Thursday, 16 November 2017

Reflections on The Another, Yet-to-Come Reformation

Another Demi-Millennium

We have been in the midst of the demi-millennial celebrations and remembrances of the Reformation.  It has certainly been a time of reflection.  One factor, often not given due weight in discussions about the topic is the influence of new technology upon the Reformation.  Without that technology it is unlikely that the Reformation would have taken place--at least in the form in which it occurred.

That technology was the printing press.  The reason this was so significant is that the Reformation was critically involved with the recovery of the authority of the Word of God, over men, the Church, and society generally.  Rapid reproduction and publishing of the text of the Bible for the common man was hugely important.
Printing (from the 1430's) and cheaper paper meant that copies of ancient texts and modern translations could be made available outside the clerical and aristocratic elite, even to ordinary literate people--the gentry, merchants, yeomen, artisans.   Printed Bibles appeared in German in 1466, and in Italian, Dutch, French, Spanish and Czech in the 1470's.  Lay readers ceased to be dependent on the clergy to transmit the world of God.  Instead of asking what God meant (which required experts to explain) they began to ask simply what God said, and decide on its meaning themselves. [Robert Tombs, The English and Their History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), p.160.]
The significance of this technology ought not be overlooked.
  Some observers have drawn parallels with the modern development of computing and the Internet.  For the first time ever all who can read or hear in the world are able to access the Scriptures in their own language over the Internet--provided the necessary hardware and electricity is accessible.

While such technology does not "guarantee" the equivalent of a global Reformation in our day, it does provide one necessary component for such a movement to occur.  Necessary, but--of course--not sufficient.

Tombs goes on to provide a helpful, summary overview of what the Reformation was about.
Late-medieval Christianity, like most religions, invested enormously in mechanisms of salvation: ceremonies, rituals, chapels, chantries, shrines, relics, statues, pilgrimages and indulgences.  This familiar, beautiful, mysterious and yet accessible form of worship provided comfort and hope.  Most people clung to it.  Most of the cultural glories of Europe derived from it, as did the power and wealth of the Church.  But it could become a squalid transaction between man and God by which favour, forgiveness and salvation were bought by performing a quasi-magical act, paying a fee, making a material gift to God or a saint, or bequeathing money for posthumous prayers.  Intellectual scepticism could draw on rational resentment of the clergy's wealth, as in the early example of Lollardy.  "Jesus said, 'Feed my lambs', nor 'Shear my sheep'," joked English reformers.

Luther's open challenge in 1517 was a denunciation of the "sale" of indulgences, by which punishment for sin could be remitted by a cash donation to the Church--currently, to build the magnificent basilica of St. Peter in Rome.  Luther rejected the whole system of belief on which this kind of piety was based.  Drawing on ideas of the fifth-century St. Augustine, he denied that merit or forgiveness could be gained by anything that sinful man could do: salvation depended solely on the mercy of God.  Human beings could do nothing to deserve this mercy: God chose them to receive it.  Though this idea had always been present in Western Christian teaching, the conclusions that Luther began to draw were that many of the activities of the Church, including most of its sacraments, were at best useless and at worst blasphemous, and that its ruling authorities were corrupt and oppressive, in effect perpetuating a huge confidence trick on Christians.  [Ibid.]
The truths rediscovered by the Reformers--and their implications--did not stay within the cloister.  They rapidly moved through pre-modern Europe.
Luther's message appealed to many educated people, first of all in the German and Swiss cities, who were already emancipating themselves intellectually from the clergy by reading the Bible, which seemed to be the way to true faith, godliness and salvation.  Luther also appealed, as Wyclif had done more than a century earlier, to nobles and princes for whom bishops, abbots and the Pope were powerful and wealthy rivals.  Luther and his followers believed that religion and society needed authority, but that Christian princes, not the Pope, should wield it.

It turned out that the authority and order were not so easily preserved amid the moral and intellectual revolution Luther had ignited.  Over much of northern Europe, crowds smashed statues in churches.  In 1524, popular revolts, the so-called Peasants' War began to sweep across central Europe from the Rhine to Poland.  Ancient social tensions were inflamed by religious radicalism, despite Luther's furious denunciation of "thieving murdering peasants."  Many thousands were eventually slaughtered, tortured and executed in the biggest ideological upheaval in Europe before the French Revolution.  No one could doubt that religious dissension affected everything.  [Ibid., p.161]
Modern Europe (and the West in general) has now turned its back on the Reformation, the Gospel, and the Christian faith.  It's apostasy is virtually comprehensive, touching every area of life.  The West will fall, unless it repents.  It no longer has the belief system that will allow it to withstand the challenge of Islam.  That much is becoming clearer by the day.

But the Word of God is not bound.  Revival and reformation can come from the strangest quarters.  Eventually, we believe, Europe will be re-converted to the faith she now despises.  In the Scriptures such an event is called repentance.  The steps are usually apostasy, judgement, repentance, and restoration.  It may take another demi-millennium, but in such matters we are in God's time, not our own.

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