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Theology Matters, 2017

Winter 2017 

Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Protestant Reformation by Rev. Paul C. McGlasson, PhD

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. It was, appropriately, high noon, though his posting was intended not so much for dramatic effect as for scholarly discussion among his theological colleagues at the University of Wittenberg. In fact they were written in Latin, the language of learned debate.

The immediate issue of the 95 theses has long since passed from the historical horizon: the power and efficacy of indulgences (though in some ways the sale of indulgences can be seen as an early version of our all too popular prosperity gospel, still very much alive). Indeed, it had already done so during Luther’s lifetime....

What follows is a brief attempt to summarize the main thrust of Reformation teaching, especially according to Luther and Calvin, in my judgment its most prominent and persuasive advocates (I am hardly alone in this assessment). A few points should be made clear at the outset. First, while the Reformation defined itself over against late medieval Catholicism, it is no longer a defensible position either historically or theologically simply to describe the Reformation now as an opponent of contemporary Roman Catholicism (or Eastern Orthodoxy). We have come too far in ecumenical discussion for such uninformed polemics. To be sure, Protestants even today will likely have serious problems with papal infallibility, but few, if any, serious Christians now think that Pope Francis is the Antichrist. In some profound sense in the sight of God, we are today all Protestants, all Catholic, all Orthodox.

Second, there are of course many different ways of looking at the Reformation. It was an epoch making event in the historical, social, cultural, even economic life of Germany and Europe as a whole. Rural and urban issues were involved. Family and educational structures were transformed. Political arrangements were made and unmade, then made again. However, I am proposing to see the Reformation as the Reformers themselves saw it: and that is primarily as a theological event. God by his Spirit through the witness of Scripture was teaching, almost daily, the living church something new about the crucified and risen Lord, exalted over all creation: that is what the Reformers believed. I am inclined to agree, and that is how I will assess their message below.

And third, we who consider their witness cannot be dispassionate observers. The same God who Reformed the church by his word and Spirit then, reforms the church even now, even this very day. That does not mean hero-worship of the Reformers, the surest way to lose touch with their genuine contribution. Nor does it mean attempting to return to their teaching, which contradicts the essence of that very teaching. It means, rather, that a genuine encounter with the teaching of the Reformers is perilous to a complacent church, whether on the left or on the right; yet, to those with eyes to see and ears to hear, such an encounter can lead forward to newness of life in the service of the risen Lord. [Article continues]

Surveying Presbyterian Beliefs “Theological Reflection” and Reformed Theology by Rev. Michael D. Bush, PhD

Recently the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the results of a Presbyterian Panel survey entitled “Theological Reflection.” It describes the views of members and ministers in three areas: Interreligious issues, understanding and affirmation of the Presbyterian theological tradition, and certain matters related to vocation and worship. In this article we focus on the second set of issues, the theological concepts and themes. For those who care about the tradition of Presbyterian and Reformed Christianity, there is some good news in these data, along with evidence of considerable misinformation and confusion. 

The Catechized Prodigal: When Covenant Children Lose Their Way by Rev. James P. Hering, PhD

Of the numerous passages in the Scriptures which admonish the parent concerning the rearing of children, the Book of Proverbs contains some of the most pithy and memorable. Who cannot finish the folksy rendering of 13:24, “Spare the rod and...”? Such proverbs have endured in the collective consciousness of our society due, in part, to their candid, striking images.

The classic proverbial form suspends the complexity of our human condition between two poles, creating an either-or dialectic in which no mediating resolution seems anticipated. As frustrating as this may be for the modern mind, contrast is the teacher here, not synthesis. The proverb, by virtue of this feature, requires the reader to engage in a process of assessment, a sober self-identification, before practical application is to be made. The ethical implications and responsibilities lie, typically, along a spectrum between various extremes: life or death, truth and lies, fool vs. sage, etc. The reader, like it or not, is called to choose a path, and to a certain degree, challenged to define it, as well. The latter element, defining the characteristics of the particular virtue or lifestyle, constitutes the arduous inquiry into the “way of wisdom.” 

Reprint: "If I Were a Church School Teacher Again" by Bruce M. Metzger (1914-2007), America’s greatest biblical scholar, who served as a Sunday School Superintendent early in his career and cared deeply about making disciples. 

Spring 2017

Who Needs Confessions of Faith? by the Rev. Richard Burnett, PhD.

Why do we have confessions of faith? There are many reasons. Some are not so obvious. But for Protestants the first and most important reason is simple: We have confessions not because we want to say more than the Bible says. We have them because we do not want to say less. Confessions arise as a result of a crisis in the church that requires a decision to be made. They emerge when the truth of the gospel is consistently contested at a specific point (or points) over a sustained period of time. Confessions, in other words, emerge out of persistent conflict over what the Scriptures teach about the Christian faith and living out that faith. Spring 2017 Theology Matters, p. 1

Summer 2017

Commemorating the Reformation in “Post-Christian” Europe? by Herman Selderhuis

The debate over the meaning of Reformation jubilees or commemorations is an old one. Such celebrations can be put to different uses and interpreted in a range of ways. For example, at an early marking of the occasion in 1617, Friedrich V (1596–1632), elector of the Palatinate and an enterprising Calvinist, was perhaps the first to propose the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Reformation. He wanted to observe it as a single, common celebration for Lutherans and Calvinists. But his plan was criticized by Lutheran statesmen and theologians, who accused him of making this proposal for improper reasons. Summer 2017 Theology Matters, p.1

Seeking A Correctable Conscience by John L. Thompson

Had things gone differently for Luther at the Diet of Worms—where he was on trial before representatives of Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V—these might have been his famous last words: “I cannot do otherwise; here I stand. May God help me. Amen.” Summer 2017 Theology Matters. p. 9

Luther’s Mistress and Knowledge of Ourselves by Richard Burnett

Martin Luther had a mistress. It can be denied and has been many times. But the fact is he did, or at least he thought he did, and he struggled with her for many years, especially as a young man. There is much about this relationship we do not know, but we do know this: rightly or wrongly, he sometimes called her “Reason.” Summer 2017 Theology Matters, p.14

Fall 2017

Does The Reformation Still Matter? by Richard Burnett, Managing Editor

“There is no question the mainline church is dead,” he said. “The only question now is whether Evangelicalism is the seven demons that come into the corpse.” This was the response I got after a long period of silence to a question I had posed to my teacher, George Lindbeck, in a course on “Comparative Ecclesiology” in the fall semester, 1992, at Yale University Divinity School.

I did not like it. I considered myself an evangelical (and still do). Nor was I ready to forsake my mainstream ecclesial inheritance. Yet even then I suspected that one reason I did not like my teacher’s verdict was because there was more truth in it than I was prepared to admit. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p.1

Three Pastoral Insights From Martin Luther by Raymond Hylton

Like many pastors across America and the world, I encouraged our congregation to observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. But churches were not the only ones honoring this historic moment. Print media, television networks, BBC, NPR, social media and numerous internet outlets tried to cover the importance of Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and the revolution that he sparked. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p.2

Calvin’s Way of Preaching in a Digital Age by Richard Gibbons

Today as churches around the world continue to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation the question uppermost in my mind is: Does the preaching model provided by our reforming forefathers have anything relevant to say to a generation dominated by the ubiquitous convenience of a digital playground? It could well be argued that this generation’s identity is defined by access to smart phones, tablets, Hulu, Netflix, Instagram, and Facebook. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p.4

No Substitute for the Word by Patricia Crout Gwinn

The word proclaimed is central to Reformed worship. If and when it is neglected the body can no longer stand with any real integrity and uprightness. The priority of preaching in worship and as worship is one of the contributions of the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition to the larger ecumenical community. So does the Reformation still matter? Yes, more than ever, and particularly as regards the word of God preached. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p.6

The Bible’s Church by Timothy P. McConnell

Does the Bible belong to the church or does the church belong to the Bible? We tend to lose track of the profound influences that formed the world in which we live and shaped the way we do the things. Christians are so accustomed today to having access to the Bible we fail to realize that this access was hard won. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura altered the course of the church, and arguably the course of western civilization. It is still contested to this day. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p. 7

Worship Matters by Walter L. Taylor

Throughout the 500th anniversary celebration of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther has been the principal character for reflection. At the center of Luther’s personal quest, which led to the important role he played in the Reformation, was a question: How is one made right (justified) before God?” In answering the question of whether the Reformation still matters, one must decide whether the question that motivated Luther matters today. No doubt, there are those for whom such a question is out-of-date or even a bit “passé”, theologically. Perhaps that fact in itself shows us that the Reformation still matters more than ever! Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p 8

Doing Life Together: A Priesthood of All Believers by Nancy A. Duff

Fifty million American adults attend faith-based small groups regularly, according to a 2016 survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.[i] Yet just over 500 years ago, this common faith practice would have been seen as dangerous and displeasing to God. Although small groups are not a direct outcome of the Reformation, they are part of its legacy: The Reformation doctrine of the priesthood of all believers has shaped how the body of Christ functions together today. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p 9

Living by Grace Alone by Helen Harrison Coker

She sat across from me, imprisoned in pain because she doubted her self-worth and questioned her identity. As her pastor, I tried to reassure her that she was a beloved child of God, so loved in fact that Jesus voluntarily died for her and lavished His amazing grace upon her. But she had been bound for years by chains of lies, lies that had led her to this place of pain. She struggled to break free from those shackles. What more could I do to help her? What did I learn in all those seminary classes that would make a difference in her reality? Does the Reformation even matter to her? Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p. 11

How the Reformation Shapes our Life Together by Edwin Hurley

Last Spring I was planting vegetables and noticed printed on the plastic wrapper around one tomato plant the slogan, “Deep roots produce abundant fruits.” As I reflected on this claim, I thought about how this applies to my own understanding of ministry and how it shapes the life of the church I serve. I thought about the deep roots of our Reformation heritage and how grateful we should be for this heritage, how it has shaped us in the past, continues to bear fruit in the present, and gives us reason to look ahead in hope to future harvests. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p. 12

The Call to Reformation by Peter Barnes

When Martin Luther wrote his 95 theses, I imagine he had little thought about how it would affect not only his life and the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but also how his actions would reverberate throughout history and actually change the world. When he started out, no one expected him to be someone who would change the theological landscape of Europe in the 1500s. In fact, it was a complete surprise to his family that he became a theologian in the first place. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, p. 13

The Source of Revolution by Gerrit Dawson

October 31, 1517 is 500th anniversary of a revolution. It began when a young, obscure theologian in an insignificant town in Germany rediscovered the radical grace of the gospel. It soon set the world ablaze. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 theological challenges to the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. This was the crystallizing moment for a movement that had been growing around Europe. For a hundred years, the Bible had been translated into the languages everyday people could understand. Reading the Scriptures in plain language was kindling a fire in the hearts that maybe Jesus Christ is different than the medieval church had said he was. Maybe there could be some freedom from the relentless cycle of sin, confession, penance, and the purchasing of so-called indulgences to reduce one’s punishment for sin. Fall 2017 Theology Matters, P. 15