There is a Chinese curse that goes “may you live in interesting times.” While I am not sure it is a curse the world sure is getting interesting. Changes abound and in our world and the Church is struggling to keep up. In response to our changing world I often hear people talk about how the Church is entering “a new Reformation.” What seems to be meant by this statement is that the Church is in an incredible time of change. I agree with that. The culture is changing, our technology is changing, and the Church is struggling with theology and mission in the midst of that change. I have to be honest though, every time I hear this phrase “a new Reformation” I cringe. You see my problem is that we have romanticized the Reformation. We remember the glorious “here I stand” moments of the Reformation and as Lutherans we sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” but I think we have actually forgotten the real history of the Reformation.
After all, the Reformation was an incredibly destructive time. The Thirty Years War, The Eighty Years’ War, The French Wars’ of Religion all are conflicts that involve the religious chaos of the period. Are we actually wishing that on ourselves?
Another major difference is that the Reformation was a movement that was seeking to recover something from the past. The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, and etc…) are all pretty clear: there doctrine was not something new, but an attempt to reclaim the theology of the Church fathers. The Reformation was inspired by going back to texts long lost to the West. Our problem today is not that we need to recover traditional doctrine. Instead the problem the Church faces today is what that traditional doctrine means in light of our post-modern context. That is a fundamentally different focus from the Reformation of the 16th century.
The short version of all this is that “Reformation” and “change” are not synonyms. We need to be careful with our language. There is a saying in theology circles that goes “ecclesia semper reformanda est” meaning: the Church is always to be reformed. I am fine with that statement, but it does not mean that the Church is always in the period of the Reformation. The Reformation was its own time with its own struggles and we have our own.