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The Reformation as a World Citizen by Thies Gundlach

Our world has become smaller, closer, tighter – a quick click on Google Earth is perhaps most symbolic of our world as a “global village” (“one world”): whereas it once took weeks and months for news and goods to reach one part of the world, today you can be in Latin America within half a day. The news creates a simultaneity with all world events. And indeed the environmental problems “created” in the industrialised countries find their way to other countries extremely quickly. In this one world of ours life takes place in completely different worlds at the same time; there is life in virtually medieval conditions and life in hypermodernity. There are people living in extreme wealth and extreme poverty at the same time, some enjoy the advantages of technological progress in medicine and mobility while others have no access to these things. This simultaneity makes the rift in our one world something we experience daily and a challenge for us all.

(image: epd)

The path to a world event

“Reformation and One World”, the theme of the last year of the Luther Decade leading up to the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, draws attention to the Reformation as a global citizen (Martin Junge) in this global world in order to raise awareness of the worldwide dimension of reformatory impacts and responsibilities before several invitations and events in the anniversary year concentrate on Germany, so often called the “mother country of the Reformation”.

Reformation was not and is not a merely local event. While a significant impulse emanated from Wittenberg, its university and the professors Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, there were independent reformatory movements in other German and Europeans centres and countries before, during and after their activities. And although the oft-cited view that it was the Upper German Reformation that took Lutheran ideas around the world is not entirely accurate, the Reformation certainly would not have developed into a “citizen of the world” without it. 

Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and Johannes Calvin in Geneva played leading roles in making the Reformation a world event. But it is also impossible to understand reformatory thought without considering Thomas Müntzer and the Reformation’s left wing, Menno Simons and the peace churches, John Knox and the Scots, John Wesley and the Methodists and many others.

Scripture as a common basis

And it is not only the churches whose roots can be traced back to the time of the Reformation that contribute to the worldwide diversity of Protestantism. Independent churches with their own characteristics have developed out of missionary activities and under the influence of their cultural contexts, not just in Asia and Africa but also in Latin America. There are even Pentecostal churches that show interest in the legacy of the Reformation and celebrating the anniversary of the Reformation. The “somewhat different world church” of the reformatory confessions has always been there, always in a diverse, differentiated fashion.

The attempt to make the diversity of this world church in Wittenberg visible five-hundred years after its symbolic starting point – Luther’s act of nailing his theses to the Church door in Wittenberg – is also a signal not to take the fragmentation of the reformatory churches as their sole characteristic. The common basis in word and deed, within that diversity, is the one word of God as attested by Holy Scripture and interpreted in the confessions of the old church. It forms the foundation of all reformatory churches (“one word”).

Skyline of Frankfurt (image: epd)

Diversity as an expression of freedom

It certainly took a long time for the two main movements of the Reformation era to find a credible pathway to living in full communion, in spite of their remaining differences, in the Leuenberg Concord of 1973. But the visible diversity can also be understood as a certain richness, since it represents a significant reformatory insight; as a consequence and expression of reformatory freedom the churches are aware of the “adiaphora”, that is, the things that may remain within diversity. The many church ordinances, the different forms of worship and the many ethical values serve as a reminder of the fact that exegesis of the Holy Scripture allows, as a rule, several legitimate interpretations. It is especially in the light of the international dimension that one should not be too hasty to ask the decisive question of where a church stands on the issue of faith. Part of the common understanding between the reformatory churches, along with the orientation towards God’s word, is the call to take responsibility for the world and to shape the world. Paying heed to God’s word (“one word”) and awareness of a life in one world give rise to common duties (“one work”) that should always be oriented towards the needs of the poor.

Taking responsibility

For the reformatory churches have of course also contributed to the fragmented nature of our one world; given the theme for 2016, “Reformation and One World”, the obvious focus of a self-critical examination is the churches’ colonial and missionary history and its legacy. The reformatory churches recognise their responsibility and are doing their duty in the form of social and charity projects – some in grand style, others less conspicuously. Not that all of the world’s reformatory churches can do the same thing; the contexts in which they live are too different for that to be possible or indeed desirable.

The common ground in undertaking this task is rather defined by the idea that all actions must be examined for their “compatibility with the idea of one world” (Heinrich Bedford-Strohm). The laborious and often fruitless negotiations on the subject of environmental protection and global warming, for instance, show that the reformatory churches should also call for global action in our one world with as united a voice as possible.

Transformation in thinking and speaking

The crisis of modernity is also manifested by the fact that speaking about God is in crisis. For many people, talk of God has lost its strength and credibility – and the success of the new Pentacostal movements is more of a reflection of this crisis than its solution. Have the reformatory churches been content for too long to repeat old ways of thinking and speaking rather than advancing their development? Which transformation in thinking and speaking about God is necessary for people to feel that the Bible’s message speaks to them?