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Consequences of the Reformation: the post-Protestant church

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 22 July 2004


There is a line from Spike Milligan in which he announces the survival of Archduke Ferdinand and tells us that World War One was a mistake. I have been having similar feelings about the Protestant Reformation while reading Paul among the Postliberals by Douglas Harink. As many of you will know, Luther based his protest against the Roman Catholic church on a Bible verse from Galatians 2:16 (and variants): "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (New Revised Standard Version) This was the text that Luther used to condemn the Roman church's linking salvation to gifts of money through the sale of indulgences. Salvation could not depend upon our own actions, no matter how good, but only on our faith in Christ.

The problem is that Pauline scholars have revised the translation and most agree that a better translation would be: "yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ." Like so many things in theology, much often stands or falls on such decisions of translation. The change from "faith in" to "the faith of" makes an awful lot of difference to our understanding. The former translation has been influential in Protestant theology, especially to the Fundamentalist wing of the church. This interpretation emphasizes that it is the faith of the believer that is crucial. It is essentially an anthropomorphic reading of the text in that it puts the believer at its centre.

The new translation is what may be called a Christocentric orientation, it is not our faith that is important but the faith that we see in Jesus in his life and work and death. The objective reality of God is at the centre, it is God who breaks through to us, He chooses us we do not choose Him. Of course there is a work to do in faith but it is not the determining factor. In the usual interpretation, which is followed by most modern translations, the objective reality of the faith of Christ is displaced by the subjective of our faith in Him. In its extreme and most clumsy form faith becomes a work that we do, not a physical work but an intellectual one. This is especially the case in our day because of all of the rationalist objections to faith. Faith is a gargantuan work indeed because it flies in the face of the truths of natural science. In our day faith can only occur in us after we have sacrificed our rationality, thus the intellectual work is a denial of intellect. So, whether we sacrifice our money or our intellect in order to be saved, it amounts to the same thing: both are works that we do that exclude the grace of God.

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Luther came to his conclusion because of his own and his society's personal anguish about justification and salvation in the face of the vivid medieval imaginings of heaven and hell. But Pauline scholars tell us that the spiritual agony of the individual is not at the centre of Paul's theology. Rather, Paul had foremost in his mind a new creation in Christ that is not the renovated individual but the new socio-political order that is called church. This is why there is so much in his letters about Jews and gentiles. In Christ they will worship the same God whether they keep the Torah or not.

The subjective interpretation has had many unfortunate consequences. Firstly, because the focus is on the believer's faith, the focus is taken off the faith of Christ where it belongs. This means that the importance to our lives of the life, ministry and death of Christ is diminished. For example, John Howard Yoder (a Mennonite historian and theologian) has written extensively on Jesus' way of nonviolence, that led him to the final confrontation in Jerusalem and his death, and how this should effect our attitude to violence and war. This is the most obvious feature of the passion narrative and yet it has had little effect on the attitudes of Christians about war and violence. Similar things may be said about Jesus' attitude to wealth, the poor and the freedom of the grace of God.

When it is our faith that counts, the person of Jesus disappears. There is thus established a gulf fixed between the spiritual and the ethical. One is said to be existential and the other practical. I have even heard it said that ethics has nothing to do with religion. But this new reading means that ethics has everything to do with religion, not as a new imposition of law but by providing the image of the one true man who orders things aright.

The second unfortunate consequence is that faith becomes formulaic and therefore transparent and is subsequently dismissed by most modern men and women. With its focus of the self it has joined all of the flaky self-help movements that compete for attention in the marketplace of unease. Again in its extreme form, it is our faith that will make us well, not the faith of Christ that leads us to human wholeness and freedom.

The self is still enclosed in itself. Our faith may be just another form of self-assertion and self-deception. This is why many outsiders look at church members and see nothing different from the rest of the population. The focus on ones own faith detaches faith from the ethical and the transformation of the self that a meeting with Christ brings about.

It is a pity that the human heart is so reactionary and that it often leads us to pile error upon error. Most would agree with Luther that the church of the time was cynical in its use of the faithful to achieve its economic ends and that he was right to protest. Unfortunately, his chosen weapon contained within it the seeds of the destruction of the church that we see all around us in increasingly thinning congregations and much else. Despite his battle with the humanists and his insistence on "Faith alone" the subjective interpretation of this crucial passage left a fissure in which humanism could grow. The self, in the end, becomes its own project.

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Was the reformation a mistake? Can we now speak of a post-Protestant church? Certainly there is less that divides Protestants and Roman Catholics in the realm of theology than ever before. Theologians of both sides have been working away quietly in the background for some time now and coming to theological consensus. The question of the unity of the church should rest on theological unity and that alone. It is a sign of our brokenness that once theology has been reconciled, church structure, authority, practice, or in a word, polity, keeps getting in the way.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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