In this first session we are to discuss the need for a new Reformation in this year of the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in response to what is happening in the wider world and Church. So the first question we must ask is, 'what is, and what is happening in, the wider world and the Church?'
That question used to be answered in terms of secularization. Progressive pagans who had great currency at the end of the 19th century in Europe and in the first half of he 20th century, said that with modernization through science and technology you necessarily would have the decline of religion. So in the second half of the 20th century we all would be living in an ultra-secular paradise. The facts have proved otherwise. For what modernity has brought about is not a growing atheism but world-wide religious growth and often an intensity of religion. So what you have now in many of the main cities of the wider world is not secularism but pluralism, as we considered last year.
Pluralism is where you have the co-existence of different worldviews, religions and value systems in the same society. The exception to all that is Europe and an international intelligentsia that spans the world. But Europe may be changing, with Brexit a symptom. But, recognizing that exception, Peter Berger the eminent sociologist put it simply:
"our world now is anything but secular; it is as religious as ever, and in places more so."
The fundamental problem with pluralism is that it has gone hand in hand with the 'naked public square' – that is to say the wider society shies away from having a united value system, in the hope that not having one will bring social harmony. But that requires no addressing of the truth value of the various religions and beliefs. The resulting libertarianism, for such is the result, can then only be prevented from being anarchic by various illiberal authoritarian measures. Hence the need for the secular West to recover the Christian Sacred Canopy, which alone is compatible with sufficient freedoms because the goal then is not absolute, but ordered, liberty.
The fundamental watershed for the modern world (until perhaps last year, 2016) was 1989. That was when the Berlin Wall came down signaling the end of the Cold War. It was also the year when in the summer edition of the journal The National Interest Francis Fukuyama wrote:
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
This pean for liberal democracy was turned into a book in 1992 entitled The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama's former tutor, the political scientist Samuel Huntington, disagreed with his pupil. So he wrote an article entitled The Clash of Civilizations in 1993 and that came out as his book in 1996 with the title, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order. His thesis was simple, namely that the post-Cold War world would be marked by new conflicts from this new pluralism of differing national cultural identities and with religion being at the heart of culture. I read this book soon after it came out and found it persuasive.
Then came 9/11. The reality that conservative Islamic groups were aggressively trying to change the world frighteningly proved Huntington correct. But that led to much confusion about Islam and how it should be understood. It did not help for George Bush, immediately after 9/11, to say that Islam means 'peace' when most religiously literate people know it means 'submission' ('salaam' means 'peace'). Much has happened since then including better understandings of Islam. So how should Islam be understood? How can we respond to it fairly, for it is so diverse?
A helpful book that has come out since the last Jesmond Conference is by Shadi Hamid, entitled Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World. Hamid is a committed Muslim and liberal. But this is how he defined Islam recently in Time magazine and we must take him seriously:
"We want to believe we're all basically the same and want the same things, but what if we're not? Islam, in both theory and practice, is exceptional in how it relates to politics. Because of its outsize role in law and governance, Islam has been – and will continue to be – resistant to secularization. I am a bit uncomfortable making this claim, especially now, with anti-Muslim bigotry on the rise. But Islamic exceptionalism is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand and respect that. Two factors are worth emphasizing. First, the founding moment of Islam looms large. Unlike Jesus Christ, the Prophet Mohammad was a theologian, a preacher, a warrior and a politician, all at once. He was also the leader and builder of a new state, capturing, holding and governing new territory. Religious and political functions, at least for the believer, were no accident. They were meant to be intertwined in the leadership of one man. Second, for Muslims the Quran is God's direct and literal speech, more than merely the word of God. It is difficult to overstate the centrality of divine authorship. This does not mean Muslims are literalists; most are not. But it does mean the text cannot easily be dismissed as irrelevant. What does this mean for everyone else? Western observers will need to do something uncomfortable and difficult. They will need to accept Islam's vital and varied role in politics and formulate policies with that in mind, rather than hope for secularizing outcomes that are unlikely anytime soon, if ever."
And Islam, of course, has world-wide aspirations, as the same as Christianity. Islam, therefore, is a key factor in the wider world that needs what a new Reformation alone can bring – faith not just in a divine being but a God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ. But what about the Church in the wider-world and how it relates to other religions including Islam and, also, secularized Europe? Here are some facts. The International Bulletin of Mission Research (IBMR) reports that;
"In 2014, a significant milestone in world Christianity went unnoticed. For the first time ever, Latin America passed Europe [including Russia] as the continent with the most Christians. Note that in 1900 Europe had six times as many Christians as Latin America. Looking ahead to 2025, we see that Latin America is likely to be surpassed by Africa, with 628 million in the former and more than 700 million in the later. We also project that by 2050, Asia will surpass Europe in the number of Christians. Each of the three continents in the Global South could outnumber Europe, together representing nearly 80% of all Christians (from just over 20% in 1900)."
It also reports that by 2050 36% of the World population should be Christian while 28% should be Muslim (i.e. together nearly two thirds of the entire world). The great decline is in the unaffiliated (atheists, agnostics and those who do not identify with any religion). It is predicted that they will shrink as a percentage of the world's population (from 16% in 2010 to 13% in 2050). Of course, in all this the key figures are the world-wide growth trends. From 2000 to mid-2016 while the global population was growing at 1.19%, Christian growth was 1.30% but Muslim growth was 1.87%.
What then are the facts about Western Christians and in England in particular? One fundamental fact is this. During the sample month of October 2015 less than 1.5% of the population (that is adults and children) went to a Church of England church each week. Therefore, 98.5% of the population will not be in an Anglican church each week let alone on Sundays. But it is not just in England that there are problems.
According to The Guardian,
"The Pew Research Centre reported last year that the congregations of Protestant churches in the US were decreasing by up to a million people a year. Canada's four largest mainstream Protestant churches have seen their membership drop by half since the mid-1960s while the population has nearly doubled."
We obviously need a new Reformation.
But do the figures suggest there are specific problems to be addressed? The answer is most certainly, 'Yes!' For the evidence is that those committed to basic biblical faith – Jesmond's "Sound Scriptural and Evangelical Truth" (in fact, the Christian faith as established by law for the Church of England) and those in other denominations committed to the same theological understanding, will be, on average, seeing growth. Interestingly, there was a recent 5 year longitudinal survey entitled, Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees. It was published after contacting 2,225 churchgoers and surveying 29 clergy and 195 folk from the pews. And according to David Haskell, the study's lead researcher:
"If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner … The researchers compared the beliefs and practices of congregations and clergy at mainline Protestant churches whose attendances were growing with declining churches. On all measures, the growing churches 'held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading'."
Among the key findings are:
Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was "very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians", compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches. 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches. 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches. 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement "Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb".
This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches.
100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that "God performs miracles in answer to prayers", compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.
The study also found that about two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, whereas two thirds of congregations at declining churches were over 60.
So with all these challenges in the world and the Church, what has Luther to say to us in this anniversary year of 2017? For any not knowing, let me first give you a brief summary of his life. Born on 10 November 1483, he had a good education ending up at the University of Erfurt. Luther then entered an Augustinian monastery in Erfurt at the age of 22. In 1508 he was made Professor at the new University of Wittenberg where he remained more or less until his death in 1546. While lecturing there his doubts as to his own salvation were resolved through Paul's letter to the Galatians.
Then in 1517 he posted his 95 theses on that church door in Wittenberg that included an attack on the false assurance of indulgences (money you could pay the Church to release you from purgatory). And so began the Reformation. Luther then discovered that the Christian life was one of conflict – soon conflict against the Pope and the Emperor, then against the clever but weak Erasmus, then against the Radical Reformers and against the Peasants with their rebellion who jumped on the Reformation band-wagon and, in spite of justifiable grievances, harmed its cause. So how can Luther help us today?
I believe it is, first and foremost, by, one, his belief in God and the centrality of Christ – so relevant for our Islamic friends; two, his strategy and the resulting energy he put into the Reformation cause; and, three, his tone when necessary – he could call a spade a spade. Carl Trueman, I think has got it right. He is a Reformation scholar. And he sees the value of Luther, and the Reformers, in these terms:
"It is only to the extent that they brought God and Christ to bear upon the church of their day that the Reformers have any ongoing relevance for us today. Luther himself hinted at this when he described the difference between himself and his precursors, John Wycliffe and John Hus. They, he said, attacked the morals of the papacy, but he attacked its theology. It is vital to grasp this: Luther's crusade was not ultimately a moral one; it was theological. Of course, the two are intimately related. His attack on indulgences in 1517 was in large part an attack on abusive pastoral practice driven by church greed; but it was also rooted in his changing theology which saw the sale of indulgences as cheapening God's grace, trivializing sin and misleading the laity. He did not attack the practice simply because it was abusive in its practical outworkings but because it rested upon a false view of God and of humanity's status before God."
Trueman argues that a recovery of the doctrine of God will result in a recovery of one, understanding Christ's work for us on the Cross for our justification through faith; two, the Bible; and three, the doctrine of assurance. Luther's doctrine of God, therefore, requires that we pray for all those things; and, of of course, how much we pray will reflect our belief about God. And may I say that in this anniversary year, a good way to remind yourself of Luther and his theology, or to introduce yourself to it, is to read The Bondage of the Will and in the translation of, and with the introduction by, J I Packer and Raymond Johnston, former Church Warden of Jesmond Parish Church. To conclude let me give you two non-controversial quotes from Luther as a taster. First, Luther on God's grace and how it works:
"All the many countless blessings which God gives us here on earth are merely those gifts which last for a time. But his grace and loving regard are the inheritance which endures throughout eternity …
In giving us such gifts here on earth he is giving us only those things that are his own, but in this grace and love towards us he gives his very self.
In receiving his gifts we touch but his hand; but in his gracious regard we receive his heart, his spirit, his mind, his will.
Man receives grace immediately and fully. In this way he is saved. Good works are not necessary to assist him in this: they follow. It is as if God were to produce a fresh, green tree out of a dry log, which tree would then bear its natural fruit."
And finally Luther, so sane, on the normal Christian life:
"This life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being but becoming; not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.
We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.
All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified."