Institutional Christianity lost sight of the sheer gift of divine reconciliation for a long time, only beginning to recover an inkling of it in the 1600s.
As priest and chef Robert Farrar Capon put it,
The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distilate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.
(Between Noon & Three: Romance, Law & the Outrage of Grace)
It was only after the sacrifice and insistence of a few, based upon their convictions from scripture, that bands of believers recovered the idea of salvation by grace through faith. Those who, like Martin Luther, read New Testament letters themselves and saw a message of salvation different from the institution, were threatened with their lives.
This one, in particular, struck me: How could the church lose sight of redemption and reconciliation at God’s initiation – the very heart of Jesus’ message? How could this happen? Furthermore, attempts to recover it were adamantly opposed by the mainstream religion for a long time. When Reformers tried to recover it, arguing from Scripture, they were met with great opposition. This heart of Good News was recovered through great sacrifice – even martyrdom. The call to reform, to re-examine assumed truths, set off an entire Reformation against the established beliefs, mainstream practices and institutionalized ‘truths’ of the church.
This particular paradigm shift – the Protestant Reformation – was forged into the mainstream of Christianity and into the minds of believers, by great intentionality against the established norms. Today, these gains are taken as a given. Debated still, but you won’t be jailed or threatened with death in most places around the world for affirming God’s accomplished redemption of humanity.
Looking back, many Christians today would agree that these changes – big, vast, scary to the original people experiencing them – were necessary improvements in the life of faith and everyday spirituality.
Most importantly, these changes give modern believers access to an ever-clearer vision of what an All-in-all God and co-creative humanity looks like.
It is more harmonious with our sacred Narrative, and bears more beautiful fruit:
- To believe that God loves all races equally
- To see God’s delight when covenanted partners enjoy one another – body and soul
- To affirm access of Holy Writ to all
I believe God, as the ultimate scientist, supports human scientific discovery because all creation bears witness to the glory of God. I believe the heart of Jesus’ message, and the consistent belief of every New Testament writer, is that salvation – making friendship with God through faith in Messiah – is a free gift of God’s grace, poured out upon everyone.
I hope these “Five S’s” serve to remind us how far we’ve come, and cause us to be open to reflecting upon the necessary changes we need to embrace in the future. Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with just a small handful of religion’s former erroneous beliefs, hopefully we can more clearly see that the community of faith is a work in progress.
When I assess contentious issues today in the evolving landscape of faith and practice, I think of these past mistakes and they humble me. What are we not seeing today? What beliefs do we hold today that our spiritual communities will teach the opposite about in the future?
Covenant Eschatology, for one. A fulfilled and open Story. It is time for a major paradigm shift in our hearts and communities so we can get on with embodying the Goose News and loving a world in need. Lets not waste any more time waiting in a holding pattern for someone else to come down and fix things for us.
Riley O’Brien Powell earned her BA in Art History from Wheaton College, M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and M.A. in Education from Harvard University. She is a mother of four, raising them with her husband, Skip Powell, MD. She is a covenant participant and theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a board member of Presence. You can find more of Riley’s writing on her blogs, at Living the Question and Mostly Raw Mom.