Going On Being Reformed

We hope you enjoyed our 500 Project on the Reformation. We asked Bishop Harold Millar what it would look like for the Church here in Northern Ireland to continue reforming. Here are his thoughts.

Bishop Harold.jpg

Churches formed out of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century are inclined to go to one of two extremes. 

At the more ‘liberal’ end, they may incline to celebrate the general idea of ‘semper reformanda’ (always going on being reformed), but lose their roots in the authority of the Scriptures, by which any reformation is to be tested.

In contradistinction, more conservative members of reformed Churches may be inclined to simply repeat the ‘mantras’ of the Reformation as though the issues of the sixteenth century are the same as the issues of the twenty-first.  That can give a great deal of security, but not necessarily much dynamic engagement with the world of today.

The celebrations of this past month have given me the opportunity to begin to re-focus on what a thoroughly biblical reformation might look like today.  That has been helped by the opportunity to see the Protestant Reformation a little through Roman Catholic eyes, not least at an evening in Holy Cross Monastery, Rostrevor, where Br. Fintan Lyons, OB, spoke on the themes which had inspired his book on Martin Luther.  He showed a deep sensitivity to the issues of the reformation, and a real grasp of the central idea of justification by grace through faith.

But it was reading a quotation from Fr Raniero Cantalamessa (who has served as the Preacher in the Papal Household since 1980), mentioned in Archbishop Justin Welby’s reformation sermon at Westminster Abbey, which really inspired me.  I had the privilege of hearing Fr Cantalamessa a couple of years ago at the Alpha Leadership Conference in the Royal Albert Hall.

This is what he said:

‘Justification by faith …. ought to be preached by the whole Church – and with more vigour than ever.  Not in opposition to good works – the issue is already settled – but rather in opposition to the claim of people today that they can save themselves thanks to science, technology or other man-made spirituality, without the need for a Redeemer coming from outside humanity.  Self-justification!  I am convinced that if they were alive today, this the way Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer would preach justification through faith.’

In other words, and I speak to evangelists and evangelicals, the repetition of the doctrine of justification by faith as opposed to justification by works, while important, is not ‘scratching where it itches’ in terms of engagement with unbelievers today. The truth is that very few people today are trying to justify themselves by works.  The religious understanding of most people today is much closer to Richard Niebuhr’s strapline: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross’.  When people go down that route, the issues become self-justification, or no need for the idea of justification at all. Indeed, for many today, being put right with God is a meaningless concept.

The recent Barna survey in Ireland would suggest that, while more than half of those who claim to be ‘Christian’ believe in God as ‘Creator’ or ‘Spirit’, only 36% believe that Jesus Christ is the only Son of God, only 31% believe he will come as judge, only 20% believe in the forgiveness of sins, and a tiny minority of 15% believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

In Northern Ireland that may be less true, but the trajectory is there. 

Our question as people going on being reformed by the scriptures is not, ‘How did the reformers preach justification by faith in their time?’ but rather, ‘How do we preach justification by faith in a culture which sees no need for justification at all?.’