"This week I had the privilege of meeting with Pope Francis. It was probably one of the highlights of my life. He was funny, warm and very spiritual. I was invited, along with several other pastors, to a small connect forum with Pope Francis because he has a deep passion for unity among Believers – and I do mean DEEP!"
Now, I have absolutely no intention of stirring trouble here. I’m not interested in being controversial for controversy’s sake. I have many, many deep & substantive concerns about Bethel (some of which are articulated by Andrew Wilson here) but this isn't about Bethel specifically. Nor even is it about Vallotton – at least not entirely. My doctorate focused on the Reformation (and the Reformed tradition specifically) and as such the subject of its enduring & complex legacy has always been close to my heart…
"On this Reformation Sunday long for, pray for, our ability to remember the Reformation – not as a celebratory moment, not as a blow for freedom, but as the sin of the Church. Pray for God to heal our disunity, not the disunity simply between Protestant and Catholic, but the disunity between classes, between races, between nations. Pray that on Reformation Sunday we may as tax collectors confess our sin and ask God to make us a new people joined together"
For the majority of the time, however, the free Churches have shown little interest in the fact that they are Protestant at all. The same is also undoubtedly true for evangelicals in general. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, to read Vallotton gush about ‘reaching beyond the borders of tradition’ and dismiss as ‘junk’ any refusal (however nuanced) to receive Rome as a brother Church.
Enter Michael Reeves and Tim Chester – authors of Why The Reformation Still Matters (published this year by IVP). Both men have in the past authored theologically rich books aimed at the popular market, the former for example having previously penned something on the doctrine of the Trinity. Here Reeves & Chester attempt to do the same thing for Reformation history, thought & theology. They’re stepping into that fractious, fractured territory described above – and they nail their colours to the mast almost immediately.
Consider the following quote, provided below:
"It is our contention that five hundred years on evangelical churches would be well served by a rediscovery of Reformation theology. The thought of the Reformers not only challenges Catholic practice; it also challenges many aspects of evangelical practice. The Reformers are not embarrassing grandparents – they are vital conversation partners with the potential to renew and reinvigorate our churches"
At the heart of Reeves & Chester’s book are two straightforward convictions. First, the Reformers have things to teach to us about God, life and everything; and second, we should pay attention.
Simple as that.
When the Reformers describe the doctrine of justification, they’re not just describing the means by which we might avoid the wrath of God, but also the source of divine life & joy; when they emphasise the scriptures as the sole infallible rule of faith, they weren’t indulging in ‘bible-olatry’ but underlining the gracious kindness of God’s self-revelation; when they speak of sin & grace, they were giving rhyme & reason to Newton’s song of praise two hundred years later; and when they dispute what it means to enjoy the Eucharist, they were bequeathing to us an understanding of communion as spiritual medicine.
That’s why Vallotton’s position is so untenable. Some truths are worth holding on to even if it costs us an imposturous unity. Vallotton concludes from his meeting with Francis that “theology shouldn’t divide us”. But what is theology, if not the study of God? And what is right doctrine, if it’s not a participation in the life & truth of God? Does God prove controversial, or not? Does his word divide marrow & bone, or does it not? Does he promise persecution & opposition, or does he not? Consider Paul’s description (in Eph 4:1-16) of a stewardship of sound doctrine as fundamental for us ‘growing into Christ’. Recall his statement to Timothy – that continuing in soundness of teaching & practice will prove a means of salvation, both for him and his hearers. [1 Tim 4:16]
Yes, doctrine can be (and has at times been) stewarded very badly. And yes, there have been terrible things done & said in the name of ‘right teaching’.
But abuse of a thing, doesn’t make that thing wrong.
But it is not – contra one of Vallotten’s more outrageous statements – “spewing hatred” to question an a/doctrinal & a/historical model of unity that has no real basis in scripture.
Despite this, we in the charismatic, evangelical, free denominations seem to suffer from a sort of amnesia, one that ultimately fails to honour the history handed down to us. It is not ours to manipulate or monopolise; we must go through it, for we cannot (and must not) go around it.
By way of a final observation, it must be said that there’s a strange irony in Vallotton’s effort to ‘de-theologise’ Church unity. In a bid to guarantee spiritual concord with God’s people living today, it must necessarily undermine or dismiss the spiritual concerns of God’s people long-passed. This is unacceptable not just because of some desire for sound doctrine but because we cannot arrive at a legitimate experience or understanding of Church in any other way. There is no such thing as an extemporaneous communion of saints. The Body of Christ is made of those saints united to him – not just those presently awake, but those who (for the moment) slumber; not just the ‘Church militant’, but the ‘Church triumphant’.
That’s why the Reformation still matters at long as you belong to any sort of Protestant Church today.