The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Two – Scripture]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For Part One, see “A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now”

Into the Storm

So I think it’s about time that I throw down the gauntlet and start to outline what I think the next reformation is going to look like. What is going to change, and what isn’t?

My prediction is that Reformation 2.0 will be both radical and not-so-radical.

The Gentle Showers

Let’s start with the not-so-radical bit.

This time around, I’m pretty sure our “externalities” are not going to be a big issue. When we think about reform, our minds go back to the 16th century and we tend to worry about major changes to our everyday experience of Christianity – to rituals, aesthetics, structures. We are usually deeply intimidated by this, because our identities are bound up with these practices and structures.1

But Reformation 2.0 will, I suspect, be happy to leave the majority of current Christian practice intact. In fact, a hallmark of Reformation 2.0 will almost certainly be its tolerance of a huge variety of forms for Christian existence. Holiness folks? You will be able to keep your passion and praise. Orthodox? Your liturgical beauty and ethnic traditions won’t need to be diminished. Christian Reformed? You won’t lose your simplicity and austerity. Lutherans? You can keep your singing and informality. Traditional Roman Catholics: keep your Tridentine mass, if you want. High Anglicans: go wild – use as many “thees” and “thous” as you please! And if you aren’t into any of this – perhaps you prefer a house church, or other informal spiritual group – actually, that’s fine too.

Now, there will be some surface changes. We’ll see a generalized flattening of hierarchy and the disappearance of many exclusionary practices (e.g. excluding women as ministers), and greater attention to how traditional elements can be “read” as more clearly conveying the Gospel – so there will be a certain filtering/editing going on. But broadly the “external” picture of Christianity isn’t going to be a major focus. On the local level, in particular, changes might be fairly minimal.

But underneath the surface? Fasten your seat-belts. That is where the coming reform will be very radical indeed.

The Wind and Fury

I see four critical changes on the horizon. Each represents the unwinding of a key practice or idea of our current synthesis, which has its roots in the late 3rd and 4th centuries.

1) From “Scripture” to “scripture”. We will finally de-divinize and de-throne scriptures.

This is a hard one to swallow. Veneration, and even fear, of Scripture penetrate most of us to the bone. But the “Scripturalization” of Christianity will, I think, eventually be recognized as a temporary and culturally-conditioned wrong turn in Christianity’s history.

Tying the truth of the Gospel to the purported divine inspiration of a book (or set of books) — i.e. Scripturalization — has probably been the root cause of almost every serious misstep made in historical Christianity, from Origen to Barth, Augustine to Erasmus, Calvin to Spener, and many, many others. Each of my next three points will serve as expositions of the results of this error. But its basic effect can be summarized easily: it has caused the Gospel to become confused and entangled with the cultural and social narratives of specific Ancient Near Eastern/Greco-Roman societies. Ever wondered why the Christian God keeps re-emerging as a kind of angry and jealous near-eastern ruler or judge – instead of the crucified Christ, the Redeemer, the Saviour? Or why Christianity endlessly re-morphs into a moral and social (and even political) law – instead of a simple and pure proclamation of salvation? Or why the Christian moral and social imagination can’t ever quite escape pre-modernity?

The answer to all of these is Scripturalization: the idea that the Bible is the core revelation of God, and Christianity is principally an exercise in exegeting this book.

This is actually a very strange mistake for us to have made. There is very little about the Christian message that should make us want to put a revealed book at the center of our faith. Even on the face of it the notion is bizarre: Christ died on the cross to give us eternal life and salvation – and to give us a special divine book to puzzle over? What a strange idea! We Christians claim that we have encountered everything in Christ crucified and risen, and Christ has given us everything, including himself; Christ is the sum total revelation of God. We have only to place our hope in him — that is the principal task of Christianity. But then we have some set of writings that also reveals (further?) who God is? It’s such a strange idea that, to support and maintain it, we have had to make it an object of our faith: we have to believe in the Bible. But wait: we have to believe in Christ and in the divinity of some books from antiquity? It simply doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense is that in late antiquity Greco-Roman Christianity absorbed non-Christian practices of understanding God as revealed through divine books/writings – and developed this as part of late antique “cultural Christianity”, in much the same way that other Christianities would adopt and incorporate older pagan festivals and rituals, etc. So if we think about the Scripturalization of Christianity as a historical peculiarity of late antique Christianity: fine. It is a kind of contextual theology. But it was their thing, and it’s passed.

Today, elevating this peculiarity of late antique Christianity into a universal norm has no warrant. In fact, it is downright harmful, because it “enchants” or gives divine authority to vast networks of problematic narratives and practices from a long dead pre-modern world. If we adhere to these ancient practices or ideas as “divine revelation” we cause genuine scandal and harm to people around us, because many of these ideas and practices are reprehensible; alternatively, if we try to find inventive and creative ways to dodge them, while still “keeping up the appearances” of their authority, we appear deceptive and even a bit ridiculous. Either way, we discredit the Gospel with our strange need to uphold the divinity of a set of ancient books. (Here’s a troubling question to ponder: how much of the Gospel have we sacrificed, historically, in order to uphold the divinity of our sacred Bible?)

Reformation 2.0 will therefore de-throne Scripture as God’s revelation or as the Word of God – and most certainly as the literal “words of God”, penned by divine hand.

Instead, the Gospel will re-take its place as the proper Word of God. And, in Reformation 2.0, “the Gospel” will mean not the Gospel books or the sum of the Gospel books’ content (the traditional Gospels are in fact not terribly good at conveying the Gospel, as Luther long ago realized). “The Gospel” will mean the message of the Good News that Jesus, who reveals who and what God is, has suffered and died for our sakes, and risen again, to grant us, without the slightest condition, salvation. This, and only this, will be the story of God: the Good News of our radically free gift of life and salvation in Christ crucified. This will be the sum of Christian “revelation”, and it is extremely narrow. All other texts must be read in light of this revelation, and as strictly subordinate to it (this is what Luther was trying to say when he talked about Christ as the only content of Scripture). So no set of texts will claim any authority over or against this Gospel. If we must speak in terms of “believing in” a text or message, we believe in the Gospel – not in the Bible. To put it differently, our belief will be restored in the God of the Gospel, not the “Biblical God” — and we’ll be released from the endless contortions to make the latter appear to be the former.

We will also realize that our divinization of scripture has been the divinization of oursleves. When we treat scripture as a divine revelation we have simply allowed one set of our human “stories” to replace, or at least be set on the same level as, God’s story, i.e. the story of the Gospel, of Christ on the cross. This is a form of  idolatry. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last.

Scripture will therefore need to assume a very new  position in the Reformation 2.0. Its position will still be significant. Scripture will not be exorcised from our Christian liturgies, devotion, theology or study. We’ll still understand God as acting and speaking through scripture. People will still treasure scripture’s beauty and power. But moving forward, scriptures will not be allowed to determine or displace the Gospel in any way. Scripture will not be understood as ultimately authoritative of Christianity’s content (Reformation 1.0 blew this one, big time, despite Luther’s logic pointing in another direction). Scripture will become recognized as a real locus of God’s actions, but one that is not qualitatively different from any other way God acts in the world, whether through nature, other people, art, etc. The scriptures will simply become one of the means by which we explore and understand the Gospel – and valued exactly inasmuch as they are able to serve as this means.

Scripture will therefore, I suspect, re-emerge in Reformation 2.0 as “canonical” in a way similar to how, say, Shakespeare or Milton are understood as canonical texts of English literature.2 Scripture will be understood as a central literary monument of Christianity, a huge trove of images and concepts, and a key reference for learning about and talking about the Gospel. Inasmuch as it instills the Gospel, it will even be considered, in a manner of speaking, divine. But we will finally understand that it is not properly divine. Christianity will no longer be a religion of the book. It will once again become the religion of the Good News.

Next post: The Heart of the Storm: the End of the Line for the Theology of Sanctification and Deification

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  1. Why our identities have gotten so deeply enmeshed is these practices and structures is something we need to question – but that’s another post. []
  2. I owe this excellent observation to Tim Clark. []
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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part One]

About the Author
David Wagschal

There’s hardly a week that goes by where I’m not somehow reminded of the pressing need for Reformation 2.0 in the Christian church. A bitter sermon; a conversation with a frustrated Christian friend; a depressing news story about this or that church; the silly or embarrassing behaviour of a church leader. I can’t seem to escape it. Everywhere I look I see evidence that the old synthesis is fraying: pastors seem to be regularly and systemically burnt out; theologians are angry, cynical and uncertain; the laity is tired and perplexed; churches stand empty. Sadness, anger and frustration linger everywhere. Distortion and exaggeration seem to be on the rise. Most of all: people seem oddly disconnected from church, even when they don’t want to be. It’s like no one exactly fits the old mold anymore. We’re all standing “outside” of the system now, in different ways. It’s weird.

The atmosphere is so strange. I feel like I can almost smell the storm coming. It’s not all negative: there is a kind of new, almost wild hope in the air too. But something is going to give; and soon.

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