Some Reflections on the 500th Year Commemoration of Reformation

Standing in front of the doors to the Castle Church of Wittenberg 500 years after Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses which started the Reformation is exhilarating beyond words.  There is something about being there physically and hearing sermons referencing the vision of the reformers that connect oneself to the history that transformed the world.  When the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright speaks of the Gospels, he says the pronouncement of Jesus’ kingship rings more than a declaration but that it implies a call to submission.  In a similar sense of how message leads to life commitment, the celebration of the Reformation jubilee means more than the remembrance of faith and courage. It shapes the future paths of an evangelical because it brings clarity to him of the origin of Evangelicalism.

If we don’t know where we come from, then we don’t know where we’re going. History shapes future.  In view of how American Evangelicalism has been reduced to a political faction that engages with nothing more than public squabbling, a reminder of its Reformation origin proves particularly helpful.  The late theologian Stanley Grenz defines Evangelicalism in Renewing the Center as a religious movement that has the gospel at its core; while drawing resources from the Pietistic Movement and Puritanism from the 17th and 18th centuries, it can look back to the Reformation as its origin.  In this sense, Evangelicals are continuously driven by the Reformation spirit to remain faithful to the scriptures while we preach ceaselessly to the angst of the world.

If every generation has its representing faith question, then the one for the 1st century would be “Which god do you serve?” There were no atheists in the 1st century.  Everyone believed in a god or gods.  It could be Rimmon, Dagon, or Baal. The rising to power of the Roman Empire also made their gods very popular.  So one may choose to serve Artemis, Zeus, or Apollo instead. And, not unlike modern time, politics and religion often found benefits in each other’s company.  Therefore, the Roman Emperor made certain that he is listed alongside the pantheon of gods and that his subjects worshipped him as a divine deity.  It is against this backdrop that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John announce the good news of the kingdom of God and that Jesus is the king (Messiah) who fulfills Daniel 2.  So, which god do you serve? It is not like you can serve Caesar and Jesus.  There is no middle ground! When Jesus was tested if the Jews should pay tax, he asked for a coin and showed them the imprinted image of Caesar.  He then instructed to give back to Caesar what belonged to Caesar but to give God what belonged to God. Anyone who reads this passage without realizing its reference from Genesis 1 would have missed the intended message.  Jesus was saying that man, who was created in the image of God belonged to God.  The taxation question posted was a question of loyalty, and Jesus’ answer implied the clash of kingdoms.

By the time of the 16th century in Europe, people asked a very different faith question.  The uncertainty of one’s salvation that loomed over Christendom posted a misgiving of “Am I good enough for God?” This notion of self-doubt largely resulted from theological exercises that followed the tradition of scholasticism rather than teachings that came straight out of the scriptures.  Patristic dogma plus philosophical arguments of the time concluded with practices like the belief in purgatory and the sales of indulgence.  To be sure, the political and economic environment at the time encouraged such acts.  Regardless, the reformers opposed such practices based solely on biblical teachings.  They believed that scriptures, the Word of God, should occupy its locus at the centrality of Christianity insofar as they parted ways from the church tradition and translated the Bible from Latin to the people’s common language.  It was because of this belief that we now have the Bible in German, French, English, Japanese, Chinese, and more.  To the faith question “Am I good enough for God?”, the reformers responded with an open Bible in the native language of those who seek the answer.

Jumping to the 20th century, we witnessed the bold announcement that “God is dead.” That generation struggled with a brand new topic:  Is there a God?  Nietzsche introduced the concept of “Superman” and in come Humanism in the modern time.  No longer humankind needs a God to guide them.  Their lives and future are within the grasp of their own hand.  It was no accident the evangelical response focused on apologetics.  We argued that God is the more reasonable option than what science suggests but our footing got caught with the evolution-creation debate which kept holding us back from advancing the kingdom till this day.  In the meantime, the God we preached was looking more and more like the one in Deism than the merciful God that Luther had rediscovered.  The faith question in the 21st century thus far seems to have inherited the substance from the last century with a pragmatic shift.  Rather than asking “Is there a God?”, the focus becomes more like “Do we need a God?” While the former question tends to secularize the discussion, the latter takes on a more utilitarian flavor.  After trivializing Christianity in its initial phase, postmodernism actually puts God back on the table.  However, in the face of racial tension, divisiveness, mass shooting, and national identity, the secular culture questions the relevance of God.  To be fair, secularism(or political liberalism in the more contemporary form) emerged from Christianity.  Christianity says God created humankind in his own image and that’s why human life is precious.  Secularism removed God from that concept and attempted to keep the rest.  “Liberalism is the culmination of developments in Western society that produced a sense of the importance of human individuality, a liberation of the individual from complete subservience to the group…In this respect, liberalism stands for the emancipation of the individual.” With enlightenment as the good news, capitalism (or some form of economic reform) as salvation, and democracy replacing faith, liberalism sets out to liberate the oppressed, the marginalized, and the social outcasts, aiming to bring equality to humankind.  The question is:  Can the precious value of human life be retained after removing God from the equation?  New Atheist Richard Dawkins and comedian Bill Maher would give a resounding ‘yes’.  But look further into the secular culture, one will find a mix of a different outlook.

I have written on how the subject matter of ‘sin’ has been discussed profoundly in Hollywood produced movies. The Village by Night Shyamalan speaks of the inherently violent nature of man.  Babel starring Brad Pitts depicts the trans-cultural and the universality of sin that is interconnected in mankind.  But perhaps the boldest pronouncement came from the director of I Am Legend with Will Smith who hinted the audience that this is a ‘God movie’ from the beginning.  Without using the word sin, he explained this Christian concept in the utmost Calvinistic way as total depravity, that even when we wanted to do good we would end up traumatizing ourselves.  When the scientists in the movie wanted to make a vaccine that cures cancer, they ended up creating vampires that destroyed the world.  Towards the end, Will Smith sacrificed himself as a Christ figure to save the remnants of mankind.  The world is looking for a Savior.

The commentator of MSNBC Chris Matthews recently came out with a book on the biography of Bobby Kennedy.  In the opening lines of his own foreword, he says,

I long ago came to realize that movies are always about the present…The story is told by and for the living, those who’ll be there to see it.  The same is true of biography.  Jack Kennedy said the reason we read about famous people’s lives is to answer the question:  What was this person actually like?  Can I imagine being in their presence?  Can I make the personal connection?  Are they a hero to root for?  This book is about the Bobby Kennedy we’d want to have today, the kind of leader we lack today.

Matthews is looking for answers to today’s turmoil in America from a historical figure.  When he was interviewed by Joy Reid for his new publication, the following discussion came up.  Reid asked him what would it take for the Democrats to win the 2020 Election, Matthews referenced Jesus and went on to say that for the next Democratic candidate to win, it’s going to be somebody who does not discard the White Working Class – it’s going to take someone who does not look down on them and say “I’m better than you are.” In other words, he’s talking about the Gospel of Luke! When liberals look for salvation for mankind, they have to plug God back into the formula somehow – even when they don’t know that’s what they are doing.

In the 500th year commemoration service at the Castle Church of Wittenberg, the executive director of ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Rev. Dr. Rafael Padilla preached that we have “domesticated” Luther.  He further qualified that statement by saying that he was specifically speaking to the Christians in North America.  And he referenced that famous painting in the Town Church where Luther has one hand on the scriptures and the other pointing to Christ.  I have to think that if Christ is not in the culture (in the world) doing His work, then where would He be?  If the spirit of Luther and the Reformation is ‘contained’ in mere liturgy and Sunday school classroom theology, then we have truly domesticated the reformer.  This is what went on in my mind as I was attending that Sunday service in Wittenberg.

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