On this Reformation Day, we remember that episode–now nearly five hundred years ago–when Martin Luther formulated and posted a list of disputations against some of the practices of the Church. Though what eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation has a number of contributing factors, the life and actions of Luther (including this somewhat inauguratory one) are certainly among the most important.
Now nearly half a millennia from that moment, the legacy of the Reformation is all around us. The Protestant Church is a well-established aspect of world Christianity. And, in the intervening centuries, the Roman Catholic Church itself has changed from the form it took during the days of Luther. For all the bumps along the road–and the problematic features of Luther and other reformers–persistent alterations have resulted with regard to how Christians live their faith, understand God, and read the Bible.
The Reformation of the 1500s is over, of course. It has been for a long time. The circumstances of that era no long stand and we practice our faith in a new day. Yet even as we live in the 21st century the Reformation poses an open question.
It goes without saying that we are not perfect. The Church must face its inner problems as it looks to the Scripture and asks itself whether or not it truly embraces the Word of God or not. Christianity, after all, is made up of fallible and sinful human beings. It stands to reason that we will mess things up, given enough time. Structures, habits, programs, and practices may end up obscuring the gospel today just as they did in Luther’s time.
Marking a Reformation Day, then, should never be a moment of simple backward gaze or a only the rehearsing of timeworn sola‘s. It needs to mean something more. It needs to stand as a reminder that we humans tend towards chaos. That there is work to do as we seek to be people of the Word and live that Word in the world. That there are ways in which we may have not been faithful and in which we may need to change.
On this day of Reformation the Church needs to ask itself if it has let tradition, custom, and even doctrinal systems guide it in ways that Christ has not. There should be questions about whether our theology and its implications are biblical or not. We need to ask ourselves whether the ways in which we are interacting with others is truly Christian or something else entirely. And then, of course, there needs to be the courage to actually change. This isn’t just a task for 2014; it is the call to Christians of all eras.
My Reformed friends have a saying that I like: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. In English this means “the Church always reformed, always reforming.” Our sinful tendency, given enough time and independence, is to not be conformed to Christ. The meaning of the Reformation is that we must be. Always.