Even though I belong to the church that bears his name, I have a love/hate relationship with Martin Luther. Being a chronic legalist, his story of discovering God’s grace challenges my whole notion that I have to somehow ‘earn’ God’s love. But on the other hand, Luther’s anti-Semitism kinda ruins the whole grace thing. Love him or hate him, Luther is apart of the church’s history, so I try to learn from both his positive and negative aspects.
Another negative connotation to the Reformation is how a lot of Calvinists and discernment bloggers talk about the Reformation. If you didn’t know anything about the Reformation before reading either Mark Driscoll or John Piper, you would assume that the Reformation was when Martin Luther set up a laundry list of narrowly-defined doctrines in order to protect the church from liberalism. But that’s not what happened at all. During the early sixteenth century, the Catholic Church was selling indulgences, which were little pieces of paper you could buy that told you that you are saved. Basically it means buying your way to Heaven. That’s why Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, to protest against the use of indulgences.
One of the principals of reformed theology is semper reformans, semper reformanda: “the church is always reformed and always reforming.” A lot of Reformed Christians remember the first and forget the last. The church is like any species; it has to evolve and adapt in order to survive. And part of that evolutionary process involves rethinking our doctrines.
In his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, Brian McLaren wonders if “we are on the verge of the Great Reformulation.” For McLaren, the problem isn’t with the doctrines themselves, but the way we understand the doctrines. For example, most Christians understand the doctrine of original sin like this: ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, every human being hates God from birth, and deserves nothing but Hell. Our sin was so terrible that God had to pour out God’s entire wrath onto the Son, Jesus, so only the elected that believe in Jesus can escape Hell and this cruel world.
Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a little bit, but you get the point.
McLaren sees things differently. He writes, “It might help to think in terms of copying a document or file: all sin today is a copy, an imitation, a replication of this original departure from the aboriginal goodness.” So in other words, we keep repeating our ancestors’ mistakes—walking away from God—in a never-ending cycle. When Jesus died on the cross, he didn’t just give us a free ticket out of Hell; through the cross, Jesus frees us from the cycle of repeating our ancestors’ sin.
And it’s that kind of freedom that I think Luther had in mind. Freedom doesn’t come from getting all your doctrines in a row like ducks. According to Jurgen Moltmann, “Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things,’ God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it is preyed upon by fear.” In other words, this obsession with ‘doctrinal purity’ is nothing more than a reaction to a world of change and uncertainty, or what many conservative Christians consider to be ‘an evil generation.’ Unfortunately, by obsessing over doctrine, the Christian doctrines become a new form of legalism that separates ‘the good people’ from ‘the bad people.’
So maybe a Reformulating Church is a continuation of Luther’s original message: salvation by faith through grace alone.
What does a Reformulating Church look like to you?
1. http://americanvision.org/907/always-reformed-always-reforming/ 2. Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World (New York: Jericho Books, 2012), 157. 3. Ibid., 112. 4. Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1974), 19.