by Jerry Pillay, WCRC President
In 2013 we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. I remember very distinctly a paper presented by Dr. Iain Torrance where he stated that every 500 years there was some really big historical event which influenced both church and society in a very powerful way. He proceeded to show how this also impacted on Bible translations over the centuries and illustrated this with the use of biblical texts which then communicated the majesty and awe of God. When you read the Scriptures it was as if God was talking. This has now changed with the new translations carrying the image of friendship and a conversation with God rather than God talking to us in majesty and authority. What is reflected here is the transformation and renewal of scriptural translation and understanding over the centuries.
One such major movement in history was the sixteenth-century Reformation which was an attempt to renew and transform the church. The Reformation embraced a number of quite distinct, yet overlapping, areas of human activity: the reform of both the morals and structures of church and society, new approaches to political issues, shifts in economics thinking, the renewal of Christian spirituality and the reform of Christian doctrine (McGrath 2012). It gave rise to significant theological themes, some of which I will briefly discuss below.
At the heart of the Reformation was the quest to return to the Bible. The Reformation saw a new importance being attached to Scripture—or, perhaps, an ancient view of the importance of Scripture being recovered. The idea of sola scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” became one of the great slogans of the Reformers as they sought to bring the practices and beliefs of the church back into line with those of the Golden Age of Christianity. According to McGrath (2012), if the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the material principle of the Reformation, the principle of sola scriptura was its formal principle. If the Reformers dethroned the pope, they enthroned Scripture.
The difference between the Reformers and medieval theology at this point concerns how Scripture is defined and interpreted, rather than the status that it is given. It is this interpretation of Scripture in a changing world that becomes a crucial element for renewal and transformation. It is a stark reminder that the Reformation cannot only be discussed in terms of its ecclesial meaning but also in its relation to culture as a whole. The issue of context and biblical interpretation becomes a serious matter of importance. The Bible is a central document of Western civilization, not only as the source of Christian ideas but also as an influence upon education and culture. Today this is being seriously challenged as we question the “hermeneutical lens” we tend to use in interpreting Scripture. Further, the critical question is “Who is interpreting Scripture and for whom?”
Gerald West (2009), speaking into the South African context, makes the point that the Bible has always been at the centre of the liberation struggle even though it has been categorised as a tool of oppression. For example, it was used as the tool to build an apartheid South Africa but equally it was used as the key text of the struggling masses in South Africa for liberation and justice. The above points establish the need for Reformed theology to seek renewal and transformation in the area of further understanding sola scriptura, the focus is not only on what the interpretation is but, more significantly, on “who” is interpreting. The Reformed faith has the obligation of protecting the text from being co-opted by the powerful and the elite and, thereby, giving vent and expression to the “voice” of the poor, marginalized and oppressed masses. How do the latter groups inform biblical interpretation? How can this become a source for renewal and transformation?
Essential to the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith alone: sola fide. The theme of “redemption through Christ” is central throughout the New Testament, Christian worship and Christian theology. The term “soteriology” is used in Christian theology to communicate the images which describe the redemption achieved through the death and resurrection of Christ. This new theological emphasis led to a focus on individual faith and contributed to the growing influence of the new individualistic philosophy. The basic tenet of Protestantism was the doctrine that human beings were justified by faith rather than by works. Each person had to search his or her own heart to discover if acts stemmed from a pure heart and faith in God.
Unfortunately, the new theological focus on individual faith was to strongly influence the economic views of the new middle-class artisans and small merchants. Such people felt quite genuinely and strongly that their economic practices, though they might conflict with the traditional law of the old church, were not offensive to God. On the contrary: they glorified God. The new doctrines stressed the necessity of doing well at one’s earthly calling as the best way to please God, and emphasized diligence and hard work. These doctrines subsequently led to the spiritualizing of economic processes and the belief that “God instituted the market and exchange.” This emphasis, however, sadly took the Christian focus away from the general concern for the community and the obligation to the poor. It gave acceptance to the liberal paradigm: poverty as backwardness, stressing that the poor should be enabled to reach their full potential (Pillay 2002).
Although this view on poverty has been seriously debated and challenged over the years, we still need to assess how the Reformation relates to imperial capitalism and to the male means-end rationality in science, technology and individualistic calculating mentality (Duchrow 2015). How does this view of sola fide stand in need of renewal and reformation is a question we must continue to engage. Especially given the dynamics of a world in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It is important for Reformed theology to make a clear commitment of standing with the poor and oppressed in the world. We need to shift from a “widow-dressing” theological approach to an in-depth involvement with the plight of the poor. We need to ask whether our theological positions are life-enhancing and life-affirming; do they follow the Bible in socio-historic precision, in essence, do they contribute to liberation and justice?
In addition, we need to reflect on the Reformation and its historical impact in view of the global threat to humanity and the Earth—both positively and negatively. We are living in difficult times as we experience climate change and witness the devastation of the earth. Reformed theology must awaken to a renewed sense of responding to our given realities and focus on the need of “caring for the earth.”
The Accra Confession (2004) is a significant attempt in focusing theology on “covenanting and caring for the earth.” It has outlined and prophetically engaged the issues of economic justice, gender justice and ecological justice. It has rightfully pointed us to these matters and prompted us to respond to the unjust realities of life. Now in this second decade of the Accra Confession we need to ask how this document can be a basis for renewal and transformation for ourselves as the WCRC and for the world at large. The refusal to do this is to not take seriously one of the significant tenets of Reformed theology: the Reformed church is continually reforming.
This also impacts on our understanding of Reformed spirituality. Spirituality is the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experiences of God as a very real presence in and around us (Rice 1991). To be spiritual is to take seriously our consciousness of God’s presence and to live in such a way that the presence of God is central in all that we do. Such spirituality turns to the world, not away from it. It gives attention to the threats of life and embraces the need for justice. Reformed spirituality is thus geared towards equipping life-giving transformative engagement in the world. It is a spirituality that is built in community and builds community. Thus, any piety that appears to be content with a personal relationship with Jesus, and which shuns or belittles the horizontal dimension of discipleship, is suspect. Any spirituality that advocates a withdrawal from what is going on in the world is contrary to Christ’s spirit.
At the centre of Reformed theology is the message of sola gratia. It reminds us that grace alone is the source and sustenance of our salvation. God’s provision of saving, sustaining and glorifying grace is the golden thread uniting all Christian scripture and enabling all Christian faithfulness. This means all works honouring God—including our personal sanctification, our love for neighbours and enemies, our zeal for world mission, our free offer of the Gospel, our warnings of judgment, our promises of eternity, our mercy toward the poor and oppressed, our stewardship of God’s world, our battles against Satan, our prayer for God’s blessing and our work toward Christ’s coming—all find proper motivation and enablement in love for Christ. Of course, this can be misused to use grace to excuse sin, but the principles of grace revealed in all Scripture are the fuel of personal holiness and spiritual revival for those led by the Spirit.
Thus, presenting the doctrines of grace in a warm and embracing way is not to obscure holy boldness but to encourage compassion and humility in the face of God’s sovereign mercy to all he loves from every tribe, language, people and nation. As the kindness of God has led to repentance and renewal among us, we must be committed to a manner and ministry that reflects God’s grace to others (cf. Romans 2:4; 1 Peter 3:15).We must be on guard that the grace message that God has brought to us (or our particular expression of it) does not become a jewel that we admire and adore for the joy it brings us rather than for the hope it offers the world.
The critical question is: How do we understand this concept of grace in the light of the new emerging world experiences impinging on the role of women in society, issues of human sexuality, interreligious encounters and violence, racism, xenophobia, tribalism, the refugee situation, climate change, etc. How do we express grace and hospitality to differing views, theological beliefs and human experiences? All of these impress upon us the need for renewal and transformation as we seek to build inclusive communities and foster better relationships with people of other faiths. These are realities that the WCRC has to deal with, and it is these that will hopefully bring theological renewal and transformation.
All of these theological teachings mentioned above had a huge impact on society; they influenced politics, societal transformation, theological developments, etc. But as we have shown these concepts themselves are in need of renewal and transformation. They were all contextually based and informed and emerged mainly in the Western world. These were then transported and transplanted into other parts of the world, often without taking the local context seriously.
In any case, the world has changed quite significantly in the last 500 years. Today we live in the midst of globalization, poverty, hunger, refugees, economic injustice, secularization, political instability, climate change and environmental challenges, liberation and feminism, religious pluralism and religious violence and a sexual revolution. It is therefore appropriate to ask how we can seek renewal and transformation of Reformed theology, tradition and practice in light of these new or continued developments. The theme of the General Council is thus appropriately set: “Living God, renew and transform us.”
The theme reflects a prayer to the “living God” which speaks of God’s presence and power in the world. The Resurrection power tells us that there is nothing in this world that God cannot overcome. The cross speaks of the measure that God will go through to restore and save the world. It is all because of love! This theme is reflected as a prayer to God who lives and reigns in the world to make us more like Jesus. It is a prayer that God will make the church and Christians to be what God wants and wills for us to be, and that God will use us to change the world so that it may reflect God’s reign and presence bringing justice, peace, love and abundance of life to all. But what does it mean to be renewed and transformed?
The word “renew” implies that we have lost something, and that we should go back to what we should be, to begin or take up again, to restore to a former state, to replenish, revive or re-establish, to make new. It is the first step to real transformation. In many senses the church has lost, neglected, forgotten and forsaken its calling. We are called to proclaim the good news of salvation and life in Jesus Christ, but we have become side-tracked from our main purpose as a church. The word “transform” means to change completely from inside out. It has the same meaning as transfiguration (Matthew 17:2) or metamorphosis which means to change into another form. The picture here is of a caterpillar which changes into something quite different when it becomes a butterfly.
The “us” in the theme is a reference to both the church and the world. We recognise that the church is in much need of renewal and transformation in as much as the world with all its injustices, corruption, deceit and unrighteousness. We thus need to speak to ourselves first before we can tell the world what to do or not to do. In some senses the church is a microcosm of the world rather than being a bridgehead to an alternative society filled with justice, peace and fullness of life for all (John 10:10).
Renewal and transformation impresses upon us the need to relook at the Reformed essentials through new lenses, contextual realities and ecumenical developments. Liberation, African and black theologies have encouraged us to undertake a “theology from below” approach, as we reflect on the realities of life and the sufferings and oppression of people in different contexts. It challenges us to read and reread Scripture from the “preferential option of the poor,” the empowerment of women, inclusivity and acceptance. It calls us to take the issues of justice and peace seriously. It calls us to relook, re-examine and even reinterpret positions of the past. These are not easy things to do. It can shake and uproot our fixed beliefs and understandings of the past and rock the very foundations of what we have always believed. It can even cause a crisis in faith. But it can also bring us into a new place of faith-encounter and experience of love, service and acceptance of others, hospitality and grace instead of hostility and defence, inclusivity and the embracement of diversity. It can open new doors to understanding human life, human dignity and human needs. It can shed new light on communion (unity) and justice. All of these can lead us into a new appreciation of the God of love, grace and holiness.
It is my hope and prayer that the biblical reflections in this book would help to do just that as we prepare for the 2017 General Council and as we prayerfully and discerningly reflect on the theme: Living God, renew and transform us. May this prayer begin with each of us inviting the Holy Spirit to start with “me” saying: “Here I am Lord, Jesus Christ, standing in need of renewal and transformation, please begin with me.”
McGrath, A. E., Reformation Thought An Introduction, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
West, G., Religion and Spirituality in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki’s Bible, Pietermaritzburg: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2009.
Pillay, Jerry, The Church and Development: Towards a Theology of Development, Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 2002.
Duchrow, Ulrich, Liberation toward Justice, Berlin: LIT VERLAG Dr. W. Hopf, 2015.
Rice, Howard L., Reformed Spirituality An Introduction for Believers, Westminster: John Knox Press, 1991.