Celebrating the Reformation
31 October 2017 will be an important date. It will mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door – the event that is now recognised as beginning the Protestant Reformation.
Here at Thinking of God, we’re so Protestant, we couldn’t wait! We’re going to start the celebrations eleven months early! Our theme this year is Pro-Testify. We’re here to celebrate the heritage of the Protestant Reformation, and its recovery the Biblical gospel.
But we’re not mere traditionalists. If all we did was look backwards, and glory in the past, then we would be guilty of precisely the kind of hide-bound traditionalism that the Protestants protested against!
We look back to our Protestant forebears to remind ourselves – how could they see that the established, institutional church of their time had muddied the scriptural gospel with centuries of human tradition? What gave them that clarity of view? What was the lodestar, the compass, that guided them as they peeled back those layers of confusion to recover the gospel Christ entrusted to his followers – the gospel that the church should faithfully preserve and pass on, not obscure?
And what motivated them to challenge the established church, with its wealth and power? What would make ministers and scholars, who depended on the institutional church for their livelihood, oppose that church institution? Remember, Calvin was a Frenchman! He wound up in Geneva as a refugee! John Knox, the Scottish reformer, spent time as a galley slave. A few years ago, when I was in England, I visited Oxford. I stood on the little cross in the market square which marks where the English reformers – Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer – were executed. And I tried to imagine their last sight of this world – of the crowds jeering, and the flames leaping around them and searing their flesh. What could motivate people to go through that kind of suffering? What could ‘radicalise’ them like that?
Only a conviction that in recovering the scriptures, they had recovered the original, scriptural gospel. And in recovering that scriptural gospel, they were the true heirs of the one, true, apostolic church.
We look back so that we can move forward. Western society is becoming increasingly anti-Christian. In developing nations, persecution of Christians is on the rise. We hear about what IS has done to Christians in Syria and Iraq. Don’t forget that crosses and church buildings have been torn down in many parts of China. I have seen a video of Buddhist monks leading a riotous mob to smash up a church building in my homeland, Sri Lanka.
How can we respond? What will give us a clear view of the gospel? What will be the lodestar, the compass, which guides us to proper ministry, which appropriately responds to our increasingly conflicted, contested situation? And what will motivate us to give ourselves – sacrificially, painfully – to the task of ministering this gospel?
We at Thinking of God find the answers in the dynamics of Reformed Theology. After the early days of the Reformation, the newly Reformed churches were stabilised by the production of confessions which summarised the Reformed faith, and nourished through liturgical and devotional resources which sought to inculcate this Reformed Christian faith in churches and individual Christians.
Thinking of God exists to propagate this kind of confessional Reformed Christianity. We dare to believe that the truths common to the great confessions accurately summarise what the Bible teaches about God, humanity, and our world. We dare to think that ministry shaped by these confessional truths, and guided by the liturgical and devotional resources which seek to express these truths, will best serve the Biblical gospel – it will best will best make people Christian, grow them as Christians, and lead them to worship God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love their neighbour as themselves. Thinking of God dares to believe that confessional Reformed Christianity is the true heir of the Protestant Reformation.
Thinking of God therefore also dares to claim confessional Reformed theology as the most consistent expression of evangelicalism. Who or what is an ‘evangelical’? I’m sure many of us are familiar with David Bebbington’s fourfold sociological description of an evangelical: a person who is centred on the atoning work of Christ on the cross (‘crucicentric’); convinced of the divine authority of the Bible (‘Biblicist’), convinced of the need for a personal decision to follow Christ (‘conversionist’); and deliberate in working out their faith in public, through evangelism and social work (‘activism’).
Less helpfully, we have seen the news report how Americans who identify as ‘evangelicals’ voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. ‘Evangelicalism’ has therefore come to mean white, racist, protectionist misogyny.
Thinking of God dares to believe that confessional Reformed Christianity is the most consistent expression of the gospel originally entrusted by Christ to his Apostles, and through them to his church. This is not to put Reformed doctrine over the Bible – on the contrary, one of the characteristics of Reformed theology is its constant return to the scriptures, its value of grounding its theology in the dynamics of the Scriptures as the God’s word to, and covenantal rule over, his church and world. It is not to say that churches that identify as ‘Reformed’ are the only true church. It is to claim that the dynamics that characterise Reformed theology and ministry are the most consistent expression of the scriptural gospel – Reformed theology and ministry is the truest, the best, expression of the gospel today.
This is why the theme for our conference is Pro-Testify. We look back to the Protestant Reformation because we dare to believe that this kind of Christianity will best nourish the church of the 21st century. It has done so for 499 years. We expect it to continue to do so for centuries more. In the dynamics of that Reformation – in its recovery of the Bible, and of the Biblical gospel – we will find resources to serve the church of today – resources to discern the true gospel of the one true God in Christ; to guide and shape our ministries according to that gospel; and motivate us in the costly task of serving the Christ of that gospel. And in serving Christ our Lord, we serve his church – the church he loves, and shed his blood for.