Moving beyond institutional religion, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation
By Alexis Waggoner | 10.31.2017
I had a great conversation with one of our scholars, Dr. Jarmo Tarkki, recently (you can watch the clip here) where we talked about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and how Martin Luther paved the way for the church to keep re-imagining and re-inventing itself.
The spirit of Luther — and the Reformation — is alive and well when we question faith; when we resist doing things a certain way just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it;” when we honestly investigate what we believe and why; when that investigation leads us to conclusions we might never have otherwise thought possible. In short, I think the spirit of the Reformation is alive and well in Westar and the work that we do.
It might seem antithetical, but I see the guiding principles of the Reformation movement precisely as the reasons why it might be time to move through and beyond certain beliefs, tenants, and creeds passed down for centuries in church history.
Let’s take the Nicene Creed for example. An ancient litmus test for what it meant to be a Christian: the necessary beliefs, dogma, and doctrine that many churches (including the Lutheran church) adhere to today. It’s often used as a standard for membership in churches and explains assumed positions on things like soteriology, trinitarianism, virgin birth, divinity of Jesus, eschatology, etc. Here’s the full text:
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
So how might the “spirit of the Reformation” be the force that propels us through — and even past — this ancient creed? Many who subscribe to it will be reticent to let it go, perhaps even arguing that Luther would never want such a thing, and to suggest otherwise is counter to his efforts 500 years ago. Perhaps Luther never would have considered doing away with the Nicene Creed as a test of church membership. But I believe it is precisely because of the work Luther did, and the stance he took, that we are encouraged to look again at this Creed and, in fact, at all our religious assumptions.
If Luther showed that the Institutionalized church can, should, and even must be critiqued and questioned, then he paved the way for us to do the same. In his time, this institution was primarily recognized as the Catholic Church but for us today the institution may take on many forms. Our critiques may be aimed at the church as a whole, or our reformation may take place within our own personal religious space. Or we might question doctrines set forth in something like the Nicene Creed.
Our scholar John Shelby Spong has an interesting work, for example, analyzing the likelihood of the virgin birth. His contention is that this supernatural birth story was something that was read onto the story and life of Jesus by later followers as a way to explain and understand his divinity. Though it wasn’t necessarily something even the ancients took literally.
Those who adhere strictly to the Nicene Creed might be shouting, “heresy,” but I think Spong’s work is in the true spirit of the Reformation. He is refusing to take doctrine on history alone or for its own sake. He isn’t afraid of looking centuries of tradition the face and saying, “we might be wrong.” He is honestly going where he feels the scholarship and research leads him.
There are plenty more examples of how we can begin to pull on the threads of history and tradition. Just like we must not hold onto doctrine for its own sake, I also believe we must not deconstruct for its own sake, but as a result of honest inquiry. This, to me, seems the most “Lutheran” thing we could do. And I hope we continue to take it seriously — on this 500th anniversary of the movement Luther started, and every day.
As Marketing and Digital Education Director, Alexis Waggoner works closely with both Westar’s Marketing Committee and the Executive Director to advance the presence and value of Westar in our culture through social media and the use of digital media in public education. Alexis brings to Westar a unique blend of digital marketing and religious education experience. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary.
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