February /March 2017 - Vol. 90
tree rooted by river
.. The Vitality of Reformation Spirituality
by  Alister McGrath

Light is a symbol of hope. In the late summer of 1914, it seemed to many Europeans that this light was about to be extinguished as its greatest nations stood poised on the brink of war. Viscount Grey, then British Foreign Secretary, captured this somber mood as he stood looking out of his windows upon London’s Whitehall on 3 August 1914, and reflected upon the implications of that summer’s grim events. The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime. ’ A light flickering, finally to go out, symbolized the end of an era of hope as the shadows lengthened before the darkness.

Precisely the opposite sentiment prevailed four hundred years earlier. In the year 1535, after many years of struggle for independence, the city of Geneva finally gained its freedom from the powerful Duchy of Savoy. The newly independent city decided to make a break with both the political and the religious past, and align itself with a major new religious force now sweeping through Europe - the Reformation. During the following year, John Calvin would arrive to give Genevan Evangelicalism a much-needed sense of direction and purpose. As early as 1535, however, the city council decided to signal its decision to align itself with the forces of the future. It chose a motto for the city which would henceforth resonate throughout history: post tenebras lux - after the shadows, light! A new era of hope seemed to have dawned.

Geneva’s decision to adopt the Reformation followed a pattern set by the majority of the great cities of northern Europe. Yet it was more than a new political order that was dawning in the cities of Europe at this time; a new Christian spirituality was being created and developed, faithful to Scripture and deeply rooted in the Christian tradition on the one hand, yet capable of meeting the needs and opportunities of the modern age and its cities on the other. It is this spirituality which is the subject of the present book.

To study the spirituality of the Reformation is not to luxuriate in romanticism. It is not to look back in nostalgia, like some old-timer hankering after the good old days when everything was better than it is now. It is not like the sentimental scrutiny of sepia-tinted photographs, nor the wistful recollection of days of lost innocence, a longing for a bygone period and its security. Rather, it is a hard-headed examination of past events, individuals and ideas, with a view to exploiting their present potential. It is to reach into our Christian past, and recover some of its riches. It is a critical awareness that not everything in the Christian present is quite what it could be, linked with a willingness to consider alternative possibilities - an attitude with a distinguished history of use within the Christian tradition. The Reformation witnessed the birth of classic Evangelical spirituality; the modem period needs to know about and benefit from it.

A Spirituality for the Modem Age
Historians find it convenient to give names to periods of history. The Reformation is generally agreed to stand at the dawn of the ‘early modem period’. Time and time again, the Reformation marks the junction of the medieval and modem eras. It represents a parting of the ways - the dying world of the Middle Ages, and the emerging world of modernity. Many religious, social, political and economic developments which we take for granted in the modem world owe their origins to the European Reformation. Equally, of course, there are many important developments which took place much later than the sixteenth century, tracing their origins to the Enlightenment or the French Revolution. The Reformation does not anticipate each and every aspect of modem life.

Nevertheless, there are important and vital points at which the Reformation makes contact with our modem situation. Time after time, the reformers are seen to link in with concerns, anxieties and aspirations which we can recognize as being our own. At point after point, there is a surprisingly contemporary feel to the writings of the period. Historically, this is precisely what we should expect. The Reformation had to develop forms of Christian thought and action capable of relating to the new age which dawned with the collapse of the Middle Ages. Medieval forms of spirituality were, in general, simply not capable of relating to the new needs and concerns of the modem world. They had to be replaced. The Reformation may be regarded as a necessary, and perhaps an overdue, attempt to relate the gospel to the new world of the cities, in which the laity were increasingly playing a dominant role.

In that seminal aspects of modem western society trace their origins to Europe at this time, it is to be expected that Reformation spirituality - developed with the needs of this new social order in mind - should prove capable of relating directly to our own day and age. Modem western society may have moved on far from its origins in sixteenth-century Europe - but time after time, the connections are seen to remain. To study Reformation spirituality is to study forms of spirituality which still connect up with the social, personal and existential concerns of modem western humanity. That they do not link up with every aspect of modem life is only to be expected; history has, after all, moved on. But vital connections remain, awaiting discovery and use by the believers of today.

Caricatures die hard, and perhaps one of the most influential caricatures of Christian history lies in the nineteenth-century suggestion that the Reformation and its inheritance were devoid of any spirituality. The very phrase ‘Reformation spirituality’ was alleged to be an oxymoron, a blatant self-contradiction. It is a pleasure to be able to write this book in the knowledge that this crude stereotype is in what one hopes to be irreversible decline. Recent scholarship has revealed many of the leading figures of the Reformation as individuals with a passionate concern for the pastoral, spiritual and social well-being of their people - men who were concerned to ground their theologies firmly in the usually humdrum, yet occasionally terrifying, realities of everyday life. Their search for an authentically Christian spirituality was grounded in their belief that true knowledge of God was transformative, capable of deeply changing the mental, experiential and social worlds of those who grasped it. In undertaking that same quest for a renewed and authentic Christian spirituality today, we could do far worse than engage in dialogue with such figures as Luther and Calvin.

Furthermore, recent scholarship has largely discarded the obsolete polemics of earlier periods. For example, Roman Catholic writers are increasingly viewing the reformers as writers and preachers concerned with the creative restatement and application of the Christian faith in a period of exceptional difficulty and instability. There is growing sympathy for the suggestion that it was not so much the reformers, but rather political and social currents in the late Renaissance, which split the medieval church asunder, destroying its unity. The rise of nationalism and increasing trends towards political absolutism in Europe are among the more obvious currents of this type. Indeed, it is possible to argue that the Reformation provided a vital check upon the scope of such developments, by preventing the secularization of the church being extended to the secularization of the Christian faith itself.

There is now an increasing willingness on all sides to regard the reformers as individuals who were passionately and responsibly committed to the well-being of the church; as people who were obliged to break with the church of their day not because their ideas were heretical, but on account of the obstinacy of the late medieval church. The old wineskins could not cope with this potent new wine. With the welcome benefit of hindsight, we are increasingly viewing the reformers as individuals who developed new ideas and reclaimed old ideas which the church desperately needed to hear and act upon if it was to meet the new challenges and opportunities of the period.That the Reformation ended up dividing the Christian church is a fact of history; it is equally a fact of history that the reformers did not intend this to take place, and took no pleasure in seeing it happen. One of the greatest tragedies of the sixteenth century is that individuals and groups, possessed of a vision to renew and revitalize the church from within, were forced out of that church largely, it seems, by sheer intransigence and a lack of vision on the part of its leaders. The distinguished Luther scholar Heinrich Bornkamm has brilliantly described the dilemma in which Luther found himself, as his pleas for renewal of the church seemed to fall on deaf ears:
Luther was excluded from his church because of his criticism of the theology and the ecclesiastical conditions of his time. It was his church from which he was excluded, for it was for no other church that he uttered his fervent pleadings and prayers, and his painful laments and angry indictments. Everything he did and said and wrote was not against it, but for it, for its sake, not in order to establish a new church. It was because his church, the Roman church of that time, excluded him that an inner reform, which had often taken place before, became something new, outside of the existing church.
The Reformation, which was primarily conceived as a renewal of the church from within, thus ended up becoming something significantly different.

Recognition of this point goes some way towards explaining why there is currently renewed interest in and sympathy towards Evangelical spirituality within the modem Roman Catholic church. To make use of this classical Evangelical spirituality does not necessarily entail ceasing to be a Roman Catholic. The early sixteenth century bears witness to countless individuals within the Catholic church in Italy, Spain and France who adopted Evangelical spiritualities, yet remained within the Catholic church - often in very senior positions. Polarisation of the situation made it impossible to be both a Catholic and an Evangelical, forcing those unfortunate Catholic Evangelicals to make some very difficult decisions. But those days are firmly behind us. There is every indication that Evangelicalism is becoming increasingly acceptable and influential within the modem Roman Catholic church, recognized as a legitimate, workable and exciting option for the modem church. This need not be seen as an abandoning of Catholicism; rather, it should be seen as an overdue reclaiming of a classic form of Christian spirituality which the political atmosphere of the sixteenth century made a practical impossibility for Catholics. Evangelical spirituality is not divisive; it only became so on account of the power politics of a bygone age.

As his writings of the period 1513-19 make abundantly clear, Luther had no intention of founding a separate church. He had no thought of founding ‘Lutheranism’ as a body apart from the universal body of Christ. His aspiration was to recall the one church, of which he was a member, to renew its Christian vision and vocation from within. The idea of anyone calling themselves ‘Lutheran’ was anathema to him.
I haven’t been crucified for anyone! . . . How can I - poor, wretched corpse that I am - come to allow people to call the children of Christ by a name derived from my worthless name? No! No! No! My dear friends, let us call ourselves Christians, after the one whose teachings we hold fast to.
Reformation spirituality is nothing other than Christian spirituality, forged into new forms appropriate for the needs of the new age then dawning in western culture.

This reforging was urgently needed, if Christianity was to continue as a living option in modem Europe. During the Middle Ages, it had become as increasingly isolated from ordinary people as it had become increasingly firmly wedded to the fading medieval world. Ernst Curtius is one of the many scholars who have emphasised that it is a conveniently neglected matter of historical fact that much of what we refer to as ‘medieval Christianity’ or ‘medieval spirituality’ is actually virtually totally monastic in its character and origins. Sadly, historical realism dictates that we recognize that these medieval forms of spirituality had a strictly limited impact outside the monasteries – even upon the clergy. The everyday life of the laity was often left virtually totally untouched by the spiritual riches being developed behind monastic walls. Monastic spirituality was fashioned with the monastic situation in mind, envisaging a lifestyle and outlook quite alien to lay people. With the Reformation, the formative centers of spirituality gradually shifted from the monasteries to the market place, as the great cities of Europe became the cradle and crucible of new ways of Christian thinking and acting. Spirituality was not merely brought to the people; new forms of the spiritual life were created, with their needs and situations firmly in view.

Mirrored in this shift may be seen the political, social, economic and religious changes which lie at the heart of the formation of modem western culture. From its outset, Reformation spirituality represented ideas with a future, possessing a high coefficient of relevance to the emerging needs of modem western society. The waning of the Middle Ages inevitably entailed a diminishing of the potential of medieval forms of spirituality, which were generally linked with specifically medieval ideas and institutions. With the birth of the new era in human history which historians now designate the ‘early modem period’, it was essential that new ways of conceiving and acting out the Christian life should develop, unless Christianity were to be seen as moribund, linked to the dying world of the Middle Ages. The old religion was simply not capable of coping with the unprecedented pressures and challenges of the new age.

The Reformation represented a sustained attempt to relate the Christian faith to the conditions and lifestyles of this new era. The spirituality of the Reformation was so deeply rooted in the Christian tradition that it can justly be described as ‘classic’ - yet it was sufficiently responsive to the new situations then developing that it can equally be described as ‘modem’. Mingling the classic and the modem, the Reformation is thus well placed to address the needs of our own day and age, where a consciousness of modernity is often tempered with an awareness of the need for stability and continuity with the past - a point which merits consideration in more detail.

[Excerpt from Roots That Refresh: A Celebration of Reformation Spirituality, chapter 1, pages 7-11, © 1991 Alister E. McGrath, first published in Great Britain by Hodder & Stoughton. Used with Permission.]

Links to Articles on Reformation Spirituality and 500th Anniversary

From the February / March 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:
An Introduction to the Age of the Reformation, by Timothy George
Roots that Refresh: The Vitality of Reformation Spirituality, by Alister McGrath
Reading Scripture with the Early Reformers
Your Word is Truth: Statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together

From the April / May 2017 Issue of Living Bulwark:
A Spiritual Orientation to 500th Reformation Anniversary, by Raniero Cantalemessa
Justification: A Summary of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and Joint Agreement
Faith is not Opposed to Love: A Clarification on “By Faith Alone” by Benedict XVI
 Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Joint Statement on the Gift of Salvation

                              McGrathAlister E. McGrath, born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, holds the Chair in Theology, Ministry and Education at King’s College London. He was previously Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and Director of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics.

Originally a student of science, in 1977 McGrath was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from Oxford University for his work on molecular biophysics. Following his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he studied divinity at St. John's College at Cambridge (1978-80). It was during this time that he studied for ordination in the Church of England. McGrath was elected University Research Lecturer in Theology at Oxford University in 1993, and also served as research professor of theology at Regent College, Vancouver, from 1993-9. He earned an Oxford Doctorate of Divinity in 2001 for his research on historical and systematic theology.

McGrath has written many books on the interaction of science and faith and is the producer of the 'Scientific Theology' project, encouraging a dialogue between the natural sciences and Christian theology. McGrath is a strong critic of Richard Dawkins, Oxford biology professor and one of the most outspoken atheists. He has addressed Dawkins' criticism of religion in several of his books, most notably in Dawkins Delusion published in 2007 by SPCK and IVP.

More information on his websites: http://alistermcgrath.weebly.com/ and Professor Alister McGrath
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