Friday, December 2, 2016
Where to look for the next Luther. . .
Radical reform and renewal come out of nowhere. Like the prophets of old who showed up without being invited, we cannot legislate nor can we control reform. It is messy. There is often blood (sometimes literal and sometimes symbolic in the breach or schism that follows such prophetic intervention). God pitted the prophet against the priest enough to shake things up when complacency had led to apostasy and heresy. God chose unlikely candidates without the requisite standing and stature we seek of our leaders today. Most often they were also unwilling prophets who prophesied only because the Word of the Lord burned within their hearts and upon their tongues. Their voices were neither heralded nor welcomed but in the wake of their presence, repentance was the fruit and a time, if only brief, of renewal in faith, doctrine, and life.
Whether we as Lutherans like to admit it or not, Luther was such an unlikely reformer. He was not schooled for this nor trained but arose out of nowhere (called Wittenberg). He was neither perfect nor was he pragmatic. He messed up. He messed things up. Now, almost 500 years later, even Rome admired his exuberance for grace alone, his commitment to the living voice of Scripture, and his passion for Christ and Him crucified. It is a good thing when enemies acknowledge that things were not necessarily exactly as the official transcript of history wrote them but a carefully scripted meeting between old adversaries is probably not the venue through which the next voice for reform and renewal will be raised or heard.
Reformers (prophets) seldom reflected the usual expectations of what leadership in the church should look like or act like. These were rule breakers -- not the rules of God but the rules of men by which the churches structured themselves and governed themselves over the years. They did not do business as usual and their reform was not about laws or rules by which we govern ourselves but about the very essence of what is believed, confessed, and taught. Men did not raise up these individuals but God sent them at critical junctures of history when the institution was failing the faith and the faithful.
Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church is always in need of reform or being reformed). I think nearly everyone believes this. Benedict XVI does and so does Francis. Luther did and so do the Lutherans of every age who have claimed kinship with him. But therein lies the rub. Benedict and Francis seem to disagree over the shape of this reform. Benedict follows the older tradition of reform that restores what was lost and reforms what has become correct -- nothing new but a hermeneutic of continuity. Francis is not so sure. There may be new things but the new things he tries to characterize as changes not in doctrine but in practice. This is the very thing that is in controversy about Francis and his attempts to reform practice. It is the same for Lutherans. Some (ELCA and some of the LWF variety) believe that tradition is a suggestion and that the Spirit is free to lead the Church past what has been believed, confessed, and taught (even when it is in Scripture). Others insist that the true character of reform is not departure from but restoration to catholic doctrine and practice (Augustana). Repentance is, after all, not a turning to something new but returning to what does not change -- the mercy of God.
One more thing. Prophets and reformers do not raise up themselves. They raise up Jesus. They raise up Scripture. They raise up the faithful witness of the fathers. Self-proclaimed prophets are not what we need but those whom God raises up with "thus saith the Lord" as their authority and whose faithfulness accords with the full Divine Word. This is the reformer we need in our own age -- not a self-proclaimed prophet to lead us into new ways but voices from God to restore what has been lost, reclaim what has been cast aside, renew what has grown stale, and reform what has become corrupt. The issues today may or may not be the same as when Luther was raised up from obscurity but they cry out for more Luthers. Task forces and blue ribbon committees and commissions will help us sort things out but they are seldom the prophetic voices who will turn us ad fontes of Scripture.