3 Ways to Remember the Reformation

Since today is a particularly significant Reformation Sunday, I’m going to forego my usual weekend links wrap and instead repost an updated version of my most recent piece for The Anxious Bench.

“A red-letter date looms,” wrote Tal Howard in one of his many recent books, “31 October 2017, the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, the widely recognized date when Martin Luther putatively nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Saxony, and thereby introduced into the stream of history what came to be called ‘Protestantism.’” Here we are, two days from that date, and Tal’s ensuing question still lingers:

“Why and how should one go about marking such a momentous milestone?”

Just here in the Twin Cities, this weekend and coming days feature everything from worship to workshops, plus the debuts of a Reformation-inspired symphony and a play in which the Devil prosecutes Martin Luther — with Sigmund Freud and Pope Francis as witnesses! And there’s certainly no shortage of new books to read. I’m currently in the middle of Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World.

But let me suggest that Protestants — perhaps all Christians — should approach this date with something more than commemoration or continuing education as our goal.

We should use October 31st as a cue to practice remembrance.

Christians of all theological stripes do this whenever they take the Eucharist “in remembrance of” Jesus Christ. But what I have in mind actually stems from an older biblical tradition: the remembrances commanded in the Torah.

After all, the bread and cup of the Christian communion table originate with the Passover meal commanded in the Book of Exodus: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance” (Ex 12:14). And consider how often the author of the Book of Deuteronomy instructs Jews either to remember or not to forget.

What strikes me about these texts of remembrance is that they almost always tie memory of the past to action in the present. Three examples:

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (Deut 5:15)

If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. (Deut 15:12-15)

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this. (Deut 24:17-18)

So what would it look like if we approached #Reformation500 commemoration in this spirit? I think we Protestants might remember our historical roots by taking three actions:

Painting of Luther posting the 95 Theses
Julius Hübner’s highly idealized 19th century version of Luther posting the 95 Theses – Wikimedia

Remember that you are a descendant of the Reformation; receive and extend grace.

“Luther,” observed Alec Ryrie, in the book I discussed this summer, “pursued his love for God with blithe disregard for the bounds set by church and tradition. It was an intense, desolating, intoxicating passion, sparked by his life-upending glimpse of God’s incomprehensible, terrible, beautiful love for him. Like any lover, he found it incredible that his beloved should love him, unworthy as he was. And yet he discovered over the long years of prayer and study that God loved him wildly, irresponsibly, and beyond all reason.”

We make the wild, irresponsible, and unreasonable love of God perhaps too tidy when we reduce it to a phrase like sola gratia. But if we do nothing else to remember Luther’s reformation, we should pause to revel in the grace of a God who loved us to the incomprehensible degree of sending us his Son.

But we should then confess that, as Philip Yancey once put it, we Christians often think grace to be a “scandal,” when it’s actually “Christianity’s best gift to the world, a spiritual nova in our midst exerting a force stronger than vengeance, stronger than racism, stronger than hate.”

And then we should respond: gratefully, giving thanks back to grace’s Giver; and graciously, by forgiving those of our fellow unworthies who have sinned against us.

Remember that you are a descendant of the Reformation; encounter God at the “living altar” of Scripture

Salvation by grace alone is so important a doctrine that Charles Spurgeon reportedly wished that “every time the clock struck it said, ‘By grace are ye saved.’” But #1A in importance is Luther’s insistence on the authority of Scripture alone — backed by the work of him and other reformers to translate the Bible into vernacular languages. “Perhaps now,” wrote biblical scholar Ben Witherington III, “as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the German Reformation, it is time to say that without Protestantism we might not have Bibles in the hands of so many Christians, and in so many languages.”

Briggs, The Invisible BestsellerAnd yet religion journalist Kenneth Briggs rightly worries that, having “gained the freedom to approach” the Bible apart from a church hierarchy, “we have ceded that exploration to media, to entertainment forms, to prepackaged interpretations that are delivered in video, audio, and pulpit forms so that there’s a substitute Bible that isn’t the Bible, per se…”

So remember the Reformation by reading the Bible. Don’t just seek again those favorite proof-texts that reassure you that your view — and not that of fellow Christians — is the “biblical” one. Read the Bible in the way that Mark suggests in The Pietist Option, starting with a quotation from our denomination’s 1963 paper on “Biblical Authority and Christian Freedom“:

“To read it properly… is to find it an altar where one meets the living God and receives personally the reality of redemption.” As we come to the Scriptures, God leads us to repentance and enables our reformation. This gift that God offers is not simply the one-time experience of conversion but an ongoing process of sanctification, of progressive spiritual development as God shapes us increasingly toward his good purpose—and through us, our institutions and even society. (p. 46)

Remember that you are a descendant of the Reformation; seek the unity of the Body of Christ.

Too often, remembering the Reformation has often been done in such a way so as to deepen the divides separating Catholics from Protestants (and Protestants from Protestants). For example, Tal notes that in the jubilee years of 1617 and 1717, commemoration simply hardened confessionalization.

But he found some notable exceptions from that era: in the 1690s both the Pietist church historian Gottfried Arnold and the aristocratic scholar Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff “gave voice to the concern for Christian reunion, striking an irenic tone uncharacteristic of their age.” In his history of Lutheranism, Seckendorff expressed a desire to see “foes and persecutors [become] brothers and fellows, acknowledging with us the pure faith with pure hearts and lips, and in common zeal restoring piety.”

As many have suggested, to remember has the potential to re-member: to help put back together a Body of Christ dis-membered by theological splits that neither started nor stopped with the Reformation, but were certainly exacerbated by it.

Such remembrance tempers celebration with lament. For example, a year ago Tuesday Pope Francis and Munib Younan, the Jordanian bishop then heading the Lutheran World Federation, led worship together in an ecumenical service at Lund, Sweden. Here’s how their joint commemorative statement addressed the complicated legacy of the Reformation:

While we are profoundly thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, we also confess and lament before Christ that Lutherans and Catholics have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompani ed by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalized for political ends. Our common faith in Jesus Christ and our baptism demand of us a daily conversion, by which we cast off the historical disagreements and conflicts that impede the ministry of reconciliation. While the past cannot be changed, what is remembered and how it is remembered can be transformed. We pray for the healing of our wounds and of the memories that cloud our view of one another. We emphatically reject all hatred and violence, past and present, especially that expressed in the name of religion. Today, we hear God’s command to set aside all conflict. We recognize that we are freed by grace to move towards the communion to which God continually calls us.

So remember the Reformation by doing your part to re-member the Body of Christ. Confess how you have contributed needlessly to disunity, perhaps out of a too-earnest conviction that you could do no other. Follow the advice of the Swedish Lutheran revivalist C. O. Rosenius and commit to “keep company with brothers who have the opposite opinion from” you. Choose this moment to begin the hard work of reconciling with a sister or brother in Christ from whom you’ve been too long estranged.

And so remember that you are a descendant of the Reformation.

For more on the Reformation, check out my Twitter feed on Tuesday: I’m planning to tweet year-by-year through some primary sources from the period.