The Next 500 Years: Thoughts on the Continuing Reformation

I don’t think about Martin Luther very often. If you asked me to trace my theological family tree, I’d probably forget to mention him.[1] I consider myself more a descendant of people like Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and the rest of the early Anabaptist clan. Anabaptism rallied around the idea that a profession of faith must precede baptism. In other words, infants, being incapable of such a profession, should not be baptized. The first Anabaptists emerged in Switzerland in 1523.[2] They were dramatically persecuted. Many were drowned, consigned to the watery depths by the sinking hulk of the millstones tied to their necks—a cruel interpretation of some of Jesus’ harshest words (Mt. 18:6).

Baptism and its prerequisites, however, were not the only reason they were persecuted. There were two other beliefs that drove those around them mad. First, Anabaptists believed in allegiance to Christ and Christ alone. The period of the Reformation coincided with nationalist movements. Germans, for instance, began to feel very proud of their German blood. They consolidated smaller kingdoms and tribes into one country. These early Germans identified Lutheranism as a key element of German identity. The Anabaptists refused to offer their allegiance to such nationalist movements. They desired to be always strangers in a foreign land. Thus, Catholics and Protestants alike, cast them aside as political traitors. 

Finally, Anabaptists believed in what is called imparted righteousness. Catholics at the time believed in infused righteousness and Protestants believed in imputed righteousness. Infused righteousness means that when we join ourselves to Christ he unites us with him. We become attached to him and his ways. Imputed righteousness is the exact opposite. When we put our faith in Christ nothing about us changes. We remain vile, only when God looks at us, he sees not our vileness but the righteousness of Christ. Anabaptists inhabited a sort of middle ground: when we put our faith in Christ, he begins to share his righteousness with us. We begin to change, immediately.[3]
These three doctrines combined to make the Anabaptists the most reviled of all groups during the Reformation. And they are my forbearers. I continue to hold thoroughly to these three ideas, having been convinced that the Anabaptists best interpreted scripture on these matters. 

It is here where we must remember that Luther re-enters my family tree--whether I like it or not. The reason the Anabaptists had the opportunity to follow their consciences according to their interpretation of scripture relies heavily on Luther’s contribution. It was Luther who popularized the idea that Christian authority derives from the bible and the bible alone. Thus, one of the great dictums of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura. The Anabaptists, and every other non-Catholic group of the day, took Luther at his word and ran with the Word of God. 

While Luther's 95 Theses sparked the Reformation, it was his translation of and relationship with the Bible that forever changed the trajectory of history.
I continue to believe in Sola Scriptura, though sometimes I have my doubts. I worry that people take this idea to mean they can do whatever they please with the written Word. I worry that people read the bible in a vacuum, failing to realize that a great cloud of witnesses and their experiences might aid in a proper interpretation of the Bible. I worry that we will repeat the sins of the past where one people group inculcates their interpretations with their cultural values and then expound upon cultural themes during discipleship and evangelism as if they were the very essence of scripture.
These worries aside, I continue to look to the Bible for guidance. I continue to mine the mind of Christ evident in the text, hoping to find myself more imparted with his righteousness; more set aside from the way of the world. 

As you can see, I owe the Reformation a great deal—even Martin Luther. Many of the tenets of the Reformation have shaped the most crucial parts of my unfolding ministry. And yet I wonder about the Reformation’s future. I wonder about the next five hundred years. 

The last five hundred years have been true to the name given it: Protestant. Lots and lots of “protest.” Lutherans protesting Catholics. Presbyterians protesting Anglicans. Congregationalists protesting Presbyterians. Evangelicals protesting all of them. Sola Scriptura being the main cause for each protest movement. Luther believed he’d discovered the real meaning of scripture which obliged him to break from Rome.[4] Presbyterians protested Anglicans because they believed they’d found the Bible’s real method for organizing the Church. So on and so forth. 

I hope the next five hundred years are not so much a reformation of protest as a reformation of cooperation. History proves, at least for me, that unity on the interpretation of scripture is beyond our earthly frailty. Only in the final and eternal reign of Christ will we come together as one in practice and doctrine. Perhaps over the next five hundred years we can learn to patiently endure our different approaches to the Book. Perhaps we can learn to work together in the midst of our disagreements.
The crisis in Syria roils now into its seventh year. Millions have fled the violence. Our grandchildren will most certainly read about the refugee crisis—as it is the greatest of its kind in modern history. What if denominations said, you know what, we can’t agree on how we benefit from Christ’s righteousness, but we can all agree that we wish to not be the Scribe who passed beaten man along the road. We together can be the Samaritan.
Human trafficking and its consequences are an unparalleled social disaster. Every major Christian denomination has its own taskforce for opposing it. What if in the next five hundred years we began to care less about the good press generated by our solitary work on the subject and more about the aggregate affect we could have by linking resources? What if we laid aside our sense of biblical baptism in order to join hands in a fight that is clearly in line with Jesus’ care for the hurting?

We could do these things without undoing Sola Scriptura. In fact, I think we could utilize Sola Scriptura to aid us in our Cooperative Reformation. In our linking arms for unifying work we could invite patient and civil dialogue about the Bible. We could fearlessly engage in biblical study together. We need only to set aside our pride. 

There are optimistic signs for the future. Just recently Pope Francis praised John Wesley, another of my theological ancestors, for his dedication to leading people to a personal relationship with Christ. A Pope praising one of the founders of Evangelicalism is a big deal. We should rejoice that perhaps the Spirit is drawing us together again. 

All the same, there remain harbingers of another five centuries of mutual protest. We continue to be swept down the rivers of pride and tribalism. We continue to blame the Bible for our self-aggrandizing pontifications and the resulting divisions. We continue to cast derision upon those whose theological lineage lies far afield from our own family tree. Perhaps it’s time for a different approach. Perhaps it’s time we stop with the protesting and start with the cooperating.[5]

[1] In case you have no idea why I’m writing about Martin Luther: on this day (October 31st) in 1517, Luther publicly shared a document call his 95 Theses. Generally speaking this marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, where a handful of Christian groups began to break away from the Roman Catholic Church in Europe.
[2] They split off as their own group in 1523, though they didn’t baptize anyone until January of 1525.
[3] This is an essential precursor to what became known as the Holiness Movement. A movement of which I continue to be a part.
[4] To be fair, that’s not entirely his fault. He didn’t set out to break away. Dubious and powerful forces within the Roman Catholic hierarchy ensured there would be no future for Luther in the Roman Church. On the hand, I think Luther rather relished in the resulting division.
[5] I’m not suggesting that we stop disagreeing and just accept every doctrine as true—in case that isn’t clear. I still think we must follow our consciences. I think we must continue to hold to our convictions. I just think it’s time to stop insisting that my holding to my convictions means I must break off all relationships with others who continue to hold to Christ as Lord. Holding to my beliefs does not entitle me to disrespect, divisive language, or self-glorifying statements. People will always disagree with me about major, and important, theological subjects. In all honesty, their disagreements with me may very well end up in their eternal separation from Christ. Or vice versa. But it will be Christ who shall decide that we must part ways. For it is only him who can separate the wheat from the tares. In the meantime, we could reach our hand in fellowship to those who call Jesus Lord and probably do some really good work in His name together.   


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