“And Keep On Rising from the Dead” - by Peter W. Marty

Peter W. Marty ’85 M.Div.

“The church of Christ, in every age beset by change, but Spirit-led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.” – From The Church of Christ, in Every Age

On a recent Sunday morning our congregation sang the hymn, “The Church of Christ, in Every Age.” I kept glancing back at the first stanza while singing the remaining four, wondering if those lines were quite right. Yes, it’s true: The church must keep rising from the dead and be on the lookout for deadly habits that can cripple its witness.

But what if we’re living in a time when large numbers of Christians have no clue about the church’s heritage, and many pastors have little interest in tradition? How do you claim or test a heritage if you don’t consider yourself linked to one?

Some historians have suggested there is an every-500-year trend in Christianity whereby a new and more vital form of religion emerges. This can give the impression that a new religious expression is just waiting in the wings for the calendar to change. More likely, the nice round number 500 offers a convenient coat hook on which to hang the dust jackets of some freshly published books and their latest proposals for theology.

Nevertheless, dramatic change is afoot in America these decades – in the church and in the larger culture. Can new reform come out of this? It’s helpful to remember that change and reform are not necessarily the same thing. Reform movements of significance, in the 16th century or the 21st, require more than drastic change. In this quincentennial year of the Reformation, I’ve been pondering some similarities and dissimilarities between the church of 1517 and that of 2017, hoping to gain clarity on the Reformation’s heritage, legacy, and continued potential.

Medieval Tapestry

The centrality of religion in late-medieval Europe would be hard to overestimate. Even given large pockets of impiety and non-religious activity in towns and cities, the church still functioned as the center of life in ways that can be hard for us to comprehend. Civil authorities publicly executed people because of their theology. Anabaptists by the thousands were burned at the stake or beheaded, often observed by crowds full of religious fervor. In Protestant England, heresy was defined as treason. Martin Luther supported death for blasphemy.

In such a milieu, enacting Christian reforms in the 1500s was a complex operation dependent on the cooperation of local magistrates, princes, wealthy merchants, and urban aristocrats. To picture such a process today is almost unimaginable. In Luther’s time, territorial rulers had the final say over what was religiously acceptable. Cuius regio, eius religio – “whose realm, his religion” – became the guiding principle for the way faiths acquired legitimacy in the Holy Roman Empire.

Christian symbols were hard to avoid – so present and potent, in fact, that reformers went after religious images, shrines, and relics that in their judgment distorted church practice. Religious symbolism across America’s landscape today is a startling contrast. On many days, visual symbols of faith can be hard to spot. New churches are often absent of a cross and indistinguishable from big-box stores. Congregations with electronic yard signs blink clever sermon titles. Megachurches lay down huge swaths of asphalt. Inspirational videos multiply on Facebook. But signs, parking lots, and online videos are hardly religious symbols destined to renew the church.

If vivid imagery and confessional statements rallied the faith of many 16th-century Europeans, comparable fervor uniting believers today is much harder to locate. Americans are increasingly disinclined to speak of deep religious identity when describing their lives to others. Religious conversations are largely absent from the public square. Issues of healthcare, tax system overhaul, voters’ rights, and nuclear war get debated with little attention given to their religious implications.

Two Pulpits

Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses established a trajectory for his life that persistently challenged authority. At the outset, he was rankled by smoothtalking indulgence peddlers, but soon the unbending authority of the church, its leaders, and the pope himself became his primary targets. Luther’s conscience, which he considered captive to the Word of God, and his writings, which blanketed Europe, became his means for battling authority.

It has been said that Luther spoke from two pulpits – one in the church and one in the print shop. His shrewd understanding of print culture coincided conveniently with the expansion of mass printing. Books, pamphlets, tracts, sermons, and Bibles allowed Luther and other reformers to resist the idea that authority belongs exclusively to hierarchies and institutions.

Is our digital revolution in any way comparable to the role that media played in Luther’s era? That’s difficult to assess amid the diffuse, multi-layered character of our media-saturated world. We should remember, however, that media do not inspire a reformation. People and their faith lives do. This was true for the church in 1517, and it remains true today.

It’s hard to picture a single figure like Luther ever dominating the religious landscape so thoroughly again. With myriad cultural forces competing for our attention, and religion playing an increasingly peripheral role in the public square, the odds seem stacked against people connecting the meaning of their lives with the sweeping biblical narrative.

Off and Running

So, what is the legacy of the Reformation? Scholars continue to debate whether it was primarily a theological and religious revolution or a complex web of social and political events that permanently altered Europe. However we sort this divide, our best chance for flourishing as a church today depends on how thoroughly we elect to embody the richest elements of Reformation theology. Once Luther understood the church as a dynamic community of people who have been granted the gift of faith, and not an institution tasked with boasting of its traditions, the Reformation was off and running.

It wasn’t as if 16th-century Christians all united together to embrace a goal of birthing a new church. The Reformation was rather an experience of individuals in their own homes and congregations coming alive to Christianity as a way of life. Fresh understandings of God’s grace suddenly gripped ordinary lives. The notion that every believer was a priest, even in his or her own sinfulness, rocked the medieval church. That God could be viewed not as a taskmaster but as a generous donor of our days, interested in gifting us with righteousness – this discovery upended the ecclesiastical status quo. As Scripture fell into the hands and hearts of common folk, they began to feel what Luther felt personally: “The Bible is alive – it has hands and grabs hold of me, it has feet and runs after me.”

The 21st-century world in which the church lives, moves, and has its being remains just as hungry as ever for people able and willing to speak with confident faith and moral clarity. If the Reformation quincentennial can renew even a spark of this desire among Christian believers, reminding each of us that we are not Christian for cultural reasons but for theological and life-giving ones, our commemorations will be full of joy and meaning.

Peter W. Marty ’85 M.Div. is publisher of the Christian Century magazine.