Friday, November 06, 2009

"Remember, remember..." An interview with Mike Reeves on the Reformation, part 2

This is the second part of my interview with Mike Reeves.

Mike is the theological advisor for UCCF:The Christian Unions, the power behind the throne for Theology Network, and the author of The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation (IVP). UK readers can get the book for the bargain price of £7.20 (that includes p & p) here. A US edition of the book will be out on 1st April 2010 and will be published by Broadman & Holman.

Downes: How do we explain the extraordinary changes that the Reformation unleashed?

Reeves: Chatting with a Roman Catholic priest recently, he charged the Reformation with unleashing extraordinary changes, but disastrous ones, especially years of religious wars between Protestant and Catholic. That’s a common accusation, but an unfair one, I think. What happened was that political rulers used what was a theological revolution for political ends. And something I tried to show in the book was how different a politically motivated Reformation looked to a more purely theological one.

At root, the Reformation was a matter of theology, of rediscovering God’s grace. That is something now commonly obscured in modern histories of the Reformation, and something I tried to remedy in mine. But that, I think, points us towards the answer I believe the Reformers would have given to the question: Why such changes? The power of the word of God purely taught!

Downes: In the book you say that "Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation" and that "The Reformation was, fundamentally, about justification." What is justification by faith alone and why does it matter?

Reeves: Yes, acknowledging Scripture as the only sure foundation for belief was the formal cause of the Reformation, but justification was its matter. Luther’s discovery was that ‘the righteousness of God’ is not simply a description of how God is. If it were, that would be nothing but terrifying for us who are unrighteous. What Luther saw in Romans 1:17 was that ‘the righteousness of God’ is something God has that he shares with believers.

Justification, then, is much more than forgiveness. If it was mere forgiveness, then every time I sinned I would need to be re-justified (and isn’t that how too many Christians seem to think?). But justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is now clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself. And, being God’s declaration, a gift of something he has, justification cannot be a process or something that I can contribute towards. It must be something I can only receive. It must, in other words, be through faith alone.

And why does it matter? Simply imagine the difference between being clothed with the righteousness of Christ and not. It means assurance or not, boldness in prayer or not, true love for God or not. Basically, it means spiritual health or not. If we lose justification by faith alone, the Church falls and turns, as Paul put it, to ‘another gospel’ (Galatians 1:6-9).

Downes: In the book you describe the reformers as "evangelicals" and the Reformation movement as "evangelicalism." Isn't that anachronistic? I would imagine that they would be horrified by big-tent evangelicalism with its glitzy techniques, indifference to truth, and accommodation of error. So why did you describe them as evangelicals?

Reeves: Yes, the Reformers must be turning in their graves at the things you describe. I used the term carefully, partly because for the first twenty years of the Reformation, before the term ‘Protestant’ was used, the Reformers were known as ‘evangelicals’. And that captures something important: they aimed to be, quite simply, gospel people.

Also, the Reformation was a project that many political rulers happily hijacked. They came to be seen as ‘Protestant’ rulers, and all their subjects naturally became ‘Protestant’, but that did not mean that they were necessarily anything like ‘gospel people’. And that was the essential impulse behind the Puritan movement: in the 1560s, when Puritanism began, England was officially a Protestant country; but for the Puritans, that was something different to true Reformation. They were after the reforming of hearts in churches that were not nominally Protestant but shaped in every way by the gospel.

Downes: How can the contemporary indifference toward doctrine be overcome?

Reeves: You ask deep questions! I think we need to know what’s happened historically. Before the Enlightenment it was normally believed that doctrine was essentially relevant because it would remake our very being – it would change how we think and act. Read theologians from before then and you see they couldn’t separate doctrine from pastoral care. Take John Calvin, writing his preface to the first edition of his Institutes, for example. Why did he write all that doctrine? ‘My purpose’, he said, ‘was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.’

But today, post-Enlightenment, the professional ‘theologians’ are commonly not preachers and the preachers are commonly not theological. And I think a good deal of the blame is to be laid on the Enlightenment, with its denial of divine revelation. For then, what is doctrine? No more than a titillating hobby, for it cannot be talking about real truth.

I think that myth has gone deep down in us, making us see doctrine as the plaything of picky nerds. And that conceals the fact that our minds are naturally full of doctrines, but doctrines taken from the world. So we need to explode the myth and be very clear that in Christian doctrine we are talking about absolute truth that by its very nature has the power to overturn hearts and the world. In fact, the only way for the Church to grow is to replace our natural doctrines with God’s. And that is what you see happening in the Reformation (and oh how it happened!): look at Calvin’s hours of wrestling with doctrine – they led to the conversion of millions, even in his own day.

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