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  • Added March 14th, 2017
  • Filed under 'All Sorts'
  • Viewed 790 times

THE REFORMATION Half a millennium since it started still needing twi

By David Kitchingman in All Sorts

The Reformation was not only an historical event with repercussions still being worked through today, but that further reformation as now required is of a very different order.

THE REFORMATION Half a millennium since it started - still needing twice the momentum
In this first 'Connections' for 2017, let's mark one of its biggest anniversaries. It's now 500 years since Martin Luther is considered to have ushered in the Protestant Reformation. The exact date of his Ninety-five Theses was 31 October 1517, when he may have nailed them on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany.

The precipitating practice that angered Luther was the selling of indulgences, whereby the Church traded remission of punishment for sins. Luther's supreme courage and level of critical analysis come through clearly, but the Theses can also make for depressing reading - revealing not just the pettifogging legalism of the theology of the time, but that even the reformer himself couldn't but be trapped to some degree by the underlying mechanistic concept of what faith is all about.
A modern 'translation' of the Theses, such as by C.N. Trueman, helps to penetrate the outer layer of 16th century preoccupations through to the more abiding issues. Here are the first three Theses according to Trueman:
1. When Jesus said 'repent' he meant that believers should live a whole life repenting. 2. Only God can give salvation - not a priest. 3. Inward penitence must be accompanied with a suitable change in lifestyle.
Compare No. 3 with an older and more literal translation: '[The word repent] does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.' These few samples may suffice to give something of the flavour of the massive onslaught Luther mounted against the Church's failings as he perceived them.
Last month, as it happened, I also posted a notice on the door of a church - Mornington Methodist in Dunedin. But don't panic! It was very innocuous. It merely itemized times and places of worship during January. Nevertheless, it faintly echoed a surviving effect of the standoff between Luther and his ecclesiastical superiors which led to schism within the Church. The fault lines that began to show up in Europe in 1517 are still detectable if one considers who are most at ease in worshipping with whom on the other side of the world five centuries later. We do have some rare joint observances with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but our combined services in January have operated only with Anglicans and Presbyterians.
So just how much have old wounds healed? A lot, even in my own lifetime. I can recall suspicion and friction in the 1940s between my primary school and our neighbouring Catholic school. I well remember a fervent fellow Methodist in the 1960s who became much more agitated when speaking about Catholicism than on any other topic. Yet that was also the time of the Second Vatican Council and things began to change.
A Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, for example, has now been running for more than 50 years. That seems an awfully long time to be talking, but it has produced some notable results. In 1999 the two churches signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and in 2015 they issued the 'Declaration on the Way' to mark a pathway toward greater visible unity between Catholics and Lutherans. Given the animosity over past centuries, these have been no mean achievements. This coming October, Pope Francis will go to Sweden to attend an ecumenical commemoration of the start of the Reformation, with leaders of the Lutheran World Federation and representatives of other Churches.
Methodism has also been involved in various ways. In 2006, the World Methodist Council, meeting in Seoul, South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. If you don't remember the Dunedin celebration at the time that may be because there wasn't one - the niceties of justification theology are not high on our liberal agenda. But nonetheless there is an ongoing high level New Zealand dialogue between the Catholic and Methodist churches. A recent symbolic gesture of mutual appreciation has been
the exchange of liturgical taonga, including some of the work of our own Colin Gibson.
So far, so good, one might say. Perhaps we are at last moving 'from conflict to communion', as one of the joint study documents has expressed it. But it would be misleading, in my view, to suggest that formal progress, as instanced above, towards resolving longstanding arguments between branches of the Christian Church is where our energies should be most directed. The 16th century Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation that followed it were manifestations of the Zeitgeist of the time, and to a large extent now risk leading us down a blind alley.
So, as hinted at in the heading above, I would want to argue that the Reformation was not only an historical event with repercussions still being worked through today, but that further reformation as now required is of a very different order. However, space is rapidly running out before I can post that thesis, and the ninety four others that may be needed to back it up. Fortunately, the quincentenary observance of the most notable reformation so far will continue throughout the year, so perhaps I can wait until my turn comes round again for a Connections contribution to see if 95 times 10 (average words per thesis) can fit into a standard length Bulletin.
David Kitchingman