Reformation 500: George Weigel: Reform is re-form

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George Weigel, a Roman Catholic theologian, has some words for his own church about reformation that American Evangelicals can usefully heed. Reform is not mere change, but restoration of a form that once existed but has been lost.

Authentic Christian reform, in other words, is not a matter of human cleverness, and still less of human willfulness. If the Church is willed by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, then authentic reform means recovering - making a source of renewal - some aspect or other of the Church's "form" that has been lost, marred, misconceived, or even forgotten. Authentic reform means reaching back and bringing into the future something that has been lost in the Church's present. Authentic ecclesial reform is always re-form....

Weigel quotes Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, writing in 1970 and looking ahead to the end of the century:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge - a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.... But in all the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world....

Weigel elaborates:

What Ratzinger was outlining here was not a plan, but the reality of ecclesia semper reformanda in the late-modern and postmodern West. Genetically transmitted Christianity - the faith passed along by ethnic custom - was finished. Virtually no one in the Church of the twenty-first century, Ratzinger saw in 1970, would be able to answer the question, "Why are you a Christian?" by replying, "Because my great-grandmother was born in Bavaria" (or County Cork, or Cracow, or Guadalajara, or Palermo - or even South Boston). The only faith possible under late-modern and postmodern conditions is faith freely embraced in a free decision, made possible by an encounter with the risen Lord, Jesus Christ. Therefore, whatever institutions of ecclesial life would remain after what Ratzinger dubbed "the trial of this sifting" (which he believed had been underway for more than a century) would have to reconceive themselves as launching pads for mission, communities where those who had received the gift of faith would have to learn how to offer it to others. That gift would not bring with it, as in the past, social status. But it would bring something far more important: it would bring hope, rooted in faith and exercised in charity.

Although genetically transmitted Christianity is historically associated with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but there are many regions and communities around the world where being a Methodist or Southern Baptist or Pentecostal is a part of one's family identity.

The terms of Weigel's conclusion may sound as strange to Catholic ears as they are familiar to evangelical ears.

All of which is to say that the reformation we need at this quincentenary of Wittenberg is a re-formed Church of saints. The cultural dissolution of the West precludes arguing people into the faith. Very few people are going to be argued into belief in a world that accepts "your truth" and "my truth," but not the truth. Yes, the Church needs theologians. Yes, the Church needs fully catechized men and women who can make persuasive arguments, but what the reformed Church of the twenty-first century needs most are witnesses: men and women on fire with missionary zeal, because they have been embraced by the love of Christ and are passionate to share that love with others; men and women who see the world through a biblical optic; men and women sanctified by the sacraments; men and women who know, with Saint Paul, that the trials of the present age are preparing within the ecclesia semper reformanda an "eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17).

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on October 31, 2017 9:12 PM.

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