Welcome to the 501st anniversary of the Reformation! I’ll be your host, Reverend Doctor Clint Schnekloth, long-time blogger at Lutheran Confessions and therefore pseudo-expert on all things Reformation!
If you’re reading this, I thank you, because in this election cycle, most of us are simply reading posts about the upcoming election, waking up startled to the president’s lies, or burying ourselves in desperate attempts at humor over at McSweeney’s.
Remember the 500th?
2017 was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Because I’m a Lutheran pastor living in a mostly non-Lutheran (but Protestant) state, I was asked to represent.
Basically, this meant all of October I was writing Reformation columns for the newspaper and talks for the radio, lectures for the university and lifelong learning center, designing worship observances in my own congregation, and in general, trying to get all my neighbors and friends to care about something that took places five centuries ago.
In America, where history isn’t highly regarded (unless it’s made into a broadway musical), this was an uphill, Sisyphian task. I’m quite relieved to be at 501, because now I can just analyze the centennial observances in retrospective, and leave the 600th remembrance to whoever is pastoring in whatever remains of planet earth when it’s seven degrees hotter than now.
Reformation Was So 500 Years Ago…
I did go through a phase (maybe I’m still in this phase) when I thought we should be done observing the Reformation. Most Christian holidays center around Christ and the biblical narrative–Christmas, Holy Week, Pentecost. To observe a special Sunday for the Reformation punctuates that cycle with a extra-biblical, specific moment in Christian history. For better or worse, it’s an outlier, and kind of odd.
But now that we’re post-500, and able to approach our history with a bit less hyperbole, maybe I’m more comfortable with it. All traditions need a founder’s day, I guess. It makes me wonder what Episcopalians or other groups observe as their parallel day.
I’m also okay-er with it when it’s non-triumphalist. I mean, our most popular hymn is A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, so a sophomorish approach to Reformation observance is to simply take the militant route. We won! We’re winning! We’re going to win!
But that song wasn’t about winning. It certainly wasn’t about beating the Roman Catholics. No, it arose out of a context of weakness, failure, desperation. There was real danger that those who held to the faith that had become so clear to them (though a close reading of Scripture, and by the grace of God) would be wiped out by the stronger, more oppressive and triumphalist Christian forces around them.
The early Lutheran movement was always just one wrong turn from dying. Like the proto-Reformer Jan Has, burned at the stake for his beliefs, the Reformers wondered when their time would come. That the time didn’t come was fortuitous, the result of regional political and economic forces (and sometimes dumb luck, and sometimes sly strategy).
Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right One on our side,
The One of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be?
Christ Jesus, it is He
The Reformers, faithful as they were, ascribed such protection not to themselves, but to God, their protector. God acting in and through Christ.
So freedom in faith comes as a gift. It’s a gift from God, given in Christ. And right there you’ve got the five central aspects (solae) of the Reformation.
Inspired by Scripture.
Through Christ alone.
To God alone be the glory.
Can We Get A Reformation?
I guess we’re always looking for another Reformation. Or made uncomfortable by the Reformation that came we didn’t want. There’s a popular slogan among some Reformers, ecclesia semper reformanda est. Karl Barth popularized the idea back in 1947. Now in the 21st century, with the church seemingly reforming all over the globe at astounding rates, it’s kind of hard to state clearly the nature of Reformation anymore.
Does it look like the liberal Christian dissolution into the social institutions that we now see in the west (think Troeltsch and Weber, spinning secularization in a positive way) that carry its values if not furthering it as institutional church (like in Scandinavian nations). So in this sense Reformation is winning by losing, reforming by releasing the faith into world.
Or is Reformation the global expansion of the faith (and it’s cultural transformation) into the global south?
Or is Reformation something else altogether from these things, or yet to come? Is it “emergent“?
We live under the mode of secularity, whereas during the Reformation they lived under the mode of Roman Catholicity. Things are different now.
If you follow my blog, you know I value the marriage of Lutheran theology with social gospel. I am unapologetically a liberation Lutheran. Having tried out strictly radical Lutheranism, and strictly liberation perspectives, I find myself especially energized by the serendipitous juxtaposition of the two.
Lutherans love their freedom. Social gospelers and liberation theologians love their justice. I find myself inhabiting the space that attempts to say we’re really free in Christ AND justice really matters.
I think the value of this juxtaposition lies in its sustaining power for hope. The pursuit of justice can sometimes devolve into the politics of the now. Christianity as this current revolution, without remainder. Which then when it gets power, thinks it is bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.
But the celebration of freedom in Christ, detached from the earthly and daily work of the polis, turns such freedom into an abstraction, a fun word game that makes soteriology about nothing much at all.
But brought into tension with the work of justice, such proclamation of Christian freedom can say, “Yes, forward together, and not one step back. But by God’s grace, God’s already ahead of us, taking the first step, so as needed and as necessary, remember to rest in that. Like really rest. Because God’s kingdom is not of this world, and even bigger than your current dreams.”
Maybe that’s why we need to keep observing Reformation Sundays. Because when we get submerged in all this noise, and all this busy, and we think to ourselves, “Can we just stop?” then the past makes itself available to us. And it might give us insight like this.
“I’m not the one who’s the king of the world and I’m certainly not God. I’m just somebody who was born ninety years ago and will die in a few years time and then everybody will have forgotten me. This is reality. We’re all here, but we are just local people, passengers in a journey. We get into the train, we get out of the train, the train goes on” (Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, celebrating his 90th birthday; excerpted from The Christian Century)