Reformed, Deformed, Uninformed

protestant family tree

Halloween, whatever its other values, is the 501st anniversary of the Reformation this year, calculated from the date of Martin Luther’s nailing of the “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg. Many celebrate this as the birthday of Protestantism. Some historians even identify it as the beginnings of modern European/ American democracy.

If you want to ask Luther his opinion on that, you are not likely to find him in the section of heaven assigned to modern Lutherans or secular democrats. Rather, check in the area reserved for Augustine, John Chrysostom, and other Fathers of the first Christian centuries. These were his favorite theologians and I doubt that preference has changed. If you ask his views on modern Lutherans or Euro-American democratic politics, you may need to brush up on medieval German swear words to understand his answer. And if you insist on telling him that many honor him as the founder of Protestantism, he will first be puzzled and then angry when he realizes the full extent of Protestant denominations. Or maybe in heaven you won’t be allowed to spoil people’s joy, so you won’t be able to tell him.

Luther was indeed a great reformer. But he was appalled at the thought of being a founder. The structural provisions he made for liturgy and ecclesiology were done in the context of Notstand, a matter of necessity or urgency not intended to be set in stone, but to last only until the situation could calm down and become normalized. His reforming advocacy was not unique but simply one more in an ongoing parade of prophets in a Church constantly reforming. Real Lutheranism is “a movement within and for the one holy catholic and apostolic Church” (definition courtesy of the Fellowship of St. Augustine). Real Christianity, existing as it does in a sinful world, can never be content to think itself as having achieved perfection, since it is full of flawed and imperfect humans. That the Notstand still exists after five centuries is a tribute to the power of sin. That it is accepted in many quarters as normal and that Lutheranism today is usually seen as an institution founded by Luther instead of a movement within and for catholicism is better described as deformed, not reformed.

But this is not to single out Lutherans. All those churches proudly denoting themselves as “Reformed,” as if reformation was already accomplished, once for all, are part of the same deformation. Real reformation is continual. The saying is that housework is never done, because as soon as a house is clean and tidy and the meals for today are made, the accumulation of the untidy along with tomorrow’s hunger begins. Christian reformation can be described in exactly the same way.

Because the Christian community is a dynamic organism, fed in the eternal ferment of the Holy Spirit, reformation is a permanent condition of the Church when she is healthy. It happens in modern times also, in Vatican II, in the gathering of orthodox Christians out of stale denominations which no longer convey the fullness of Christ into new wineskins able to handle the dynamic expanding juice of living Christianity in the Spirit, in the prophetic voices of a Pope in Rome and a Patriarch in Constantinople reminding us that it is the Lord’s earth and the Lord’s poor people, and we need to care for it and them.

It happens also in micro, within the living action of thousands of congregations, as faithful people journey towards a life together on the path to the great Day of the Lord, when finally reformation will be complete. As such, the juxtaposition of Reformation Day and All Saints Day is quite appropriate. The former is good preparation for the latter.

The current problem is not that Reformation Day is celebrated, but rather that the day is wrongly understood. The flock is woefully uninformed about the nature of Christian reformation and the significance of the observance.  Poor Christian formation will lead predictably to poor Christian reformation. It is contrary to the instincts of institutional self-survival to understand the Church as the eucharistic community gathered sacramentally into the Body of Christ, a concept requiring oneness and dynamism by definition. Institutional self-promotion has a different spirit, of competition, of power, of preserving establishment status quo, of stifling ferment.

Instead, a Reformation Day that understands the Church needs to be the Body of Christ, needs to be alive in a continual process of repentance, restarting, reforming, and resurrecting, is a great festival indeed, knowing that the best reforming lies ahead, not in a history book, and no denomination has a corner on it, because the Spirit blows where he will. And he starts with me.

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