Innovation, Renewal, and Betrayal


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’.

[Image: Tabbert]

A couple of conferences on theology and ethics

The Department of Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, together with the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, are organising the following conferences:

Theological Ethics Conference Aberdeen

Bonhoeffer Events Aberdeen (2)

Note: If you are a fellow blogger and/or tweeter/G+er/facebooker, please consider helping to spread the word about these exciting events. Please feel free too to use the images (jpegs) that I have uploaded here.

Church Unity as a Living Concord

One of the books that I currently have on the go is Reinhard Hütter’s Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism. So far, there’s much to commend it. But rather than write a review, time permits me only to share some challenging words from the book that I’ve been reflecting on, and which recall some Hunsingeresque themes:

‘Would the Roman Catholic communion be prepared, in the framework of a Vatican III, to nuance or delimit its insistence upon the jurisdictional and doctrinal primacy of the bishop of Rome as a condition for mutual recognition and communion in faith and confession? And on the other hand, would the churches of the Reformation be prepared to recognize an ecumenical primacy of the bishop of Rome that stood under the authority of the Scriptures, was post-confessional, and operated iure humano in service to the visible unity of all Christians? We would do well to remember Melanchthon, who in his postscript to the Smalcald Articles of 1537 sent a signal that is decidedly both evangelical and ecumenical: “However, concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we, too, may (for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future) grant to him his superiority over the bishops which he has ‘by human right.”‘ Melanchthon’s postscript must be understood as an entirely proper use of Reformation ecclesiology. Precisely because the church stands or falls on the truth of the justification of sinners, she is free to recognize historically evolved structures and traditions and to affirm them as gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. This recognition and affirmation is valid as long as these structures and traditions serve the proclamation of the gospel. Thus the church is free also to recognize and affirm an office of ministry understood as constituted by human right that both presides over and is in collegiality with the bishops and that serves the unity of the whole church. Were the churches to pass this test case, it would leave open the possibility for a communio-ecclesiology perspective in which unity did not necessarily flow out of an abstract reunification of the churches under the umbrella of a Tridentine-Vatican-ordered primacy. On the contrary, it would then be possible for Christian unity to be understood as a concord of faith and confession in the Holy Spirit that would reconcile the multiplicity of churches and whose visible manifestation would be the common celebration of the Lord’s Supper, at which the bishop of Rome could preside as sign of unity. However, the head and center of this unity of concord would remain Christ alone, who is present in the word of promise and forgiveness and in the elements of the Supper. For only on the basis of this Center can the nature of the ordained office of word and sacrament manifest itself as an office of ministry to the proclamation of the gospel and, further, to the living concord of Christians in the local parish, as well as on the regional and indeed the universal level of the church. According to Luther’s ecclesiology, the test case of the papal office can hinge solely on whether the ordained ministry to the gospel also includes – and indeed, where possible, requires – a ministry of unity to all of Christendom. If the papal office permitted itself to be understood as a ministry under the gospel, serving as a transforming – even re-forming – catalyst for the unity of the church, it would open the door to an ecumenically promising and, from the perspective of the Lutheran Reformation, permissible approach to the thorniest of all ecumenical dilemmas. After all, Luther himself asserted in 1531 that he “could kiss the pope’s feet if he would permit the gospel”’.

– Reinhard Hütter, Bound to Be Free: Evangelical Catholic Engagements in Ecclesiology, Ethics, and Ecumenism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 192–3.