Back to the Reformation?

Gal. 4:9.---' But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage.'

A CHURCH'S approach to new problems in a changing world may sometimes be by way of regress---not to retreat nor escape, but to observe the past and learn. This may account for the growing interest in the Reformation, its leaders, and its thought, which ministers and laity of the churches, which stem from it, show in that event. Paradoxically enough the very existence of the Ecumenical Movement, the simplification of denominations, the situation in the Mission Field, better publicized and more widely known at first-hand by many, may have contributed to such interest. It is significant that the Reformed emphasis on the Bible as the Word of God has been reasserted as it has not been since the chill winds of criticism began to blow, and almost as significant that those of the past is being read, studied, and quoted as a vital authority for today. All this seems to be tending towards the belief that the past has much, if not everything, to teach the present, and that the Reformed Churches will best meet today's challenge in all the panoply of their first beginnings.

There can be no denying that there is value in such research and rediscovery. Most of us do not know too accurately what were the reasons why the Church should have become divided, and the origin and standards even of our own communion can remain wrapped in mystery. Our heritage in public worship, whether what we do now was done in the beginning; the characteristic notes of our theology, whether what we believe now comes from the Reformers; these problems are a closed book to us. This, of course, is no reason why they should remain so, and a church can always learn about and from its own past. The glorious company of the apostles, the noble army of the martyrs, have some word for their comrades-in-arms of today, whose warfare and whose Captain are still the same. But is this backward look always good or has it about it an element of danger?

St. Paul is referring to a situation which, if not exactly similar, is analogous, in this Galatian Epistle. His Galatian converts were being urged by Christian Jews that belief in Jesus was not sufficient. It needed to be supplemented by an observance of the man made Jewish law, the religion where Jesus Himself had come. So the Galatians were being told that to increase and perfect their faith, keeping of the whole law were required. Now Paul in his heart of hearts knew that the Law had been a blessing to his people, though it could not be compared with the blessing of salvation in Jesus, so he declares to these converts that what they possessed---faith in God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit who comes by faith---could never either be supplemented or supplanted by the law. This was to give up freedom for the bondage of the 'weak and beggarly elements,' after God had known them and they had known God. Here is the timeless element in Paul's teaching, where he is declaring that more important than anything else is the standing of the individual with God. It was his understanding of this that helped Martin Luther to stand and oppose the Church of his day which, however great and far-flung it was, was yet a weak and beggarly element compared with the majesty and love of God as he knew them in the Temple of his own soul. Indeed Luther drew much of his strength and confidence from this very Epistle. "The Epistle to the Galatians," he said, "is my epistle: I have betrothed myself to it; it is my wife."

It is right for us to remember what Paul says and how Paul helped Luther and others to make the Reformation. For even the glories of our past can become a substitute for belief, mere elements, weak because they cannot deliver us, beggarly because they have no riches in themselves apart from the faith in God through Jesus, which in the beginning made them and made them live. We must not let it be so. To go back to the worship or the theology or the discipline without the immediate experience is to relive the fate of the foolish virgins, by trying to light in a new era in our church life with lamps having no oil in them. The past can be a bountiful heritage, and it can be a new bondage into which we force ourselves, believing that the result must be grace for us because it seemed grace for them who lived in it. But we do live in their times. The system of worship, work, and creed, which we need, may be like theirs, and yet again it may be different. After all these things are but the framework of faith. Faith is the first thing and the clothing of it only secondary, and as their ordinary garments would not seem suitable for our life, no more may the forms of thought or organization in which they were clothed the life they possessed in the Spirit. We wish to preserve what was their glory, but a state without means of change is without means of conservation. What made the Reformation and what made the Reformers was the realization that not preserving the old forms, but changing them, may be the only way to safeguard their intention and to preserve their truth. The Church is never infallible, neither the Pope's church nor the Reformer's church, and rebuilding their system without reference to our experience is to deny the latter's greatest principle, the right always to reform and renew according as the Holy Spirit shall illumine our minds from God's word, revealing His will for the Church, the world, and ourselves.

It is very well then to show an antiquarian spirit in our ecclesiastical past, and to be valiant of it, but not in this way will revival come and our churches again be the powers in the land the Reformers made them. This would be like foolishly venerating some great cathedral and being blind to the fact that it is little use for preaching and inadequate in the nature of its accommodation for the teeming life of organizations which may have grown up around it. Not all that happened at the Reformation was good. Nor was all before it or after it of necessity bad. We must be reformers always if the mind of Christ is in any sense in us; for God has always some new truth to reveal out of His Word for our help and guidance. Paul says that it 'pleased God to form his Son in me.' All the human means which helped to this are blotted out, and Paul and God stand in a face to face relation in Christ Jesus. There, too, we must begin, with our personal response to what God has done, and take that to the principles of the Reformers and the problems of the world for our touchstone and our standard. Nothing else will avail. The Spirit illumines the Word and the Word illumines life itself, and the true reformer is he who---Corrects the portrait by the living face.

For us, then, it can never be merely back to those of the past, but only back to the God whom they worshipped, and for whom their systems were built only through Jesus Christ our Lord.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha