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Reformation Today

by Frederick Herzog

Dr. Herzog was professor of systematic theology at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina, at the time this article was written. This article appeared in the Christian Century October 27, 1982, p. 1078.  Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Reformation today is an issue raised every now and then among Protestants. Is not the church always in need of Reformation? Are we not heirs of an “unfinished Reformation”?

The 500th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther’s birth is November 10, 1983. Meanwhile, Luther birthday celebrations are being planned everywhere in Protestantism -- some very official (for example, the Lutheran festivities in the German Democratic Republic under the aegis of Communist Party chief Erich Honecker), others more subdued and informal. My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, will share in a small consultation in the summer of 1983.

Each Protestant denomination relates differently to Luther’s Reformation. The Lutherans, of course, can bask in the fullness of his heritage. The United Church of Christ has a composite Reformation heritage. Through the evangelical part of its past it brings Luther’s contribution directly into play today. Its Reformed heritage draws on John Calvin, who mediated Luther’s impact through new forms of Protestantism in Switzerland and France. Through the UCC’s roots in the Congregational Churches, free-church tendencies of the English Reformation are handed on as native Anglo-Saxon traditions. The James O’Kelly Christian Church, which represents an important southern heritage of the United Church of Christ, underscores other nonhierarchical biblical Reformation concerns by viewing the Scriptures as “the only creed, a sufficient rule of faith and practice.” The UCC’s composite Reformation heritage still offers energy for church renewal -- if only we knew how to tap it. In bringing about one of the great ecumenical goals -- multilateral and bilateral conversations between denominations developing a common confession of faith -- the UCC may have a Reformation role to play today.

There is an obvious difference between our time and the time of the Reformation. Luther’s age was one of great controversy. As we ponder the bilateral Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue results (presented in Lantana, Florida, by Bishop Hans L. Martensen of Copenhagen and George A. Lindbeck of Yale March 13, 1981), we enter a different world. Now we hear of hopes for mutual acknowledgment, eucharistic intercommunion and full communion in ministry. Both dialogue partners rejoice in the already prevailing respect for the ministerial office on both sides and a significant measure of commonality in faith.

It is a truism that the ecumenical age has replaced controversy with dialogue -- at least among those churches that emerged from the Reformation. In Luther’s day it was utterly clear that there was an enemy: the pope, works righteousness, etc. Today the notion of a religious enemy is obsolete. That the devil is still prowling around “like a roaring lion, seeking some to devour” (I Pet. 5:8) is, of course, still as much the case as it was in Luther’s day. Yet we are not inclined to look for the devil in the pope or the Curia.

There is no essential doctrine that still sets the churches apart. Reformation-today is concerned with some of the very things Luther and the other Reformers were still clinging to. The Reformers still belonged to the great age of faith. The Reformation brought in a preoccupation with faith. It got to be almost a fixation in Protestantism, so that the great Friedrich Schleiermacher could write his main doctrinal work on the Christian faith. Has faith been stressed too much?

Since the Reformation was great in stating its faith, there are many Protestants who think we are most Protestant when we issue new statements of faith in order to manifest what Christianity is all about. The United Church of Christ General Synod XIII in 1981 passed a resolution on the collaborative development of a new Statement of Faith “to the end that the United Church of Christ respond faithfully and sensitively to the heartfelt need for a theologically sound and inclusive expression of our faith today.” The 1959 United Church of Christ Statement of Faith might well be understood as having already fulfilled this function.

The UCC’s struggle with yet another new Statement of Faith is of wider interest because the whole ecumenical movement tends in that direction. The World Council of Churches Commission on Faith and Order has begun preliminary studies toward developing a common confession of faith. But what if we decided that we do not need a new statement? Unfortunately, the 1959 UCC Statement of Faith has attained quasi-creedal status for some UCC people, and functions in a number of churches as a kind of modern confession test. And the likelihood is that any new statement of faith -- whether denominational or worldwide ecumenical -- would be written by a committee. Even a committee (or commission) can find a beautiful turn of phrase. But we need to ask ourselves whether committee language does justice to an embodiment of the Christian life.

The true “creeds” of today are bled out of the sufferings of the martyrs in the church of the oppressed. Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino reminds us of the second century Christian Irenacus, who claimed: Gloria Dei vivens homo, the glory of God is that the human being will live. Sobrino goes on to say that Archbishop Oscar Romero, before he was killed in San Salvador, reformulated the thought: Gloria Dei vivens pauper, the glory of God -- that God be God -- is that the poor live. I do not know how we North American, well-to-do Christians will be able to give adequate expression to the martyr witness that is becoming the dominant voice in the church as a whole. Instead of climaxing in committee formulation, Christian faith erupts in sacrifice. The suffering of our sisters and brothers presses us first of all not into further faith explorations, but into mission -- sharing in God’s struggle for holiness and justice throughout the world.

Statements of faith in the West thus far have used predominantly concept language. There is nothing wrong with concise concepts. But the idea long ago prevailed among theologians that this was the way faith was best presented. Today we have to raise a caveat. David Tracy in The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (Crossroad, 1981) underscores the notion of doctrine as only one genre of faith expression: “At the same time, doctrines as abstract, are relatively less adequate as expression than the originating metaphorical or symbolic language.” The martyr church compels us to pay more attention to the metaphorical language of the Scriptures. While it is not predominantly conceptual, the language of the Christian Scriptures does contain sound teaching nonetheless. In its sufferings, the martyr church acknowledges the truths of God in unique sensitivity to what builds up human dignity. In being involved in mission we too experience God working for holiness and justice in history -- which in turn shapes our discipleship. This is where the Reformation continues. We are not expected, in a kind of intellectual works righteousness, to systematize the contents of our faith time and again in statements of faith. We are called on to clarify what God in the historical labor for holiness and justice wrests from us as sound teaching.

If there is any one change emerging in re-experiencing the Reformation tradition today, it revolves around this issue of sound teaching. We have not been able to get our hands on the change yet. We are moving away from the notion of Christianity as a body of theoretical truths, while at the same time retaining the power of God’s truth in discipleship. The United Church of Christ is merely one prism through which we can see God’s light breaking through in new ways. In other denominations similar things are happening. In the UCC time and again we see the notion arise that we do not have a live enough theological debate; critics say the lack reflects theological mediocrity. Thus writes Louis H. Gunneman in the June issue of AD. magazine: “The theological promise exhibited when the United Church of Christ was founded in Cleveland in 1957 remains in large part unfulfilled.” The issue is whether we are looking for the fulfillment in the right place.

The nature of theology itself is changing. Theology is not a word that appears in the Christian Scriptures. In the United Church of Christ it primarily means reflection by a trained Christian professional. Yet increasingly it also covers reflective efforts in which theologically untrained Christians are involved. The result is usually supposed to be a system that offers a fair coherence of Christian ideas otherwise freely floating around in the denomination. But the system has no binding character. In fact, a sort of laissez-faire mentality forces on us the competition of various systems in the free market of ideas. We are left with more or less freewheeling faith explorations. The greatest built-in drawback of this situation is the implication that these ideas are all theory eagerly awaiting application. Our theological task is expected to be development of a theoretical construct that ought to be applied. But we have countless such constructs floating around, all competing with each other. For that reason, it is helpful to drop the word theology for the time being, and the demand for “theological excellence” as well.

Sound teaching today stands for the great reversal of the sequence, from theory to praxis. Over the years, the UCC has issued teachings that grew out of practice, as we moved from social concern to social concern. We had not fully realized that we alt have to battle for mutual accountability to these teachings as a coherent whole, as we share in God’s justice struggle. “Sound teaching” is the name for the mandate that we have to become accountable to each other for the unity of God’s truths. We have not as yet grasped that this is the continuing Reformation among us. We have not as yet become fully conscious of what we are doing in terms of growing mutual responsibility.

The Reformation is continuing among us as our living out of discipleship precedes any conventional theological exploration. Right now we need new statements of faith like a hole in the head. In mission, we are already offering teachings. The next crucial step is becoming mutually accountable to these teachings in critical assessment, with the Scriptures as a criterion of the historical struggle. The more we become aware of the new dynamics, the less we will be inclined to self-deprecation. Gunnemann rightly notes a “spiritual and theological malaise undercutting the United Church of Christ identity and purpose.” Yet the malaise; in my opinion, is a reflection not of any great omission, but of our inability to be mutually accountable to our mission.

Any national body of a denomination passes resolutions and pronouncements galore on such matters as abortion, ecology, the handicapped, Salvadoran refugees, black children, voting rights, sexuality and the Middle East. But in the UCC (as in other denominations) only a very few have the faintest notion of how all these gestures of good will amount to a total world view. I surely don’t. We do not explain holistically the mechanisms of the destruction of human integrity in modern society. And when, as in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, one attempts to grasp the oneness of life, the effort is split up into “Doctrine and Doctrinal Statements” on the one hand, and the “Social Principles” on the other. The last thing I wish to suggest is that the doctrinal and the social ought to be merged, so that ethics would absorb systematic theology. The point of the Reformation today is to learn how the new dogmatics grows out of new discipleship of the church in the global village -- not vice versa.

The denominations are still caught in the idea of applying the doctrine or the social principles. As a consequence, some Christians try (in the manner of single-issue politics) to get a single point across on abortion, busing or pornography. But hardly anyone seems to notice that all this application is being made in the framework of an utterly secular understanding of who the human being is.

We need to pay attention to this blind spot. Developing programmatic Reformation schemes will not help. We need to get in touch with the Reformation already happening. We will be constantly surprised by what has started taking place in the local congregation if we but look. Here a minister is drawing together sound teachings needed by the congregation to withstand the vagaries of religion-for-profit in American culture. There a group of committed souls publishes a regional summary for confirmation instruction, offering sound teachings worked out together with young people. In these groupings of sensitive people we learn that we cannot progress unless we all turn to a new vision of the human being. We certainly cannot continue with “business as usual.”

There are those, for example, who are deadly frightened by the awesome growth in drug use among high school and even younger students, and by the easy availability of pornography for young people. A change in self-image is most crucial for people who abuse their bodies and souls ‘‘commercially” or engage in that kind of traffic; without it, legal stoppage remains a Band-Aid measure. Most of us unconsciously shape ourselves in the image of “economic man.” We are blind to our loyalty to laissez-faire capitalist values. We are self-indulgent as church people. Why should we leave it to artists to tell the truth? Bob Dylan sings:

Oh the flowers of indulgence
and the weeds of yesteryear
like criminals they have choked
the breath of conscience in good cheer
[“Every Grain of Sand”]

 

It is a “spiritual criminality” that has deadened our sensitivity to who we are as human beings in our culture. That dullness, that criminality is gnawing away at our human substance.

No single person can hope to turn the tide. This is the time for the whole people of God to stand up and move church and society in a new direction. With Bob Dylan, we need to confess: “Like Cain I now behold the chain of events that I must break.” The budding lay movement for the ministry of the whole people of God is a sign of great hope. Many laypeople realize that we are beginning from scratch with understanding what it means to be a person in this society. It is the simple point that the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made when he said that every generation has to be converted again. Whatever is already happening in this regard in the lay movement needs to be pulled together more and more accountably as sound teaching, replacing “economic man” with the just person. Caring for creation and human community in the global village involves a unified life view which can overcome alienation and disintegration.

The lay movement struggling to understand what it means to be disciples in the international context reminds us that discipleship is not activism. The struggle for a new spirituality in the peace movement, for example, shows that we are committed to the Reformation for the balance of our lives. We cannot skip from cause to cause, but rather need to work for shalom patiently, step by step, on grounds of sound teaching about just peace.

We cannot stress enough how much we are in the beginnings. Our best efforts are still full of loopholes. The issue is to see how shalom is tied into the fight against drug addiction, carnage on our highways due to alcoholism, ecology, commercial sex, oppression of women, racism and the whole range of evils that fills our news on the airwaves and in print. But if a secular grass-roots movement like the Nuclear Freeze Campaign can produce a rationale for global peace, then we already have a model of accountability.

Something similar has to happen in the churches so that we address all life-and-death issues concerning the health of society. God’s truths need to be put before us as a unit embracing the whole of our life. We need to continue work already begun by lay-people everywhere on a holistic depiction of God’s grass-roots strivings for holiness and justice in history. God calls for a much more corporate expression of our solidarity with the poor and defeated, the losers as well as the lost. It is precisely in achieving this identity with them that we will realize that there can be no peace without justice. Just at this point, we will experience Reformation today.


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