Beyond The Reformation

In spite of the Reformers' concern to recover something of the purity of the apostolic Church, their spirituality failed to restore the catholicity and solidarity which was so central to its life and practice. The tendency towards a spirituality which was not wholly Christian and which neglected the material base of spiritual life, as expressed in the doctrines of creation and incarnation and in the sacraments, was continued and strengthened within many parts of Protestantism. Some followers of Calvin laid so much stress on sin and fallenness that any concern with human society was lost (though Calvin himself emphasized the need to contemplate the divine image within the human person). The early Calvinist concern for political reconstruction decayed as many of those within the Reformed Churches came to abandon any hope for this world and its institutions. Lutheranism moved steadily towards an individualism in which sola fide came to mean that the concern for justice in the world was of no importance. The role of 'two kingdoms' theology in preparing the way for Nazism remains a matter of controversy, but it is beyond dispute that Lutheranism was seriously deficient in its social theology. It was the Anabaptists who stressed the social demands of the Gospel, with their insistence on discipleship, community and sharing of goods, their view of the Church as a counter-sign to the world, and their Johannine understanding of salvation as a communion in the divine life. In line with the theology of the Orthodox, the Anabaptists believed in the divinization of humanity through Christ (Beachy 1963:17). Their spirituality was social, hopeful and focused on the power of grace.

It is often assumed that in later Protestant spirituality there has been a polarization between the personal piety of the evangelicals with their stress on the 'quiet time' and on the relationship of the soul with the Saviour, and that of the liberals and followers of the 'social gospel' with their emphasis on commitment and action in the world. Like other polarizations, this is also misleading. There were links between spirituality and social action in Jonathan Edwards (1705-58) and the Quaker John Woolman (1720-72), as well as in some aspects of the Wesleyan revival. There was a strong concern for social justice among many of the revivalists, such as Finney, while many proponents of the 'social gospel', both in liberal Protestantism and, particularly, in Anglicanism, laid great emphasis on prayer and worship. There has in recent years been a recovery of many of the neglected elements of the theology of the Reformation. Nevertheless, it is true that from the nineteenth century until recently, the history of most forms of Protestantism has been marked by a retreat into interior pietism.

So in recent years many Christians have come to believe that the only way out of the present crisis of the Church in the West is by the transcendence of the conceptual limitations of Reformation theology, especially of its individualism. But they see that this cannot be accomplished by a return to medievalism or to the Catholicism of the European Counter-Reformation. The only hope for a Christian response to the contradictions and dilemmas of the contemporary world lies in a renewed spirituality which can respond to the spiritual hunger, the nihilism and despair, the need for community, and the quest for transcendence of modern men and women. Many people today speak of the need for a 'new reformation'.

In repudiating the corruption of the medieval Church, the reformers and radical innovators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries abandoned much of the earlier corporate understanding. It has been a task of twentieth-century Christians, influenced by biblical, liturgical and ecumenical movements of renewal, to recover something of this corporate sense. The rediscovery of the Bible has led to a richer understanding of the social character of the work of God in redemption, and of our need to respond to this activity as a liberated people.

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