Forgiving the Reformation

A lot of people seem to think that seminary is where you get all the answers. They’re wrong. Well, either that or I just don’t go to one of “those” seminaries. My experience has been that instead of receiving answers to my questions, I’ve been stripped of many of the answers I thought I had and been given more questions in return. Now I don’t say this to complain; I happen to think that’s the way it should be. But that doesn’t mean every day is a party either.

One of the ways I’ve been challenged in seminary was the place of tradition in my theology. Specifically it was the realization that not only am I unable to read the Bible objectively, but it’s not the sort of thing one would want to do if he could. I had to learn that there is a set of boundaries to the way I must interpret Scripture in order to stay Christian in my understanding. [Editor’s note: I was raised to believe there were boundaries, I just thought they were self-evident; I didn’t know they were tied to tradition.]
Furthermore, my reasoning is fallen and I need the community of faith across time and space to help me understand what is true, to make sure that I’m really hearing the Holy Spirit and not just what I want to hear. Because let’s face it: heretics are biblical, too. And they must have strong convictions, otherwise they would accept correction and, you know, not be heretics.
This is a troubling perspective for some. In fact, I’ve been told by more than one professor that I deeply respect that we must not read the creeds into Scripture, and that doing so is one of the most dangerous trends happening on campus. Of course, every professor has his own pet emphases and concerns. (Much of it has to do with how much you trust individual reason and distrust the purity of tradition, but that’s for another time.)
All this to say that I was challenged in an appropriate way with the truth, but I over-corrected. I have always been pretty teachable, but that becomes a liability when coupled with an implicit trust of your instructor. His goal was probably that I critically incorporate this new material, but instead I uncritically embraced what stood out to me.
Long story short, I eventually came to a place where I saw the Reformation as a bad thing, a destructive, corrupting movement. Indeed, there were many casualties that often get overlooked, such as the broken unity of the church and a highly emphasized individualism in religion and salvation. (I think we’re generally starting to see these issues more clearly these days.) But I began to see it as an attack on good traditions. I saw it as the next step to the Enlightenment emphasis on reason over all things, because what else do you have to interpret the Bible once you walk away from traditional church authority?
These convictions soon put me in a dark place. I no longer trusted my own interpretation of the Bible, and I had a mountain of literature to consume in order to try and find the truth. It was an impossible burden for anyone, but especially someone with a job, a family, and graduate work to juggle. So rather than add a healthy balance to my views, I ended up feeling totally disconnected from Scripture in the way a historian might experience Lessing’s Ditch with the past, or a philosopher might be walled off from the Kantian noumenous. Add this to the many other perceptions being challenged, and my faith began to starve.
Thankfully the story doesn’t end there. As time goes on, I have been able to reassess some of these issues and synthesize that balanced position I was supposed to achieve in the first place.
Today I’m forgiving the Reformation.
I finally see what should have been obvious from the start: the Reformation did not rebel against the authority of the church, but it recognized that the church in that time and place did not have the kind of authority it was claiming. It rediscovered that ultimate authority is in the Word of God. It didn’t seek to throw out all tradition (although that undoubtedly became the focus in some corners) only those that stood opposed to the Bible.
I still have a lot of tweaking to do to my understanding, but then I can’t expect the process to be perfect, can I? I still have much to learn, and what I believe now raises a host of new questions. (Questions that I know I’ve covered in classes before but wasn’t able to deal with them because the root issue was still unresolved.) But they’re a lot easier to tackle now that I have my Bible back.
[Editor’s note: to be clear, nobody told me to stop reading the Bible, and I don’t think a healthy respect for tradition is at odds with reading the Bible and submitting to its authority. My wanderings are my fault for drawing wrong conclusions.]

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