Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Reformation Day; May We Always Be Sempre Reformanda!

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

This week many Protestant churches celebrated Reformation Day, in commemoration of Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses on the Wittenberg Door on October 31, 1517, in response to the preaching and selling of indulgences. It is still worth reading those theses, both for their historical significance and for greater awareness of what Luther’s position was on the related issues at the time. Perhaps the key to the whole is found in the 18th thesis, where Luther indicates his understanding that doctrines must be proved “either by reason or Scripture.” The actual positions affirmed in the theses reflect what is called the “early Luther,” before he developed his more distinctive understanding of justification by faith. The fact that Luther’s views on some key subjects evolved in time reflects the fact that the Reformation was not about the rejection of one completely agreed upon set of finalized theological positions for a new set of finalized theological positions, but about continual reformation (for the church to be sempre reformanda) in light of our best understanding of Scripture (see again that part of his 18th thesis as the presupposition behind them all).
Of course, our temptation is always to think that our current understanding is the ultimate and that we are beyond a point where our understanding might still need further development through continued study of Scripture, perhaps from perspectives we have yet to consider, or that have yet to be formulated (perhaps due to our own cultural or interpretive blinders). That does not mean we’re prepared to turn our theology on its head at the first proposal to interpret Scripture in a way that conflicts with what we have thought to be true. It does mean that our confidence is not in our own doctrinal formulations, but in the Scriptures, and the more clearly our theological convictions are supported by the Scriptures the more likely any future changes to our convictions will reflect merely nuancing of views that passed the test of time and experience.
The question is not if Luther had it all right when he posted his theses, or later when he lectured on Galatians or something else, or if Calvin got it all right with the first edition or with later editions of his Institutes, or if Wesley got it all right at one point or another of his ministry. The question is, where might I still learn from others today, even from (or with) those with whom I might have serious disagreements, and especially from (or with) those whose experience and whose blinders are different from my own?
Reformation Day reminds us of our need to continue to be humble before God’s Word, recognizing our own perpetually limited grasp on the truth we have discovered so far and our need to go on being taught by Scripture, rebuked by Scripture, corrected by Scripture and trained in righteousness by Scripture so that we might “be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17; NIV). May the Reformation continue, to the glory of God and the blessing of his people!

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