Saturday, July 26, 2014

Pointing to a fourth

So Martin Luther straddled two worlds and helped shape a third (see my previous posts on this).  The third world he helped shape was produced at the intersection of the existing powers and structures within northern Europe, especially Germany, and the gospel Luther discovered in the Bible. As Luther teased out the implications of "salvation by grace alone through faith alone," he reevaluated the churches, government structures, and societal structures around him. He commented freely -- very freely -- about how things needed to change in order to be true to the biblical word. But he also recognized the need for order in society and he was not revolutionary enough to throw everything around him into chaos. Unlike so many revolutionaries, Luther realized that change takes time.

So, for example, when the Roman Catholic bishops would no longer ordain evangelical (meaning "gospel centered") pastors, Luther figured out a compromise: for the moment, while we figure out how to move forward in a better way, the princes in each area can serve as bishops, exercising a ministry of oversight and order on behalf of the churches.

That solution is a great example of how Luther's third world was shaped by the Bible but was also bound by the realities of his present situation. And, to complicate things, Luther's compromises often led to unintended consequences. That example for instance led more or less directly to the state churches of Europe, where each nation had an official church that was in league with -- and usually subordinate to -- the power of the state. Luther didn't really foresee this and would certainly have objected to it in some ways, but at the time he was making the decision, it seemed like the best possible compromise to give the power of bishops into the hands of the princes.

So the Reformation produced a sort of compromise situation where the truth of the gospel struggled with the new structures that had to be put in place to keep good order in the churches.  People often talk about the great reforms Martin Luther initiated, but they rarely recognize that so many of the changes that swept across Europe in the 1500's were compromises between Luther's idealism, borne of a close reading of the Bible's message, and his practicality, borne of his clear understanding of the needs of the turbulent society in which he lived.

A solid reading of Luther, then, should also look at this idealism. We should be careful to see not just what changes Luther initiated, but the goals behind the changes. What values did he embrace and then compromise? If we begin to understand this fourth world, the world of Luther's biblical idealism, we may also begin to see how we need reform in our own time, and what compromises we may have to allow in order to reform our own churches and our own society.

Let's take a look at one example: church life. The primary expression of the church's life is worship, of course, and Luther had plenty to say about it. He talked about the Latin Mass, and about the German Mass, and explained why we needed both of those. (One could argue that the Latin Mass might correspond loosely to a liturgical order of worship, and the German Mass could correspond roughly to contemporary forms of worship. I realize there are huge holes in those correlations, but let it go for now.) But then Luther also pointed ahead to a different form of worship. He was daydreaming about it, and he knew it, but he still pointed the way ahead.  Here's what Luther wrote next:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian work.  According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matthew 18.  Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example in 2 Corinthians 9.  Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing.  Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love.  Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father.  In short, if one had the kind of people and persons who wanted to be Christians in earnest, the rules and regulations would soon be ready.  But as yet, I neither can, nor desire to begin such a congregation...for I have not yet the people for it, nor do I see many who want it. But if I should be requested to do it and could not refuse with a good conscience, I should gladly do my part and help as best I can.  In the meanwhile the two above-mentioned orders of service must suffice … until Christians who earnestly love the Word find each other and join together.” 

Luther clearly understands here that he's looking ahead beyond society's current needs to a time when greater change will be possible.  This quote and others like it help us to begin to piece together Luther's desire for a "fourth world" -- a world that reflects the gospel more clearly, more purely, than the reforms he was instituting.

Perhaps our greatest task as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther's Reformation should be to examine the biblical principles that drove him, to think along with him about what life might look like if the gospel shaped the church. Then, like Martin himself did, we must deal with the realities of our own time and begin to figure out where God might be calling us boldly forward and where he might be calling us to a temporary compromise.

A few more thoughts about that in my next post.

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