“Arise, O Lord (Exsurge Domine), and judge thy cause. A wild boar is loose in thy vineyard.” That’s how Pope Leo X introduced his denunciation of Martin Luther in a papal encyclical released 15 June 1520. The document condemned a variety of Luther’s views including his insistence that “the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, is not the vicar of Christ over all the churches of the entire world;” and that “the burning of heretics is against the will of the Spirit.”
It went downhill from there. The encyclical concluded with Leo’s demand that the German monk and his followers “recant perpetually such errors and views,” and gave them 60 days to cease preaching or publishing their heretical opinions. Should they refuse, the Pope would be compelled to “condemn this Martin, his supporters, adherents and accomplices as barren vines which are not in Christ,” excommunicating them from Church and salvation. Luther and his students from the University of Wittenberg (1502) burned the document in the streets. There was no going back. Reformations are often a long time coming (Luther’s was), but once they catch fire, watch out.
This week I’m joining three Wake Forest University colleagues for a conversation with School of Divinity alums around the theme “(Re)forming in Place,” ways of rethinking 21st-century Protestantism in light of its 16th-century origins. Some 499 years after Luther posted Ninety-five Theses on the Castle Church door, the Protestant Reformation seems long ago and far away. Pope Francis recently prayed with Swedish Lutherans, urging greater Christian unity and confessing: “We, too, must look with love and honesty at our past, recognizing error and seeking forgiveness.” Ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, religious liberty, and declining numbers (at least in the West) create opportunity, even necessity, for greater ecclesiastical cooperation.
So how might the legacy of early Protestantism inform and re-form the church of today and tomorrow? Here’s one short list for continued reflection.
Re-formation forces us to confront our gospel blind sides. For Luther, the church’s sale of indulgences as a way of easing fear of eternal punishment had become a money-making gimmick that corrupted the nature of the gospel itself. He wrote: “Indulgences are positively harmful to the recipient because they impede salvation by diverting charity and inducing a false sense of security.” Rather, Luther said, “He who gives to the poor is better than he who receives an indulgence.” Re-formation asks: What actions and ideas do contemporary churches promote and protect that are polluting the gospel here and now?
Re-formation requires continued quest for and engagement with the word of God, written, preached and enacted. In Luther, an Introduction to his Thought, Gerhard Ebeling pointed to Luther’s belief that all “reformation action” would occur “through the word alone.” Luther challenged the church to turn loose the gospel and stop trying to bind Spirit to ecclesiastical structure.
He wrote: “All I have done is to put forth, preach and write the word of God, and apart from this I have done nothing. While I have been sleeping, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my friend Philip [Melanchthon], … it is the word that has done great things. … I have let the word act … it is all powerful, it takes hearts prisoner, and when they are taken prisoner, the work that is done comes from the word itself.” In the struggle for and with God’s elusive word, Scripture and Spirit, heart and head, church and culture are intricately related. Declaring that word, spoken, written, and enacted, is, Luther believed, what it means to be evangelical. The sacrament of the word remains a re-forming witness in the church and the world.
Re-formation compels Christians to pursue and experience sola fide. Faith alone, closely related to the priesthood of all believers, freed individuals to seek grace apart from priestly intervention. But it also forced church and clergy to clarify the nature of faith, articulating ways in which it is secured and retained.
In a 1968 essay called “The Night Spirit and the Dawn Air,” Trappist Thomas Merton wrote: “The religious genius of the Protestant Reformation, as I see it, lies in its struggle with the problem of justification in all its depth.” In its “simplest form” justification involves the conversion of “the wicked and the sinful to Christ.” Yet in its “most radical form,” justification by faith included a more “problematic” call for the conversion “of the pious and the good.” Catholics and Protestants, Merton insisted, could agree that “conversion to Christ is not merely the conversion from bad habits to good habits, but nova creatura transformation into a new creation “in Christ and in the Spirit.” Amid 21st century re-formation, Protestants would do well to listen to yet another Catholic monk.
• When grace becomes an entitlement, not a gift, it’s time for Reformation.
• When Christians confuse religious liberty with culture-privilege, it’s time for Reformation.
• When conversion turns into a Jesus vaccination, it’s time for Reformation.
• When governments claim to speak for Divinity, it’s time for Reformation.
• When the language of piety obscures justice, compassion and reconciliation, it’s time for Reformation.
• When the “wild boars” of a transforming gospel are merely bored or boring, it’s time for Reformation.
Let’s turn loose the Word.