What is the purpose of my blog?
The Short Version
- Part theological exploration, part personal journey, this blog is about renewal and reform.
- Its starting point is concern about the status quo of the Christian church(es), and a need to open up dialogue on some of historic Christianity’s most widely held assumptions and convictions.
- Its primary task is to re-visit and re-appropriate the central ideas of the earliest Reformation tradition, especially those of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560).
- It will proceed (mostly) as an exploration into Luther and Melanchthon’s thought, and of later theologians in this tradition.
- It will leave just about no aspect of traditional Christian institutions, doctrine, and life unexamined – so be warned! This is not a blog for the faint of heart.
The Loooong Version…
This blog is, in effect, a chronicle of my own rediscovery of the (Lutheran) Reformation.
It finds its immediate impetus in the observation – made often enough – that Christianity is in trouble: attendance is dropping; infrastructure is weakening; Christian discourse is polarizing and fragmenting; churches are becoming more and more sectarian; the disconnect between church and culture seems to be reaching a point that Christians seem largely unable to speak to the cultures around them; Christian theology and discourse seems increasingly exhausted; and the churches are politically and socially marginalized. Broadly, the Gospel seems to have little traction in our society. To put it more existentially, our kids aren’t coming to church, and it’s not clear that they’re going to start anytime soon.
Some of these developments may be natural, even healthy, perhaps part of a normal cycle of growth and decline. There are even places that are seeing vitality and growth.
Nevertheless, even when we see growth, it’s hard to shake the niggling feeling that such vitality is ephemeral, temporary. In the global south, for example, one worries that it is only a matter of time before a familiar pattern of decline sets in.
No: the overall picture is one of weakness and fragility. Something is not right.
In this blog I join the (I think) swelling ranks of observers who believe that we are now witnessing a root-and-branch re-formatting of church life such as has not been seen for centuries. Everything is changing: the way we “do” institution, the way we believe, the way we understand the world, the way we conceive of religion.
The reasons for these changes are complex. Fundamentally, the social, cultural, and political changes of the last few centuries have rendered the paradigms that have governed mainstream Christian belief and life for almost two millennia – all essentially forged during the late Roman period – out of step with our lived realities. In effect, the ancient world is passing away, and with it, its version of Christianity. And the result is something of a global crisis for Christian faith.
This crisis has many aspects: institutional, aesthetic, social, intellectual. But the only one that really matters is evangelical: the central message of Christianity has become exceptionally difficult to communicate. The Gospel, currently embedded in the categories, languages, and institutions of a bygone age, is regularly lost in translation. The result is a kind of system failure.
What to do?
In this blog, I want to explore the thesis that a key resource for addressing our current crisis may be found in the writings and ideas from the last time Christianity underwent a major re-reformatting: the western Reformation.
In particular, I believe that two of the earliest reformers, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and his foremost disciple, Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), sketched a vision of Christianity that is today critical for guiding any attempts at Christian reconfiguration. I contend that these two figures, at the very dawn of the modern age, sensed and identified – almost uncannily so – the roots of our current crisis, and began to formulate a truly re-formed Christianity. This re-formed Christianity, albeit itself dated in many of its particulars, remains unparalleled in its ability to communicate the Gospel in our contemporary context. Unfortunately, many of these insights have since become quite obscured or marginalized. This neglect is one of the great oversights of modern theology.
What were Martin and Philipp up to?
I have spent several years studying classic Lutheran theology. I grew up Lutheran, and later acquired an academic-historical understanding of the reformers’ significance. Yet it was only recently that I began to truly appreciate the insights of these two figures. (Did I have to thoroughly immerse myself in the late antique and medieval synthesis before I could properly understand what they were doing?
It’s been quite a revelation. I’ve frankly come to believe that, on basically all fundamental points, Luther was right.
(Much less so for Melanchthon, but the early Melanchthon is very insightful.)
In a nutshell, Luther understood two things. First, that the Gospel is the promise of God’s decision to save us through grace alone – that is, as a pure act of mercy, without any reference to our own merits or actions whatsoever. Salvation is a total, radical gift. Christ, and only Christ, “worked” for our salvation, and he did everything. Nothing is left for us, except to trust in this message – and even this is a gift, a taking-on of Christ’s own trust.
Second, that if you get this Gospel wrong, even slightly wrong, you get everything wrong. It is the very core of Christian life: everything flows into and out of it. It is the criterion by which everything is judged: Scripture, the church, ethics, everything. Only when the church keeps this radical Gospel front and center, constantly testing and reforming itself by it, can the church remain healthy and faithful to its mission.
Guided by these two insights, Luther and Melanchthon engaged in an immense project of reassessing every aspect of Christian life they had inherited at the end of the middle ages. Ultimately this required nothing less than a massive root-and-branch overhaul of the Greco-Roman paradigm of Christianity that they had received: doctrinally, aesthetically, morally – you name it. They sensed the fundamental weaknesses of the entire system – its fundamental discordances with the Gospel (for moderns, at least) – and set about trying to fix them.1
Today, I believe we need to pick up where they left off. True, many things have changed since the 16th century. There can be no question of simply re-animating or slavishly reproducing Reformation forms. The configuration arrived at then is almost certainly not appropriate today. And both Luther and Melanchthon went down roads they shouldn’t have – I hardly need to mention Luther’s anti-Semitic ragings, for example. There can be no question of setting them up as new “fathers” of the church. (One of the key elements of their reform, in fact, is that we shouldn’t set up any ancient figures as somehow authoritative except inasmuch as they are faithful to the Gospel.)
But I believe we must recover their core program, and many of their key insights. In particular we desperately need to reaffirm the centrality of the Gospel of grace, and re-establish this as the absolute and only criterion for understanding who God is, who we are, and how we are to navigate the contemporary transformation. And this requires that we return to the searching critique of the Greco-Roman synthesis that Luther and Melanchthon were so presciently beginning to dismantle.
This blog is therefore my attempt at re-discovering and reviving some of the fundamental contours of classical Lutheran thought (at least as I understand it). In practice, it will proceed mostly through pulling out interesting bits and pieces for the works of Luther and Melanchthon, esp. the former, for commentary and reflection.
As a caveat, it is not a blog on Luther or Melanchthon per se,or any other early Reformation figure (I’ll leave that to Reformation historians). It is inspired by these figures, but my focus is entirely contemporary and interpretative: where do we go now? And of course on many points I will assert things that probably neither Luther nor his contemporaries would have approved – I am, after all, taking them as a starting point, not an end point.
So join me for my little “stroll through the Reformation”. For those not accustomed to Protestant theology – or to only that of the other, later Reformed/Calvinist wing of the Reformation – some of what you will read will no doubt seem a little alarming. But I urge you to bear with me. Even if you don’t buy the whole program, you’ll still find that there are a great many insights to be gleaned from these two figures. I promise they’ll make you think.
1) David’s A New Catechism [Version 1.0]
So… if you were to write a summary of what you believe — and excellent exercise that I commend to everyone — what would it look like? Here’ my go at it!
It is still very much a work in progress.
2) A Reading Guide to Luther and Melanchthon [Updated October 2016]
Luther’s output was prodigious. I strongly suspect that one of the main reasons Luther is comparatively neglected in modern theology is simply the size and unevenness of his corpus. You have to plow through a lot of material before you start to get his drift. This list, also a work-in-progress, is my attempt to provide something of a cheat-sheet: a list of the most critical and/or representative bits I’ve found so far. (Oh, and I’ve thrown in the best stuff I’ve found from Melanchthon as well.)
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- the Constantinian model of the church as a socially embedded, monolithic/homogenous, and broadly coercive “established” body
- a theology of “ascent”, “climbing”, “progress”, “deification”, “education”, i.e. a theology that understands salvation as essentially a gradual process — and therefore the institution and theology of monasticism and asceticism (esp. with its virtue/vice discourse, and the intellective tradition that sees salvation in terms of the mind’s ascent or transformation)
- a tendency to divinize or sacralize the institutional forms of the church – to see them as somehow “infused” by the divine
- a general tendency towards social stratification, whether in distinguishing “clergy”/”lay”, “secular”/”monastic”, or different orders of clergy, or different churches in relation to each other, or any other “levels” of Christians: “more/less perfect believers”, “more/less knowledgeable”, etc.
- the mystagogic sacramental system (conceiving of grace as a kind of “energy” transmitted and “governed” by the church)
- Greco-Roman anthropology, which understands humanity as a hierarchy of various faculties or “parts”, with the mind generally superior, and advancement conceived as the mind’s domination or control over the lower faculties
- a heavy investment in rhetoric, image, imitation, keeping up appearances/honour, i.e. broadly the tendency of embedding content deeply into (aesthetically harmonious) form
- an overwhelming emphasis on harmony, order, control, deference and obedience (generally in patriarchal, class-oriented, and hetero-normative terms)
- the strong tendency to think of salvation in terms of knowing/recognizing/perceiving [↩]