Dead history or living future? – part 2
In this month we mark the 500th anniversary of what became known as the Protestant Reformation, as reformers protested against the abuses they saw in the established, Roman church. History can be viewed and analysed in various ways and we need to think prayerfully about how the church came to be in such need of reform, and what continuing reformation we need to experience.
An example of a fairly common approach to the past 2,000 years is to view the church as declining into error very quickly after New Testament times and to see church history as falling into two simple eras: pre- and post-Reformation. On this view, the basic grid for understanding scripture would be as set out by Calvin in the generation after Luther.
Another approach would be to see the church as one, united institution that was needlessly torn apart by the influence of very secular human authorities sponsoring the Reformers, when it could have been reformed by the activities of monastic or lay renewal movements (and the church still needs reform).
There is a more “progressive” understanding of reform that sees various movements in church history recovering aspects of truth lost since the Early Church. This broad approach can be used in different ways but I am convinced it is the most fruitful. Typically, we look at the past from the perspective of marginalised groups, apparently powerless from a human point of view, rather than from the perspective of the dominant forces. Doing this it is possible to discern many aspects of church life recognisable in the New Testament but often missing from the dominant organisations calling themselves churches.
Examples of reform movements would be
many of the monastic movements from the Sixth Century onwards,
the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus in the Fourteenth Century
the Anabaptists in the Sixteenth Century
Baptists and Quakers in the Seventeenth Century
Wesleyan revivalists in the Eighteenth Century
the Brethren and Salvation Army in the Nineteenth Century
the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in the Twentieth Century.
From this perspective it is possible to see many aspects of New Testament Christianity that were lost by the institutional church but were discovered afresh by various reform groups. One example is the simple truth that church is made up of all those who choose to be disciples of Jesus – we cannot be forced to join the church and cannot be prevented from being part of the church spiritually. It seems obvious to us. We take it for granted. But many martyrs were burned at the stake or beheaded by so-called “Christian” authorities for daring to suggest this.
There are many other examples of reform movements, often less well known. In fact there have been radical movements looking to the New Testament rather than their church traditions for inspiration in every generation. Ordinary people reading scripture together with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can re-discover truth in the New Testament if only they determine to put it into practice. Reading and praying together rather than just on our own amplifies the voice of the Holy Spirit.
As the theologian Karl Barth wrote, “the reformed church must always be reformed.” There is always more to be reformed until the church truly reflects not just the New Testament church we read of in Acts but reaches the maturity that the New Testament church longed for: see Paul’s words in Eph 4:11-16.
So as we mark the 500th anniversary, let’s read scripture prayerfully together to seek all the truth that God has to reveal and bring us into!