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The Reformation: Looking Backward to Move Forward

By Tyler Scarlett - August 23rd, 2017

Tyler Scarlett discusses the disunity of the Protestant church as well as the hope for moving forward.

I have six children. Whenever our family circus piles into the minivan, it’s only a matter of time before someone blurts out, “Are we going to Nana’s house? Is it soccer day? Can we go to McDonalds?” Curious little minds constantly want to know “Where are we going?”

Half a millennium ago, a brave monk named Martin Luther dared to ask this same question of Christendom. Granted, the German Reformer may not have fully known where Christianity was headed, but he did know it should not continue along its current trajectory.

Luther loathed much of what he saw being done in the name of Christ. He refused to indulge in indulgences. He was convinced that the Catholics of his day were not catholic enough. And he believed that the true gospel — entombed beneath tradition and politics — was ready to be resurrected. Luther was incensed with the cultural Christianity of his day and resolved to do something about it.

The fire that burned within his bones can be found in the first eleven words of his now-famous Ninety-Five theses. In his preamble, Luther reveals both the ground and goal of his bold act. He wrote, “Out of love for the truth and from a desire to bring it to light...”

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: that’s where the church of Luther’s day needed to be going. Popular Christianity was begging to be reformed into more biblical Christianity. And so, Luther nailed his ideas to the door at Wittenberg sending spiritual shockwaves across Europe and history.

Luther’s conviction regarding the truth is what Protestants everywhere are celebrating this year in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But after centuries of reflection, some wonder if Luther didn’t create more problems than he solved.

In his effort to correct the errors of Catholicism, is it possible that Luther’s movement overcorrected? Historians and theologians agree that the current, fractured landscape of Christianity is not an intended feature of the Reformation but an unintended bug. Where the Medieval Catholic church provided a sense of unity absent the truth, modern Protestantism touts a sense of the truth absent any real unity.

As I said, I have six children. But Luther has effectively fathered millions of Protestant offspring. His Reformational descendants are now gathering in hundreds of separate traditions. Most people call them denominations. Others call them problems.

Two miles separate our church building and my home. In that short distance, I pass all kinds of churches: three non-denominational, a Presbyterian, an Episcopal, a Missionary Alliance, two Methodist, and a Baptist church (not to mention my own). It is clear to me, as one author has noted, that the unavoidable by-product of the Reformation is that “the church became the churches.”1

I drive past these neighboring flocks and wonder about the future of denominationalism. Will this splintering continue? What will the landscape of Christianity look like in the decades ahead? What kind of church (or churches) will my six kids worship in? Exactly five hundred years after Luther, Protestant minds still want to know, “Where are we going?”

Two recent books which bring light and heat to this issue are The End of Protestantism by Peter Leithart2 and Kevin Vanhoozer’s Biblical Authority After Babel3. Both works take a fresh look at the Reformation and its aftermath with an eye toward the future. Each book is heavy on Scripture, footnotes, ideas, and best of all, hope in Christ and His kingdom.

The End of Protestantism?

In the first work, Peter Leithart takes Jesus’ prayer from John 17:21 literally. Our Lord prayed that “those who believe...may all be one; even as You, Father are in Me and I in You.” Jesus prayed for unity among His future followers. Given the denominational schisms that have arisen since 1517, Leithart points out that Jesus’ prayer is still unanswered and that we have a long way to go.

If you’re looking for Leithart to then explain exactly how this grand telos is achieved in our lifetime, you will be disappointed. I don’t think that’s his intention however. In fact, he does something more helpful. Instead of articulating a step-by-step recipe for ecclesia ala King, Leithart oats something beneath our noses that is more alluring: the very aroma of the kingdom of God.

He writes, “What is needed is not a return to one or the other existing churches but faith to walk in a way of being church that does not yet exist.”4 For those interested, I highly recommend reading the third chapter, entitled “A Reformed Church.” Using his sanctified imagination, Leithart envisions a never- before-seen phase in Christianity where believers everywhere are sanctified and edified. It’s not a perfectly unified church, but it is a more unified church. His ideas are a creative, demanding, and inspirational as his vision is rooted in our Lord’s own desire.

Mere Protestantism

Kevin Vanhoozer agrees with Leithart about the problem. Vanhoozer asserts, “It is the standing challenge for the church to display its unity in Christ despite its differences.”5 Where Leithart stirs the imagination to daydream about a new era of Christianity, Vanhoozer engages the mind with more concrete ideas of how to move in that direction within our current context. The way forward, he contends, is for more Protestants to become, what he calls, “mere Protestants.”6

In short, Vanhoozer wants to see churches recapture the essence of the five solas (first championed by the Reformers) as a mutual rallying point. Rightly understood, these five principles become “a hermeneutic tool with which to arbitrate the conflict” between different traditions7. Vanhoozer’s approach is intended to foster a mutual understanding, genuine unity, and a shared interest in defending the truth across denominational lines.

C.S. Lewis proposed that Christianity should be thought of as one giant house with each faith tradition occupying individual rooms inside. Vanhoozer, instead, pictures “various denominations...as houses, and Protestantism as the street. ink of mere Protestant Christianity as a block party — and the neighborhood watch.”8 In other words, by revisiting and dialoguing with one another within the shared interpretive framework of the five solas, the Scriptures can be better understood, celebrated, and believed by everyone.

What is both impressive and refreshing about Vanhoozer’s work, is his emphasis upon the local church. Rather than bemoan evangelicalism and call for a total abandonment of church-as-we-know- it, he does the opposite. He skillfully and pastorally introduces a sixth much-needed sola to the familiar quintet: sola ecclesia.9 The local church, he contends, is where mere Protestantism must be fostered, promoted, and first practiced.

Kingdom-Focused Protestantism

I like to think of myself as a whole-hearted Baptist looking for opportunities to be a big-hearted Baptist. These books, and this year’s celebration of the Reformation, remind me why I need to be both.

As a whole-hearted Baptist, I affirm Vanhoozer and Leithart’s rock-solid commitment to Scripture. They both demonstrate a thoroughly Lutheran commitment to the truth. And yet, for me, this is where the tension lies.10 Denominational differences are real, stark, and at times, glaringly so. How to understand and practice the ordinances, for instance, was even a test of fellowship for Luther, Zwingli and other Reformers. I suspect that such issues will continue to be a major hurdle in the future. Anyone who is committed to their second- tier convictions will find that a permanent, authentic coming-together is more easily described than done.

At the same time, I aim to be a big-hearted Baptist. I regularly remind myself that the Marriage Supper of the Lamb will be far more than a giant Baptist potluck supper. The full kingdom of Christ will be populated by people from every tribe, tongue, and nation which includes different confessional tribes and denominations. When the Methodist church down the street welcomes an atheist-turned-Christian into their fellowship, that’s not a loss for us Baptists; it is a win for the kingdom of God. Celebrating that shared success is charitable, truly Christian, and a step closer to the actual catholic spirit that the Reformers (and these two authors) envisioned.

If Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses made it clear, “That’s the way we shouldn’t be going,” then Leithart and Vanhoozer’s two works are now adding, “And here’s the way we should be going.” These men possess a mutual burden for the church of today to become the church of tomorrow by learning from the church of the past. Protestants everywhere should take note.

Trust me: when a Presbyterian and a Reformed Evangelical can write about a Lutheran in such a way that even a Southern Baptist can applaud, then you know that the spirit of the Reformation is alive and well and that the kingdom is at work.

 

  1. Brad S Gregory, Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 369.
  2.  Peter Leithart, e End of Protestantism (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).
  3.  Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016).
  4.  Leithart, e End of Protestantism, 26.
  5. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel, 31.
  6. Ibid., 3.
  7. Ibid., 29.
  8. Ibid., 33.
  9. Ibid., 29.
  10. For additional such concerns, see Bobby Jamieson, review of Biblical Authority After Babel, 9 Marks, November, 2016, accessed May 1, 2017, https://www.9marks.org/review/21830/.

 

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