On October 31, Protestant churches celebrate Reformation Day, remembering the famous nailing of the 95 theses by Martin Luther to the Wittenburg door in 1517.
Why celebrate this over 500 years later? Well, a Latin phrase that emerged from the Protestant movement is semper reformanda: the Church should be “always reforming.”
When I first learned this Reformation principle, I was told that each generation needs a new interpretation and application of biblical teaching. It’s not that the Bible changes but, since we’re always changing, the Bible needs a fresh interpretation in every cultural moment. At its best, the term semper reformanda means that we need to turn to the Bible, again and again, to reform the Church’s errors, overstatements, or drifting. Happily Protestant, I’m glad that Luther advanced the reforming that Calvin picked up, Cranmer continued, etc. etc., down the line.
Newness and Novelty
But the task to reinterpret the Bible in every age is exhausting, if not impossible. In our current cultural moment, we are tasked to discover every aspect of reality—nothing is, can be, or should be handed down. As an example of this prevailing logic, Justice Kennedy wrote the concurring opinion for abortion access in 1992. He argues, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” “The right to define” resides in the individual apart from any authority, tradition, or outside force. To this sentiment, David Brooks remarks: That’s a homework assignment almost none of us can fulfill. In a similar fashion, who can fulfill the homework assignment of defining one’s own conception of every biblical doctrine? Though it may seem overwhelming, I know plenty of seminary students who have tried (myself included).
The Reformation has recently been blamed for sowing the seeds of the Enlightenment ideal: an “authentic” age, the expressive and rogue individual, privatized religion, a secularized world, etc. While I don’t think this is all to be blamed on the Reformers, I can also see how the Reformation seeds contributed to these flowers (or thorns). For example, Charles Taylor, one who traces the Reformation’s contribution to the secular age, describes the age of authenticity as
“the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority” (A Secular Age, 475).
Ah! Realizing our humanity and living out our own—as Justice Kennedy suggested. Not conforming to things like doctrine or the traditions of the church—remember: always reform. As a millennial, I get this: I don’t like to be told what to do (unless, of course, what you tell me is what I already like).
Tried and True
However, one of the beauties of the catholic tradition is that it downplays discovering what we believe and instead encourages us to recover what has been believed. I always thought I needed my own statement of faith. It turns out the creeds do that better than I could. We don’t have to uncover the Bible anew; it’s handed down to us. The locus of authority lies in the God behind the text and the saints gone before us, not ourselves. And this is incredibly freeing. It’s one of the things that led me to the Anglican tradition.
As a young, restless, and Reformed-ish believer, I saw a mega-attractional-pragmatic-individual Church in need of reforming. I was (am?) an expert critic. I could offer the semper reformanda that the church needs. However, what I was doing was placing my individual critique in the primary position. I wanted the Church in my image; they wanted it in their own. Who doesn’t?
I realize that I need a long time of learning before I start reforming. Though there’s much to reform about our modern churches, perhaps we got in our current predicament because we were too quick to reject what came before us.
For example, I was reading a recent book on pastoral culture which critiqued monasteries for believing they could flee an evil world only to realize that sin resides in the human heart. I’ve heard the trope again and again: “Those silly monastics!” But is that really why and how monasteries were formed?
Couldn’t the Protestant church use a more prayerful people with intentional practices? Our authentic instincts may not like the word “ritual” without understanding what ritual does. Modern individuals may shun practices like confessing sin to a priest, but when else will we? Pleasure seeking expressivists can ignore the ascetic practice found in monasteries without learning to ever say “no.” Upwardly mobile urbanites may lament vows of stability, but how else can we know and be known by a community? Maybe there’s something there in the monastic tradition beyond “works righteousness.”
The Church has a treasure trove of ancient practices and traditions from which we can draw. In an unstable and shifting age, more and more people are seeking the old and established as opposed to the new and the novel. It’s now hip to be old! And those in the Church ought to be adamant: we have what you’re looking for.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad the Reformation happened. I’m a Protestant, after all. I’m delighted there are no more indulgences and that the Church clarified its teaching on justification by grace through faith. But on Reformation day, before we go throwing off tradition and conformity, perhaps we should pause and learn. Before we find out what we believe as individuals, take some time to learn what has been believed and taught by the Church. There might be some beautiful things we should keep or recover. Maybe the reform our churches need today is more historical humility and less chronological snobbery.
Alex Sosler is Assistant Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College near Asheville, North Carolina. A Cleveland, Ohio, native, Alex is married to Lauren and dad to Mariela, Auden, and Jude. His family attends Redeemer Anglican Church in Asheville where he’s going through the ordination process.