Generous Orthodoxy  

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The essence of the Reformation

A colleague asked me if I could put the essence of the Reformation into a paragraph. No, I couldn't, but here are a lot of paragraphs.

The essence of the Reformation is surprisingly difficult to "get." Or perhaps, given the human propensity for wanting to make itself the center of the action, it is not surprising at all. It takes a lot of conscious effort and diligent practice to hold a consistently Protestant theological position (I would prefer to say "Reformed," but that leaves out the Lutherans). The mainline Protestant churches which, to a greater or lesser degree, formerly held such a consistent position are now all over the map and sometimes off the margins altogether—so much so that today it has become quite uncommon to find theology being done in a classical Protestant sense. This is not about sectarianism. This is about a way of understanding biblical revelation.

The essential issue is that of the divine agency. Because the Bible from beginning to end presents us with a picture of a living, acting, shaping, intervening God, biblical interpretation at the time of the Reformation was the source of the movement’s theology, and it continued to be the galvanizing force for classic Protestantism. In contrast, "liberal" biblical interpretation and theology in all its many forms recasts, evades, ignores, confuses, adulterates, or actively opposes the concept of the divine agency.

It's important not to speak of the Protestant Reformation as if it were something new. The real parent of the Reformation is Paul the Apostle, and the indispensable post-biblical source for understanding what’s at stake is still the anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine. Augustine was judged by the church to have been on the winning side of the dispute de jure, but the de facto winner has always been Pelagius, who argued for a degree of human autonomy and the freedom of the human will. "Pelagian" preaching and teaching, therefore, typically consists of an appeal to human decision and is likely to take the form of exhortation rather than proclamation.

The central fact concerning the human will, Augustine insisted, is that it is in bondage. The only true "freedom of the will," therefore, is found in conformation to the will of God. Approaches to the human will on the basis of what we ought to do or should do are fruitless. Only as God moves in on the human will can the will be freed; hence Augustine’s paradoxical teaching that to serve God is to reign as a king (the Book of Common Prayer renders this "whose service is perfect freedom"). The paradox is heightened if Paul’s more characteristic word 'slave' (doulos) is used instead of 'servant' (diakonos). The sovereignty of God is thereby preserved in a way that redefines and heightens the concept of human freedom.

The simplest way to test the "Protestant principle" is to look at the sentences concerning God in a book, sermon, essay, or address. Is God the acting subject? Or is the human being the subject and God the object? If the latter is the case, then the theology of the Reformation is not operative.

There is a mystery about this. Belief in a living, acting, intervening God is not a matter of reason but of faith, and the origins of faith are unknown to us. One can’t be argued into belief in a God who directs the course of the universe; one has this faith or one doesn't. The Reformation recovered the power of the apostolic preaching, and the result was a tremendous increase in lively Christian faith. Yet today, it is rare to find preachers in the mainline churches who strongly adhere to the foundational biblical affirmation about the living Word of God which moves through the words of those who bring the Good News, thereby creating faith ex nihilo. (God can, of course, create faith out of nothing in other ways as well. Such is his freedom.)

The radical nature of theology done in this tradition is not well understood today. To believe in the divine activity is to believe in an equality of all human beings that is grounded in a far more comprehensive foundation than any other system of thought. If we are all dependent upon the righteousness of God rather than our own--an essential Old Testament doctrine carried to its furthest outcome by Paul --then there is no one beyond the reach of God’s re-creating power. Hence Paul speaks of the justification of the ungodly, a startlingly unreligious, unspiritual idea which lies at the heart of the Protestant project. Only by the action of God can such a thing be accomplished. This puts an end to "religion" in all its forms.

The strongest and most immediately relevant theological work being done today in the tradition of the Reformation is apocalyptic theology. What follows is a brief presentation of this school of thought. (This next section also appeared as an earlier post.)

Apocalyptic theology

This presentation focuses on a group of theologians and biblical scholars who taught, were trained in, or were strongly influenced by apocalyptic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 70s and 80s. The first part sketches the fundamental commitments of this biblical theology. The second part identifies some of the most prominent figures.

What is apocalyptic theology?

Here is a short summary by Douglas Harink, followed by a much longer description.

"Most simply stated, 'apocalypse' is shorthand for Jesus Christ. In the New Testament… all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God’s purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in he history of Jesus Christ."

Some central affirmations of apocalyptic theology

• The divine agency is foundational— "God is up to something in the world" (Paul Lehmann).
• Sin and Death are Powers who have invaded the world and established their dominion.
• The human condition is genuinely tragic because humanly speaking, there is no escape from bondage to the Powers.
• The earthly human world is subject to incursion from the divine world—"cosmic breaking and entering" (Martyn)—in Jesus Christ, the end of the ages has come upon us (I Corinthians 10:11)
• The divine apocalypse is less a disclosure than it is an invasion ("O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down"—Isaiah)
• Apocalyptic metaphor—as in Revelation—is God’s poetry (Martyn), telling us the truth about our condition and our hope.
• Justification (dikaiosune) is understood less as individual salvation, more as rectification constituting a new world.
• Jesus Christ waged apocalyptic warfare (e.g. R. E. Brown on Gethsemane in The Death of the Messiah).
• The apocalypse of Jesus Christ means the end of conventional warfare, because the line between good and evil runs through each person (as attested by Vaclav Havel, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and many others). The warfare of the Lamb (J. H. Yoder) is therefore fought with the understanding that we are all simul peccator et iustus, (saints and sinners simultaneously), a central tenet of the Reformation.
• The New Creation dawns even now, in the Church’s participation in the Cross and Resurrection.
• Cruciform Christian witness is anchored by secure confidence in God’s triumph at the ultimate End.

In the light of the impending eschaton all present arrangements are provisional. The Christian lives according to the lights of the Age to Come. The new state of affairs set in motion by the crucifixion and resurrection evokes a response from us. Our response will be based on the new reality, a witness undermining everything that used to make sense in the old kosmos. "Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). "The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17); "Since we belong to the day, let us be sober" (I Thessalonians 5:8); "Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

When the cross is understood as apocalyptic sign, the Christian community understands that its location is at the frontier of what God is doing in the world, and that the household of God is first to stand before the judgment seat (I Peter 4:17) on behalf of the world. The sign of victory on this frontier is not victory as this world understands victory. The sign of the cross is the "powerful weakness" of Christ; "the new creation is the community of those who…are conformed to the crucified one for the sake of others."

What does it mean to define the cross as apocalyptic sign? Let us sum it up. The cross signifies the turn of the ages. The Old Age of Sin and Death received its predestined, mortal blow when the incarnate Son "was delivered up for our offences and was raised for our rectification." The Age to Come has been inaugurated. The distinctive, indeed unique mark of the Age to Come is self-giving love, which plants itself in "this present evil age" as the power of powerlessness.

Some of the key figures in the recovery of New Testament apocalyptic:

J. C. Blumhardt and Christoph Blumhardt

Karl Barth
Ernst Käsemann (Tübigen)

Fathers and children who were faculty or students at Union (NYC) in the 70s
J. Louis Martyn
Paul Louis Lehmann
Raymond E. Brown (Fr. Brown began teaching biblical apocalyptic at Union, a Protestant institution, in the 70s and this work strongly influenced his last book, The Death of the Messiah)
Christopher Morse
James F. Kay
Martinus C. de Boer
Beverly Gaventa
Joel Marcus
Nancy Duff
Alexandra R. Brown
Fleming Rutledge

Non-Union affiliates
Paul Minear (Yale)
Jürgen Moltmann (Tübigen)
J. Christiaan Beker (Princeton)
John Howard Yoder (Notre Dame)
James Y. Holloway (Yale)
Paul W. Meyer (Princeton)
Brevard Childs (Yale)
Charles Cousar (Emory)
Gerhard Sauter (Bonn)

Douglas Harink (Kings, Edmonton, Alberta)
John Barclay (Durham)
Philip Ziegler (Aberdeen)
Joseph Mangina (Wycliffe, Toronto)
Francis Watson (Durham)
Simon Gathercole (Cambridge)

Will Campbell
William Stringfellow
Bill Wylie-Kellerman
Vernard Eller
William H. Willimon
Kenneth Leech
Jacques Ellul