October 31, 2017

The Reformation and the Brethren

Photo by Kendra Harbeck

lt’s rare that an event has such an impact that almost everyone recognizes its importance and remembers the date. Such moments can change the trajectory of history. In some cases, these events are so monumental that they come to mark the end of one age and the beginning of another.

Oct. 31, 1517, is one such date. That was when an Augustinian monk and theologian named Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses. With these short statements, Luther invited others into a theological debate over the sale of indulgences.

That debate never took place, but the document soon circulated all the way to the Vatican. Though Luther did not set out to form a new church, the direction of his life and work would lead to his excommunication, years of hiding in the castles of princes, and decades of war across Europe. Much of what Luther argued in his 95 Theses, and later developed in more extensive theological texts, is familiar to us today as Brethren—salvation by grace alone, the centrality of the Scriptures above church tradition, and the priesthood of all believers.

However, for Brethren and many others within the radical wings of the Reformation, Luther did not extend these ideas to their fullest conclusions. For instance, though Luther articulated the importance of the priesthood of all believers, he maintained a significant role for clergy within the church. This, coupled with the teaching role of clergy, meant that clergy and theologians still held a significant position in determining right belief. Anabaptists, and later the Brethren, took another, more radical, posture and said that the royal priesthood extended to all believers, who were to gather around the Scriptures and interpret them together.

More importantly for us today, the wake of violence in the decades after the dawn of the Reformation had a deep impact on the people who called themselves the Neue Taufer, or New Baptists. Luther not only started the great project of reform, but his movement also resulted in the partitioning of Europe by religious confession. Princes and magistrates unhappy with the economic and political role of the Catholic church quickly came to aid reform-minded theologians, protecting them with the military force of their wealth and power.

Decades of religiously and politically defined wars swept over Europe, as these leaders asserted their own sovereignty against other kingdoms and other churches. Eventually, peace came with the agreement at Westphalia that allowed territorial rulers to name the religious practice of their kingdoms. Creeds soon functioned as the measure of religious belief within these territories.

The Brethren, following the earlier Anabaptists, rejected this linking of political power and religious authority. Yet, unlike their Anabaptist predecessors, the Brethren asserted two new, even more radical, beliefs—no creed but the New Testament and no force in religion. While these two concepts were shaped by the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia, they were also consistent with that very radical idea of the Anabaptists, that believers were to be baptized upon the conscious confession of faith. In other words, people were not Christian by birth or by being residents of a particular kingdom, but by actively choosing a life of discipleship.

Today, on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Brethren are in a unique place. On the one hand, our very movement was possible thanks in large part to Luther’s bold attempts to reform the church. Our core beliefs as a church have their roots in Luther’s thought, either by drawing these ideas to their radical conclusion or in our rejection of them.

On the other hand, our own theological tradition emerged from the ruins of religious conflict. Our witness for peace, especially as it relates to baptism, scripture, and noncreedalism, was birthed among a people who witnessed the devastation of religious violence.

In this light, our posture during this momentous anniversary is one of remembrance, not celebration. We recall both the good and the bad of the age of Reformation. Perhaps appropriately, this approach is consistent with Luther’s own reminder that we are simultaneously sinner and saint.

Joshua Brockway is co-coordinator of Congregational Life Ministries and director of spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren.