In the October 2017 edition of Revive, John Squires noted the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and asked whether it might not be time “to kick off the shackles of old traditions and practices” and “reform ourselves once more”. He takes “12 references to newness, renewal or reform” in our Basis of Union as “clear pointers in that direction.”
But does a call “to kick off the shackles of old traditions and practices” point in the same direction as the Reformation or the Basis?
Reformation became possible, because Luther’s distress at his sinfulness drove him to look again at what Paul meant by “the righteousness of God.” The discovery that God’s righteousness revealed in the Gospel does not make demands or judgments, but graciously justifies the ungodly (Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:5), increasingly informed Luther’s lecturing on the Scriptures at Wittenberg University and preaching in the town.
Luther’s theses were not a protest poster, but an invitation to debate about ways in which the sale of indulgences (alleged release by the Pope from all penalties for one’s sins) was being promoted. Luther was concerned both for biblical and theological truth and for ordinary people’s salvation and peace of mind. He was not challenging “old traditions and practices,” but more recent activities and teachings.
Against the scholastic theology then dominant, with its dependence on Aristotelian philosophy, he referred back to more venerable tradition in the Scriptures and Early Church “fathers.” He followed the Humanists in seeking a writer’s meaning and intention by reading particular passages in their original languages and contexts. Official opposition to Luther’s stand extended the debate into further areas. Many wanted to see reform. Luther’s insistence on the Bible’s authority and God’s free forgiveness led more and more people to look for thorough reformation.
But reformation is not just a one-off event. The Gospel continually calls us to repentance, renewed faith, and new life: “The reformed church always needs reforming.” In uniting, our three former churches accordingly looked “for a continuing renewal in which God [would] use their common worship, witness and service to set forth the word of salvation for all [hu]mankind”; and they remained “open to constant reform under [Christ’s] Word” (Basis, para 1). Union was not about “newness, renewal or reform” as such, but about what is given only by Jesus Christ.
For the church does not have its own being and identity in itself. It receives them ever anew from Jesus Christ, through “the news of his completed work” (Basis, para 4) proclaimed in the words and sacraments of his Gospel (Basis, para 5-8). It lives by faith in what Jesus Christ has done for it and the whole world, once and for all, and in hope of the final realization of all that that means (Basis, paras 1,3,8,18). Christ’s death representatively for us means our own death to ourselves and this old world; and it sets us on a journey towards the “final consummation of all things which [Christ] will bring”. That is how the church is “a pilgrim people” (Basis, para 3).
Modernist belief in progress towards ever greater universality – now as pervasive as Aristotelianism in Luther’s time – is a secular derivative of biblical hope. For modernists, traditions of particular communities inevitably frustrate progress and are therefore “shackles” we must “kick off”, to clear the way forward. But obsessive pursuit of something new will end only in loss of substance and superficial novelty.
For anything like reformation, we must begin in fresh engagement with biblical and church tradition, in order to discern where true authenticity and authority lie and to become better able to proclaim the news of Christ’s death and resurrection and confess faith in him.
Rev Dr Michael Owen