Reformation Day

It is Reformation Day today: 500 years since, at least by tradition, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, and in the process beginning something that became the Protestant Reformation and all that followed from that.

A book I was reading recently about religion, politics, and World War One New Zealand reminds me that this is the first of the 100 year anniversaries of the Reformation to have been seriously observed by churches in New Zealand.  In 1917, the German origins of the Reformation were something of an obstacle.

In an age when most Christians have almost no sense of church history, I was impressed that a couple of local churches used the anniversary for a series of sermons and other events, highlighting something of our indebtedness –  Baptists and Presbyterians – to the reformers, and especially to Luther.   In both traditions, the connection is indirect.   Luther wasn’t critical to shaping either the English or Scottish Reformation, and English Baptists didn’t trace their origins back to the German Anabaptists.  Much of Luther’s view of the church –  as distinct perhaps from his views of grace and salvation –  will have almost anathema to my Baptist forefathers.   And yet without the German reformation it isn’t easy to envisage the English reformation having taken hold and endured.  Or, perhaps, to envisage the Counter-Reformation.

500 years on views about the Reformation still differ widely.  Our own local pastor –  not someone overly strong on history –  proclaimed that we owe democracy, liberty, scientific discovery to the reformers and the world they opened up.  There is a similar line run in an article in today’s Herald by AUT history professor Paul Moon.   I suspect the pudding is somewhat over-egged.    Had not the great ages of maritime discovery already gotten well underway before Luther and his theses?  Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440.   For centuries, the most advanced technology was further east, in the Byzantine territories.  And hadn’t the Venetian Republic been around for many hundreds of years.  The oldest records of double-entry bookkeeping date back, apparently, to around 1340.

Which doesn’t mean the Reformation made no difference.  Surely, the Bible in the common tongue would have before long anyway, but Luther and his successors must have aided dissemination and study of the Scriptures.    Communion in both kinds?  Married clergy once again in the western church.  A great voice for the laity –  at least in traditions like my own Baptist one.  An end to the scourge of indulgences.  All this we should celebgrate, and recall with gratitude.

And yet, and yet.  500 years on, the church is rent into more factions and denominations than ever.  And is weaker, in its claim on the allegiances of people of Europe and its offshoots than it has been for more than 1000 years.   We take our Lord’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the kingdom of God, but this is the same Lord who called us to be one, even as he and the Father are one.    How little sign of that is there today, even amid the adversity the church faces.

And if we want to look to less ecclesiastical dimensions, isn’t it true that eugenices thrived more in Protestant territories than in Catholic ones; that abortion culture is more prevalent in Protestant cultures than Catholic ones.  That slavery flourished in the Protestant US South into the 1860s.

So if there are things to be grateful for today, there is also much to regret and recall uneasily.   I celebrate the churches and church traditions that helped shape my faith and practice, halting and inadequate as it is.  The simple brick church in a new suburb, in which my parents dedicated themselves to raise me as Christ’s; the simple and small timber church in a new town where I first made a personal decision to follow Christ.  For another slightly bigger church where I was baptised.  And for various churches – Baptist, Anglican and even briefly a Pentecostal, that God has used as part of my own journey of faith and reformation.  And for parents who nurtured and shaped me in the gospel, as much by example of faithful service as by word.

In fact, by a coincidence I’d never appreciated until a few weeks ago, today –  Reformation Day –  is also the 46th anniversary of the day I made my first public commitment to follow Christ.  It was a Sunday evening service, in the little Kawerau Baptist church, and I was sitting in the front row, virtually right under the pulpit from which my father was leading the service.  When I stood, to signify, my desire to follow he couldn’t even see me –  a Sunday School teacher had to point it out to him afterwards.  It was only a start – even then a continuation of an upbringing in a Christian home –  and it was another reaffirmation three years later than led to my baptism in 1975, aged 12.   But I gave thanks to God for his faithfulness through all those years, and we’ve I’ve slipped and wandered away he’s called me back to himself.  By grace, through faith, I’m a child of the Reformation (in more ways than one). And for all the ambivalence about the (now unchangeable history) that is something to be grateful for.

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