This is an article from the September - October 1997 issue: The Jesus Film Project Takes on the World

Seeing the Reformation with New, Missionary Eyes

Is that the Key to a Coming Mutation in Missions Today?

Seeing the Reformation with New, Missionary Eyes

The Reformation--you know, when Luther posted his "95 theses" challenging Rome--looks very different from a missionary standpoint.

What isn't true

First of all, "posting" discussion topics on the door was not itself an act of rebellion but the normal thing.

Secondly, Luther was reacting as much against the "Latin" way of life as he was propounding a new theology. His trip to Rome had made him sense the scorn of the Romans for Germans. They detected his strange Germanic twang. They had a "nigger" word for Germans, etc. He was revulsed by the commercialization of the faith which offered tourists many traps to separate them from their money.

Thirdly, Luther was the 14th not the first to translate the Bible into common German. And, the supression of vernacular Bibles was not the cause of the Reformation but the result of the it! The Bible was considered dangerous by both Catholic ac Protestant rulers.

The idea that either Latin Christianity or German Christianity was entirely right or wrong is easy to believe--and widely believed by the actual participants in the break-away movement--but is hard to sustain when looked on historically.

Those who adopted the word "Protestants" were assumed to be protesting even though the word at that time meant "proclaiming." Theological issues were often lost in the scuffles which often justified outright war between Catholic and Protestant powers.

Finally, the doctrine of justification by faith was widely proclaimed all over Italy, Spain and France long before Luther hoisted the flag, not just in Germany nor by Luther alone. In Germany, however, it eventually became a theological basis on which to justify a cultural rejection of Latin, Mediterranean domination.

Luther exchanged friendly letters with the Pope, who at that time was one of the best popes ever. Luther and the Pope, were up against a monstrous, menacing bureaucracy in Rome, which neither could manage.

Furthermore, a Catholic expository preacher, Staupitz, who specialized in the Pauline Epistles, was the one in the first place who helped Luther grasp the powerful meaning of a non-legalistic Gospel--which is something emphasized all throughout the Bible. Paul

insisted that even Abraham was justified by faith--heart obedience. Jeremiah speaks of circumcision needing to be of the heart. So does Deuteronomy! Neither Jew nor Greek (nor German) can get to heaven by a righteousness of outward works. Paul and Luther did not invent a new, easier way to get to heaven. They pointed out, as Jesus Himself did, the true meaning of the Bible.

What is true

(But which is more easily understood by missionaries)

  1. The Latin type of Christianity in Germany in Luther's day was like a mission field today which may still possess many of the cultural characteristics of the missionaries' backgrounds. These features may be acceptable at first, especially if the missionary's culture offers special advantages. Eventually these features become wearing. To many "on the field" the foreign cultural trappings of the Gospel may never become acceptable (such as missionaries in India eating meat--which is repugnant to the 600 million caste Hindus, or missionaries in the Near East passing the bottle. After all, the Catholics "lost "Protestantism in part because their introduction of a vernacular "mass" came 1,000 years too late. (For many decades earlier Roman Christianity up in Europe had allowed the continuation of some shockingly pagan rituals, such as the sunrise ritual for a pagan Goddess of fertility whose name was Eostre. They poured new meaning into such festivals, including their own pagan-background Saturnalia which they transformed into Christmas.) But eventually they had to settle for a breakthrough which unfortunately became a breakdown.
  2. Almost all modern "mission fields" eventually develop indigenous movements which reject many missionary-imported features. Some of these "new movements" start out clearly bizarre and heretical, but when they cling to the Bible they often level out and begin to sense their kinship on a global level.
  3. Many scholars have observed that the Reformation succeeded where cultural "Romanizing" by the earlier Roman Empire had failed to extend itself. Territories "beyond" the Roman political empire's boundaries are precisely where the "Reformation" took place.
    This clearly implies that there were many other powerful factors besides theological nuances. Theology often has been a handy and seemingly legitimate way of disguising racial and cultural prejudices, and has often been a chief means of justifying cultural differences that are not themselves theological.
  4. The "spark" that ignited the Reformation was, in some respects, the appearance of a John Tetzel parading through Germany with a big trunk like huge piggy bank on a wagon, proclaiming that the moment a coin "klingk" in the chest, a deceased relative's soul "sprinkt" out of purgatory.
    However, it was not only John Tetzel's bad theology that aroused Luther's ire, but the idea that the money Tetzel was collecting was going out of Germany to build still another building in the city of Rome, where Luther had earlier encountered such social disdain against Germans. (Tetzel did not mention that half of what he collected would go to the local German bishop!)
  5. Tetzel's "theology" was, in fact, not the official Roman Catholic church position, and the church publically disavowed his money- raising pitch. But by the time Luther's theology passed muster, too much time had passed and the "other" factors would not go away. Freedom from Rome was now an explosive force.

If we can see what really happened back when the Gospel was passed over from Jew to Greek…

If we can see what really happened back when the Gospel was passed over from Roman to German…

Then we suddenly see the entire missionary movement in the Non- Western world today in new and radically different perspective.


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