I’ve been reading Michael Welker again, this time his essay on ‘Travail and Mission: Theology Reformed According to God’s Word at the Beginning of the Third Millennium’, published in Toward the Future of Reformed Theology: Tasks, Topics, Traditions. I was struck by Welker’s use of the word ‘innovation’ to describe the reformed habit of semper reformanda, the subject I tackle in my contribution to this book. Incidentally, Michael Jinkins, in his delightful little book The Church Transforming, also likens the reformed maxim to the idea of ‘innovation’, and draws upon the work of Edwin Friedman, a rabbi and leading proponent of family systems theory, and upon Friedman’s notion of ‘adventurous leadership’ as the only effective antidote to the anxiety that grips people, organisations, and institutions today, noting the apparent insanity of the Renaissance explorers who sailed west to discover a new trade route to the east and by doing so helped medieval Europe become ‘unstuck’ from its anxiety and conformity to convention and thus ushered in the Renaissance. In some sense, Jinkins argues, Luther and Calvin and the whole Protestant movement during the sixteenth century were products of the ‘Age of Unstuckness’, the ‘Age of Adventure and Exploration’. He suggests too that ‘the thing we most need today in our church in this profoundly anxious time is a similar spirit of adventure in leadership’. But I digress …
Back to Welker. Welker suggests that while the Reformed community has made its mark on the dialogue with the social sciences and with jurisprudence throughout the twentieth century, and has been one of the most actively committed proponents of the ecumenical movement, ‘it seems that precisely Reformed theology’s delight in innovation and new departures, its interdisciplinary, cultural, and ecumenical openness, has brought it into a profound crisis at the end of the twentieth century’. This crisis, he avers, finds its nexus in the rapid, diverse and diffuse cultural and social developments that have characterised the Western industrialised nations. Welker believes that Reformed theology with its special openness for contemporary cultural developments has been particularly tested and assaulted by these developments in ways in which other theologies, perhaps those with more dogmatically- or liturgically-oriented ‘brakes’, have been less vulnerable. The theologia reformata et semper reformanda seems ‘to be at the mercy of the shifting Zeitgeist’, and the profile of Reformed theology seems to have disintegrated into ‘a plethora of attempts to engage contemporary moral, political, and scientific trends, either strengthening them or fighting them’. Exposure to continual renewal has left Reformed theology both vulnerable to losing its profile through the ‘cultural stress of innovation’, and in danger of betraying its ‘typical mentality and spiritual attitude’.
Welker’s prescription for response to this ‘travail’ is to clarify our understanding of, and attend to the address of, the word of God over against the cacophony of competing utterances, addresses and presentations. Such ‘evangelical freedom’ will mean not only joining the ancient Hebrew prophets in naming the perversion of justice, the misuse of the cult, and the refusal to practice mercy, but also drawing repeated attention to ‘the situation in which religion, law, politics, morality, rulers and ruled, natives and foreigners make common cause against God’s word and God’s presence’, and bearing witness to the creative power of the Word of God who ‘overcomes the power of sin, renews and lifts up Christian persons and communities in the church of all times and regions of the world, and radiates a beneficent influence on their environments’.
It seems to me that such freedom also invites a change of direction (metanoia) regarding the Church’s yielding to three temptations: (i) the turn inwards, or the burying of itself, in its own affairs to the almost-complete neglect of any meaningful engagement with non-churchly cultures; (ii) the engagement in a flurry of welfare activities, or what P. T. Forsyth once referred to as ‘affable bustle’, the focus and essential content of which is set by the moment’s popular interest. (The Reformed principle of ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda is, of course, a call to being reformed by the Spirit and the Word rather than an invitation to an ‘endless cycle of idea and action, endless invention, [and] endless experiment’ (T. S. Eliot) for its own sake); and (iii) the uncritical alignment with the most sympathetic leaders of other faiths and programs in a profession of loyalty to ‘Truth’. This situation was acutely observed more than half a century ago by Lesslie Newbigin in his little essay ‘The Quest of Unity through Religion’.