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Thornwell Lectures Archive - Reformation Article

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2017 Thornwell Lecture Introduction

Excerpt from "First Things" Vol. LXVII No. 22, May 28, 2017

What has Wittenberg to do with Columbia?

This summer our collective memory will be focused on the distant past, on the consequences of Martin Luther’s defining action when he nailed the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Saxony.

How we remember history helps us to live faithfully in the present, or, as Soren Kierkegaard once put it, “Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.” What we’re trying to achieve this summer in our lecture series is an attempt to understand our history as Protestants of the Reformation tradition, with the idea being that the events that took place in the sixteenth century still exert an influence in our lives today. To reflect on our past is to resource our present. When we ignore our past, we can end up developing amnesia and, as a result, falling prey to a variety of challenges that the Church has already tackled.

As we commemorate the past, we want to ensure that we do not approach the Reformation as visitors to a museum might approach an historical artifact; that is, observing a relic of a history that has long since passed, and in many respects, been forgotten. When history is treated this way, it can vex the church in the form of traditionalism. On this point, Jaroslav Pelikan has helpfully offered a proper distinction to help us understand how we ought to view the past: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” He teases out this distinction a little more, explaining, “Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” Tradition is healthy and instructive for the church today when it directs our hearts and minds to the Word of God. A church without a biblically-informed tradition is a church without a memory, and a church without a memory is a church without stability, dependence, and humility.

How then do we remember the Reformation rightly? Part of succeeding at this task is to hold theology and ethics closely together. When we look to the reformers only in their role as theologians, separating their theology from their ethics, we fail to remember rightly. This perspective, one of our guest speakers tells us, “righty recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.” It’s for this reason that our speakers have been asked to provide a fuller picture of the achievements of the Reformation, treating topics that explore how the Reformation has affected church life internally, namely, its structure and role, what pastoral care looks like, the way we worship. Yet, many of our speakers are also looking at how the living legacy of the Reformation helps us view politics, sexuality, and our cultural involvement in a biblically faithful way.

So, what does Wittenberg have to do with Columbia? I’d say, an awful lot, but to find out more, you’ll need to come to our lectures to see exactly how! We are thrilled to have a wonderful group of guest speakers with us this summer. We warmly invite you all to be with us and to be encouraged, educated and challenged.  

Mark McDowell


This page last updated June 1, 2017.