Nov 11, 2016
Is a new Reformation needed?
Presented at Good Shepherd Lutheran Hall 23 Glenvale Rd, Harristown QLD Australia 4350 11/11/2016
as part of a Christians in Dialogue meeting in preparation for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
I am part of an unusual group. Once a week a group gets together to discuss a book with Christian or theological themes or to study the Bible. The group includes one atheist, a couple who might be described as liberal or progressive, two to three other people of moderate views and me. If I had to put myself in a box I would describe myself as evangelical and reformed but not fundamentalist.
As a group we have read a number of books by authors as diverse as John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Bart Erhman, NT Wright, Robin Myers, and CS Lewis. Sometimes the discussion is very robust. Usually we are on good terms but occasionally we lose our tempers. I believe I am the worst offender, the chief of sinners in this regard. We usually enjoy a splendid morning tea.
One of our main topics is that of the nature of God and God’s relationship to Jesus. Another is how relevant God and the church is and how relevant our particular view of God is. Often our conversations centre over doctrine and dogma, our beliefs about things. Was Jesus really the Son of God, God incarnate, truly God and human in one person or was he a human being who was just more in tune with the divine than most of us.
Do we need a revolution or a re-formation in our understanding of God and the church which exists in God’s name? Is God up in the clouds, up there, out there, other, or is God the depth or Ground of being, to be found as the divine spark of being in every human soul? Can we believe all that stuff about God being, three yet one, and in the miraculous? Who could believe in the resurrection of Jesus let alone the general resurrection of the body at the end of time?
In the late 60s there was a watershed in the church in the West and in western culture. From then and through the 1970s large numbers of people, baby boomers in particular stopped going to church. The causes of this are somewhat difficult to identify. People like Bishop Robinson with his Honest to God and following in his footsteps Spong and Robin Myers argue that the cause of this exodus was that no-one could believe that stuff anymore. Picking up the ideas of Tillich and others they argue that we have an outmoded view of God which leads us to be inward looking and to focus all our attention on salvation rather than on the world, and our neighbours. The title of Myers’ book, “Saving Jesus from the Church: how to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus” is an expression of this. Although I’ve not read it Spong’s Christianity must change or die picks up similar themes.
In contrast in both Protestant and Catholic circles there has been an opposite reaction to the kind of thing represented by Spong, Myers and others. The problem with the church, some argue is that it has become too liberal, too progressive. Conservative Protestants and Pentecostals argue we must return to the fundamentals of the faith. We must hold to a literal reading of the creeds as a test of small “o” orthodox faith. The Bible is the “word for word” inspired word of God dictated by the Holy Spirit, and is not only without error but is mostly to be read very literally. The problem is, they argue, that we have abandoned the well spring of truth and cut of from that truth, of course we are withering from thirst without the water of life. On the other hand there are Catholics who wish to return to the Latin right and feel that it was the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are where all the rot set in. The church was strong in the 60s. In the year of my birth 1967 Pius XII seminary peaked with 134 students, the churches wore packed and the service was in Latin including the reading of the Scripture and the priest faced away from the people, often behind a screen. It was in the same year when this all changed that the church began to decline, they argue.
I can not speak for the Catholic church, but it seems to me that for us Protestants at least that we actually need to take a longer view. The figures are very rubbery but in Australia and in the UK at least the high water marks for the churches was really around 1900 and the 1950s and early 1960s. Between the wars there seems to have been quite a lull but when world war 2 came the churches filled and remained full to overflowing right through to the 1960s. If anything protestant theology was more liberal from the 19th century through to the mid 20th century than it is now.
Some time in the early 1900s Presbyterian churches seemed to abandon the saying of the creeds, in 1934 one of my predecessors at St Stephen’s elected moderator of the New South Wales Assembly argued “the need for a restatement of Presbyterian beliefs in the light of modern knowledge... He declared that many of the old beliefs were rendered impossible by the teaching of modern science.” (Canberra Times 16 May 1934) He went on to ask “Is religion the only one that must lag behind because it is tied to a, chariot wheel of outworn creeds?" (Ibid) This view about creeds and so on goes back much earlier, as early as the 17th century. Most famously William Wilberforce did not receive his degree from Cambridge until years after he earned it. It was a requirement that in order to receive your degree you had to agree to the Creed. It was not until his evangelical conversion that he was able to sign off on the creed. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was always a man of principle.
The liberal project that had it’s beginning in the 17th century was losing momentum by the interwar period. It reached it’s climax with people like Bultmann and von Harnack. It was reexpressed by people like Tillich and Robinson, and in more recent years by Borg, Spong and Myers. There was a feeling after world war one and especially after the horrors of world war two that the liberal project had failed. The liberal German church had not stood up in either World War One or Two and it did not seem to be able to cope with the evils either of war or the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust. In response to these failures the theologies of Barth - Dogmatics , Moltmann - The Crucified God, Pannenberg - Jesus God and Man and TF Torrence Space Time and the Incarnation were born. These theologians all returned to the central figure of Jesus as the primary source of our knowledge of, our connection with, and our salvation by God. Revelation was firmly back in the centre. We only truly know God because God is revealed to us, not because we can find God within ourselves or creation. God may be there but God is only revealed to us in Jesus who in turn is ultimately revealed in the Bible. The Uniting church’s founding document strongly influenced by Barth puts it like this: When we preach Christ our preaching is to be “controlled by the Biblical witnesses”. (Basis of Union Paragraph 5)
I may be very wrong but I believe that the maiin reasons people no longer attend church is because of the shift from the coporate to the individual and away from the community and the corporate and an increase in affluence which means that we don’t think we need God. We create our own meaning and if there is a problem, the government, the doctor, our health insurance, our savings etc. will rescue us. Life is about self realization. What the church teaches whether it is Catholic, or Protestant, Pentecostal or Eastern Orthodox, is God realization. That is God’s love for us is a gift in Jesus Christ. We go on to say that in the light of this gift we should stop living for ourselves, stop trying to create our own meaning, and live to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.
It is not surprising therefore that in Australia at least 47% of non attenders give the reason that church is “irrelevant to my life” as the main reason they do not attend church. The same research indicated that only 14% do not attend because they do not believe in Jesus and the Bible. ( ‘Social Change, Spiritual Trends: Christianity in Australia Today’ Mccrindle Research 2012(??)) The truth is the church gives away (or as a Protestant I would say advertises) a free product that much of Western culture does not want to buy. Instead of self fulfilment we present a God filling life of community. Instead of offering people a better way to go their own way we tell people about the way of Jesus. We tell people that “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and gave us his son as the means by which our sin might be forgiven. If God has loved us this much, then we should love one another.” So not only do we tell them they can not create their own meaning and value because it is a gift, we tell them that they must live for the other, for God and for their neighbour.
So do we need a new re-formation? One answer might be to say that we need to give the culture what it wants; we need to become a self help and self realisation organisation. You will not be surprised to learn that, that is not my view. I think at times though this is what we do. We try to make the church relevant telling people that if they join us they will live longer, be more prosperous, be happier and find their unique God given purpose for the fulfilment of their lives.
Another approach might be to ask ourselves if we are really striving to point beyond ourselves to God and our neighbour, and equipping ourselves to tell that story and live that truth outside the walls of our buildings?
In recent decades there has been a realisation that there is a profound interconnectedness in the created world. A photon separated by hundreds of kilometers from it’s entangled mate will rotate in a predictable maner mirroring it’s mate, possibly instantaneously and at least 10, 000 times faster than the speed of light. (http://www.livescience.com/28550-how-quantum-entanglement-works-infographic.html). I have no idea what this says about God if anything, but it does say that for human beings and all creation that we are not necessarily as divided or as individual as we think we are. Notions of God being three yet one are not so far fetched and frankly are easier for me to explain than Quantum Physics.
I think it is here that a re-formation might be needed. Just as the Father and the Son and Spirit give themselves to each other and all creation, including to human beings, so that “his Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the Children of God, and so we cry out to God Abba, Father” so we are called not to define ourselves in terms doctrine, denominations or institutions, necessary evils though they may be, but in terms of relationships which witness to the relationship we have with God and each other, and with all creation.
To give just one example, whatever we believe about the Lord’s table, The Supper, Eucharist, Communion, it would be wonderful to find a way to share it which says that relationships with God and with each other in Christ by the Spirit are more important than doctrine, or denomination. And this is not just a church thing, because we also need to find a way to see the table of our non believing neighbour, and our neighbour of another faith as places where we with Christ can be the guest.
In other words perhaps we could reform the church so that our fellow Christians and our neighbours are welcome to join in our fellowship at the Lord’s table, and we could take our relationship with God in Jesus to the tables of our neighbours.
What things do you think the (one holy, small c catholic, and apostolic) church needs to reform today?
Are the current problems with the church more about theology, style or ethics and action and what leads you to your answer?
How would you re-form the church? (What would you change and how?)
Presenter & Author:
About Andrew: Andrew has been the Minister of St Stephen’s Toowoomba Uniting Church for over 8 years and has been an ordained minister for almost 20 years. He has a strong interest in theology. He loves to preach, drink coffee, sing, sleep and enjoys British crime stories in print and on screen. He has one wife and three youngish children. His wife says he thinks about things too much, and she is probably right.