principle of letting Scripture alone be the source of the Church’s teaching and authority, and the modern idea that interpreters of Scripture should not rely on any sources outside the Bible to aid or guide them in interpreting Scripture for the Church. In other words, it’s a regular Fundamentalist assumption that not only should our teachings be grounded in the Biblical revelation, but nothing else could possibly matter except the Bible. To look to Creeds or decisions of councils for aid in interpreting the text of Scripture is forbidden, as it might lead to “papist” errors of elevating Tradition to the same authoritative status as Scripture.

Let me put an even finer point on it. “Protestants,” in general probably don’t mean this, but self-described Fundamentalists are suspicious of tradition to the point where they seem to really want to operate as if they’re the first ones ever called on to interpret God’s Word. They alone approach the text with Bible-believing, miracle-claiming, faith that is totally uncolored by the age they’re living in. Yeah, right.

Now, is that what God is calling any of us to do? Is He wanting us to pretend we’re the first ones to arrive on the scene with the smarts and background to objectively study His Word and get His meaning right, quite unclouded by any poisonous tradition? Or isn’t it true that, while the Church can never claim ownership of the Scriptures, the inspired Law and Gospel are part of the Church’s stewardship? And however highly we may think of ourselves, we must admit we’re not the first stewards to take seriously the responsibility for getting the Word right.

-I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.

Grieve? Because we all aren’t in communion with the bishop of Rome, who still today persists in teaching false doctrine? Because we, against the liberal teachings of the most mainline denominations, insist on confessing the historical reality of the Virgin Birth and the Bodily Resurrection? Because in our churches we take the focus off of man, and man’s works, and put the focus clearly on Christ the Crucified and his completed work on the cross? Could anyone really grieve that these things should cause divisions? Paul wrote the Galatian Christians, asking, “Who has bewitched you?” Can anyone hold it is better to be bewitched for the sake of so-called unity, than to have the spell worn off?

-I no longer believe the theology of the Reformers was the pinnacle of evangelicalism or is the standard by which Biblical truth itself is judged.
-I can see huge omissions from the work of the reformers, such as a theology of cross-cultural missions and much more.

Hmmm. I struggle with what to make of these statements. I recognize what the evangel is, the Good News. I don’t recognize “evangelicalism” as a well-defined anything, so I don’t worry about what represents its pinnacle. Evangelicalism doesn’t seem to be solidly built on any particular confession of faith, which is why Evangelical churches seemingly can adopt whatever “Statement of Faith” suits their fancy, and then drop it and move on to the next one just as quickly. I’ll be first in line to agree that Biblical truth judges us, not the other way around. But the reformers confessed things, in their writing and in their speakings, which can then be evaluated as to how well they agree with the revealed truths of Scripture. Does a particular reformer say what the Scriptures say? Of course this is not to suggest such an evaluation is easy. But where (among the reformers) the teachings diverge, I think we need to go to the Scriptures to wrestle honestly with interpretations and which ones may have slipped into (or bordered on) error.

Of course, omissions are not in the same category as errors.

-I want to understand how Catholic and EO Christians understand Protestantism, and I want to do so with a sense of humility.
-I don’t believe in ecumenism at any cost, but I can no longer imagine being a Christian without a commitment to ecumenism on some level.

Fine. Start by understanding that in the RC and EO communions they’re trying to answer definitively questions almost no Protestants are even asking. Questions like: How do I know the fellowship of “my” group is even a church in the first place? How can I know whether for sure it is part of the one, true Church founded by Jesus? Hah! I’d like to hear American Evangelicals offer coherent answers to those questions. (Aw, nuts! My sense of irony dislocated my sense of humility just then.)

Also, any one with a commitment to ecumenism should watch it that it doesn’t get elevated above the commitment to confess what you know to be true, based on the most reasonable interpretation of Holy Scripture. I confess “one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church,” but I firstly confess “Jesus Christ is Lord,” and that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” (2 Cor 5:19)

-There are many sins associated with Protestantism that I need to admit and repent of.

I promise you I’m not ridiculing anyone whom the Spirit has put under a conviction of sin, but it just so happens this statement speaks volumes about why there’s a certain Protestant anxiety driving them to want to make a kind of peace with Rome. American Evangelicalism, it seems to me, understands the idea of repentance in almost identical terms with RC theology. No, there’s no system of penance, but if most Evangelicals were asked to describe what sincere repentance is like, I’m sure their descriptions would sound nothing like a Lutheran description, and quite a bit like a good Catholic one. The subject of repentance would be a good one for me to blog on at a later date.