A good question: What does the Reformation mean today?
One question, four answers
‘The jury’s still out’
The jury’s out, and it will be for some time. That most pernicious of laws, the law of unintended consequences, ensures that. In February 2015, Playmobil introduced a toy figure of Martin Luther and sold 34,000 of them in 72 hours! Little Martin holds a quill in one hand, and his German translation of the Bible in the other. That’s how they’d like the Reformation to be remembered: the triumph of the pen over the sword, of the gift of Scripture to the people in their own languages, of the lavish grace of God available to all in answer to the prayer of faith. That’s how we’d all like it to be remembered, albeit translated in our society into a fading awareness of the biblical story as a cultural treasure, and a determined defence of the freedom of the individual and the sanctity of human rights. All good, all precious.
But once Luther, the young professor of theology at the then shiny new university of Wittenberg, wrote his 95 theses against the selling of indulgences in 1517, the law of unintended consequences was quickly on the case. He intended to create a debate within the Church, but the end result was the break up of the unity of Christendom and the spawning of the seed of pluralism which, centuries later flowered into secularism. Individualism was allowed free rein. Truth became relative, and in the absence of a common morality, acquiring things and consuming them became society’s alternative glue. …
David Cornick is General Secretary of Churches Together in England
‘Churches need to be self-critical’
Almost half a millennium has gone by since Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. Yet the outpouring of spirituality and profound theological thinking which he and others set in motion continues to shape the worldwide Church. This has included the Roman Catholic Church where, in response to the Reformation, figures such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross challenged corrupt or jaded approaches, helping to revitalise faith. Since then, millions of ordinary people have read or heard the Bible, and joined in worship, in their own tongue.
Certainly there was fanaticism and cruelty by those on both sides of the religious rifts at the time (as well as towards even more radical popular movements). Ecumenical cooperation and dialogue over the past century has shown the value of humility and patience as well as boldness in expressing disagreement. New insights have been developed on a range of issues through a willingness to learn from one another and grow together.
There is also greater understanding today of the near-impossibility of reading the Bible, or any other work, in a way which is completely detached from individual and collective expectations and experience. Those who claim confidently that their
own interpretations are based on Scripture alone, and so possess the authority of God, have sometimes threatened others’ freedom of conscience as much as the medieval papacy. Moving away from the notion that any group of Christians is intellectually infallible remains a challenge for many churches. …
Savi Hensman is the author of Sexuality, Struggle and Saintliness: Same-sex love and the Church
‘I carry the Reformation within me’
As a convert from Presbyterianism to Catholicism, I have a Protestant head and a Catholic heart. I grew up as a liberal Presbyterian in Zambia, and I was taught to question and challenge ideas that did not make sense. For my secondary schooling I attended the Dominican Convent School in Lusaka. I think feminism and Catholicism were both seeded in my soul by those intelligent, independent Dominican sisters, though it would be a long time before they bore fruit.
I eventually became a Catholic in the 1980s, and the Catholic sacramental tradition gradually earthed me in a lush and visceral experience of faith that was new to me. Later, I studied theology and found rich intellectual nourishment in Catholicism’s weaving together of grace and nature, reason and revelation. However, when I began to publish and to teach, my feminism put me at odds with the Catholic hierarchy.
My father died before my conversion, but he would have been delighted to know that his Presbyterian daughter had become a Catholic feminist and a thorn in the flesh of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Sometimes, I think a sense of humour is the most neglected Christian virtue. Swallowing camels and straining out gnats is a wonderful metaphor for the constipated posturings of so many religious leaders, Catholic and Protestant alike, and they are still mostly men. …
Tina Beattie is Professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University
‘Look to the Radical Reformation’
Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were almost good so far as they went, but it’s to the Radical Reformation that we should really look for inspiration today. The problem is that these three named key leaders of the mainstream (or magisterial) Reformation did not carry their principles to their full transformation.
The Radical Reformation independently began in three distinct European regions, as others realised that the institutional reformers were failing to take reformation to its logical conclusion. They formed voluntary (not state-sanctioned) communities of peacemaking, resource-sharing believers. They practised illegal baptism of believers, becoming known as rebaptisers or Anabaptists. They were called sectarian and heretical and were persecuted to death by both Church and state. Their killers included those mainstream reformers, because making Christianity voluntary threatened the ideal that united mainstream Protestants and Catholics of a state Church emcompassing every member of society.
The Reformation principle of semper reformanda (‘Always reforming’) means that the Church evolves through division. My study of the early Church before Emperor Constantine’s conversion and, in later centuries, the autonomous waves of Celtic Christianity tell of geographic independence and voluntary community. The great split between the eastern and western Churches in 1054 over the theology of the creeds demonstrates that sometimes division is needed to follow the Spirit’s leading. So, why airbrush away the Anabaptist radicalism? …
Andrew Francis is a retired minister whose books include Anabaptism: Radical Christianity
This is an extract from the March 2017 edition of Reform.