Four hundred ninety-nine years ago, October 31, 1517, an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther, posted 95 points of conscience. A primary complaint he lodged was over the Christian church’s practice of buying indulgences. Selling indulgences was essentially a pragmatic fund raiser to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome offering sinners a reduction of penance in this life or a reduction of time in purgatory in the afterlife. Luther considered this practice a fundamental error, without support in scripture. Thus began the Reformation.
Luther taught that salvation could not be bought through indulgences and was not earned by good deeds, but by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ –Justification by Faith. He taught that Scripture was the only authority to which the church is subject. He taught a priesthood of all believers. He translated the bible into the German vernacular.
Luther was neither the first word nor the last word in the Reformation movement. Jan Hus, a Bohemian (now Czech) Reformer was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1415. Indeed, the history of the Reformation movement predated Luther by more than 100 years. Luther just happened to be in the right place at the right time enabling the Reformation to spread through-out northern Europe
My own training as a minister in the Presbyterian Church steeped me in John Calvin a Reformer, a little later than Luther, whose practice was mostly in Geneva, Switzerland. I prepared for the gospel ministry completing an MDiv at Columbia Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and a DMin at McCormick Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Chicago, Illinois. I was ordained by Atlanta Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church in the United States, and served for 35 years in pastoral ministry until I retired as a minister in Chicago Presbytery in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Over the course of a year, ending on October 31, 2017 (the 500th Reformation Sunday) I am writing a series of essays that imagines the church as it continues to reform. Indeed, Presbyterians accept that reformation is not just a historic event, nor a tradition, but an on-going process, as we are apt to say, the church is reformed and always being reformed according to the word of God (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, secundum verbum dei).
Alas, the intent of this blog is not to rehearse the Reformation as it took shape 500 years ago, nor to standardize the Reformation as a tradition prescribing the form of a 500 year old liturgy and practice to be replicated today. Rather it is to creatively imagine the church as an ever more faithful witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, and the practice of his calling to follow him – as the Holy Spirit may be revealing through the scriptures.
There is much to criticize in the church today. It is not hard to imagine that the church needs to address many elements of its order and practice. I will intentionally avoid any criticisms of the church’s response to the challenges it faces and simply imagine what the church may become as it reforms its practice.
That is to say, I do not intend to argue the point with any reader. I’ll not be pointing fingers and placing blame. Instead, I think of this effort over the course of the coming year as a prayer for the church of Jesus Christ which seeks to faithfully bear witness to the good news to the ends of the earth. And please understand that I do not pretend in my modeling of the church to know the mind of God, nor what forms God intends for the church. I am simply assessing the present challenges before the church and prayerfully wondering what next.
And so I begin. My practice will be to post an essay in this space each Sunday from now until October 31, 2017.
In my next post I will address the appeal to remember all that Jesus has done and taught.