Oct  2017 31
Reformation Day: Affirmations of Being a Protestant

Today, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Augustinian monk and Old Testament professor, Martin Luther, initiating debate on 95 matters of belief and practice. His action was not the first salvo in what has become known as the Protestant Reformation, but it is colloquially accepted as the start.

Today—after five centuries of Western political and religious history, a plethora of religiously-fueled wars, innovations such as denominations and seminaries and neighborhood churches, and the modern ecumenical and interfaith movements that have challenged the very idea of what it means to be Protestant, or even Christian—I am pausing to reflect on what I value from my Protestant heritage. I could write another blog on what pains me about my heritage, but that topic is for another day.

Pelusos were introduced to Protestantism when my Italian immigrant grandparents were among the founders of an Italian-language Methodist Church in Chicago. One of the motivating reasons Grandpa Emilio braved starting anew in the U.S. was to distance himself from Catholicism.

For me in my generation, I’ve never sought to push away from Catholicism, having been involved in ecumenical endeavors since my late teens. Vatican II (1962-1965) opened up all kinds of possibilities for relationship that did not exist in my grandparents’ generation. But I am grateful to my Emilio and Emilia for steering the family, for a time, into Protestantism (only two of the eight children remained Protestant as adults, the others married Catholics!).

In the following comments, I am not saying each of the values I affirm are unique to Protestantism. When I ask myself what I value about my Protestant heritage, on this day of remembering that heritage, these are values I hold.

Some of you will say, “Hey, I can counter those values with opposing commitments and practices. That is not the Protestantism I know!” Granted. All of our traditions are, as theologian David Tracy has written, “plural and ambiguous.”

When I consider what in Protestantism I hope Christianity can incarnate more, be reformed into, here is my “best of:”

  • God is grace, and God’s grace is freely offered prior to any human action. Grace is woven into creation. Grace is God’s self-communication. Humanity becomes more godly as more grace is incarnated in us. Spiritual disciplines are primarily about being transformed by grace into the human fullness of the Image of God, just as Jesus was.
  • Protestants have a unique and un-divorceable relationship with the Bible. How we Protestants interpret the Bible is, obviously, a matter of extreme controversies. That we must interpret the Bible is a fundamental Protestant claim. There is no Bible without the church, for the community of Christians is the living link to Jesus and the apostles and the communities that first produced what became Christian scripture. But there is also no church without the Bible, no church without interpreting the Bible.
  • “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Okay, historians judge Luther did not utter those actual words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, but the words capture a moment. Luther had already been excommunicated, so he was a heretic. After Worms he was an outlaw, meaning anyone could murder him and not be prosecuted. The “here I stand” sets in dramatic contrast the conscience of a lone individual refusing to bend to the “ultimate” powers of Pope or Emperor. The locus of authority was challenged. Conscience cannot be violated.
  • The separation of church and state. Yes, it took a long time for descendants of what historians call the Magisterial Reformation (accomplished with the support of governing authorities) to come around to the insights of the Radical Reformers who saw the corrupting influence of ALL governments on religion. Why is government incompetent in matters of religion, as the U.S. configures that relationship in Article VI of the Constitution and then the First Amendment? See the statement above on the inviolable nature of conscience. Oh, and see the above statement about religious wars and wanting to avoid them…
  • The church errs and sins and is ever in need of reformation and transformation. Surely, there are many expressions of Protestant Christianity that have determined they finally “got faith right,” that their life expresses God’s will fully and without error. Nonsense. We Protestants do much better when we recognize we never get faithful living and God’s will fully right. In our better moments, we realize we are the first to stand in need of confession, repentance, forgiveness, humility, and grace, and to be kind to those who see matters differently.
  • In a matter related to the aforementioned value of confessing that the church errs and sins: Protestants do better when we limit our truth claims. All human beings, and communities, see partially. There is no revelation that is received without lenses that distort. Given that there are thousands of Christian denominations worldwide, at least 200 in the U.S., and who-knows-how-many congregations that won’t associate even with one other congregation, any claim to be the solo True Church is, practically speaking, absurd. If we accept the limitation of truth claims, we also set the stage for conversation and argument—and training in how to converse and argue—with persons who differ from us.
  • Christ’s ministry is open to the whole people of God. Through baptism, all Christians are ministers. But the ministry of the ordained in Protestantism severed the exclusive belief and practice that the ordained must be male (yes, I still occasionally read the argument that a woman, or a transgender person, at the communion table cannot represent Jesus. Ugh, as if Jesus’ maleness was his decisive godly attribute). In the Protestant world, when we are at our best, the ministry of the ordained is open to everyone imbued by God with the gifts and grace necessary for ministry.
  • One of the more interesting aspects of Luther’s life, in my judgment, is the establishment, with his beloved Katie, of a parsonage family. The dynamic of married clergy, with family, requires a wholly different support structure—and set of challenges—for ministry than celibate males living either solo or in community. Historically, the parsonage family has often been stressed from living in a fishbowl, with excessive demands and insufficient compensation. And, today, there is no one sort of parsonage arrangement, and that variety stresses congregations set in husband-wife-children mindsets. But, the fundamental affirmation of the parsonage family (or a single person) that needs to be reclaimed is that the clergyperson is a human being who, like any other human being, needs companionship, intimacy, boundaries, deep friends, and sufficient material support to live on and to do the job they are called to do.
  • The line between the secular and the sacred is questionable, at least. Work, regardless of whether done by clergy or by any other person, if done for the benefit of humankind and of the created order, is holy work. I’ve always loved the insight from Jewish philosopher and mystic Martin Buber: there is only the holy and the not yet holy. That is an insight the Protestant priesthood of all believers affirms, as soon as we break the priest-hierarchy imposed boundary between the secular and the sacred.

Happy Reformation Day!

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
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