A New Reformation


Doesn’t this look fun…

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.


This is what we think the Reformation was like…

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?


What the Reformation was actually like…

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.

About dkamphuis

I'm an ELCA pastor preaching, teaching, thinking, and writting about what it means to be the church today.
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2 Responses to A New Reformation

  1. Betsy Kamphuis says:

    excellent! I agree!

  2. Once again my friend, I am glad for your peering into the problems of this age. Yes, the Reformation was a messy period. Non-Christian forces had Christian factions fighting all over Europe. Nation-states and Empires with the backing of a very corrupt papacy were trying to keep reformers from asking questions of the age-old aristocracies or the much newer nation-states born of the Enlightenment. The power of the reformers was to shake the foundations of the status quo religiosity qua state and transform the hearts of the people.

    However, I respectfully disagree with you on your pronouncements. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is the statement of Luther, and I heartily agree. You say that we haven’t the need to get back to the old doctrines and writings of old as they did in the time of the 16th Century Reformation. I agree with you. We need rather to get back to the source in our 21st century context. This does not mean to be reading the Gospels with 21st century eyes however, but rather to be reading the 21st century with Gospel eyes. We have lost the Gospel in peculiar ways. We may all be literate, but we find that in our churches there are many who are just as illiterate as was the German, French, or Swiss peasant of the 16th century. Instead the church feeds them contemporary American polemics dressed up in pseudo-Christian garb. (The right as well as the left is guilty of this.) We tone down the radicalness of Jesus (if we speak of Him at all), ignore the Holy Spirit (except to view said Person as either cosmic show pony or a Spirit who tells us we are really doing God’s will), and God the Father is completely ignored playing the part of the deists absent landlord.

    I believe in being “reformed” by the Gospel which is the only thing that can save me or anyone else. I believe in the spirit of the reformation which meant to connect with traditions and roots and dead people who were just as smart (smarter in many ways) than I. I believe most importantly that people are not looking for something novel or the next new thing; they want to belong to something with roots and branches. They want to know that the thing to which they belong will not be blown by political breezes or the transitory gales of the zeitgeist. People yearn for a reformation, but they will grow bored with the “ever-change.” At a point, people want to stop being wanderers in the deserts of life and sit under their own vine or fig tree and no longer be frightened. They will do this not because the “men of interesting times” will have stopped their madness, but because the Lord Almighty will have spoken it.

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