It’s getting closer and closer to Oct. 31. For children, of course, this means the bacchanalia of Hallowe’en, but the religiously
astute will also know it as Reformation Day – and that this year’s is the
500th anniversary version.
On that day in 1517 the monk and
theological professor Martin Luther
took up a hammer and nailed on the
community bulletin board (the
church door) a set of propositions
(theses) he wanted to discuss with
He wrote them in Latin for the
learned, but someone recognized
explosive material when he saw it,
copied down the theses, translated
them into German, and printed
them without Luther’s permission
for wide dissemination.
Boom went the dynamite, and
the Reformation was on.
Theological scholars around the
world are making public presentations this year on this explosion and
its aftereffects, and I’m among
them ransacking sources old and
new to compose my lectures.
I recently enjoyed reading Maritimer Bruce Gordon’s biography
of John Calvin. Gordon makes a
number of important points in this
book, such as that Calvin, for all his
insistence on correct doctrine, also
championed Christian unity and
therefore advocated liberty in worship forms and other elements of
church life so as to avoid division.
Gordon likewise shows how
Calvin, not known for his flexibil-
ity, nonetheless frequently both
advocated and practised accommo-
dation – as he saw God doing in
accommodating the great truths of
the gospel to the limitations of our
tiny intellects using the inspired
words of the Bible.
Gordon also emphasizes Calvin’s
laserlike focus on Scripture.
Famous as he is for his multivolume
work of systematic theology, The
Institutes of the Christian Religion,
Calvin saw this work as merely a
helpful guide to the central task of
Calvin devoted most of his teaching, preaching and writing to ex-positing book after book of the Bible
(and remains one of the few commentators from centuries past commentators today regularly consult).
Another truth shows up implicitly not only in Gordon’s book, but in
his own life.
Sociologist Edward Shils famously emphasized the relationship
of “centre” and “periphery,” and the
Reformation is a giant example of
what he means. For the critical and
creative springs of the Reformation
did not emerge from the great
centres of Europe – not in London
or Paris, Rome or Castile, Prague or
Vienna. The Reformation began on
You would have had to peer closely at a map of 16th-century Europe
to spot tiny Wittenberg (home of
Luther and Melanchthon).
Zurich wasn’t much bigger
(home of Zwingli and Bullinger and
the Swiss Brethren ancestors of the
Neither was Geneva (home of
Calvin and Beza).
Admittedly John Knox and
Thomas Cranmer served in their
national capitals of Edinburgh and
London respectively. But Knox gave
credit to Calvin’s Geneva as the
“perfect school of Christ” while
Cranmer’s career, brilliantly fruitful
as it was (especially in the form of
the The Book of Common Prayer), was
deeply compromised by proximity
to one Tudor monarch after another.
No, the Reformation came largely
from the periphery, not the centre
– just as Bruce Gordon himself,
now holder of the Titus Street
Chair of Ecclesiastical History at
Yale University, an intellectual
centre without equal, was first a
student in Nova Scotia at King’s
College and Dalhousie.
Canada itself is decidedly peripheral to British, French and American cultural centres – and increasingly to Hong Kong and Beijing too.
Evangelicals, furthermore, who
once constituted the centre of Canadian Anglophone society, are well
out onto the periphery nowadays.
We Canadian Evangelicals could
bemoan our lack of status and loss of
influence. Those in the centre do get
more attention and exert more clout.
But if we want to stay alive to
fresh words from God, if we want
to truly practise the principle of
ecclesia reformata semper reformanda
(the reformed church always being
reformed, as Karl Barth put it), we
will do better if we remain free of
the inertial weight of the centre.
Great new things, after all, can
come from little places such as
Wittenberg or Geneva.
Or Nazareth. /FT
The critical and creative springs of the
Reformation did not emerge from the great
centres of Europe.
CHRIST & CULTURE IN CANADA
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR.
Why the periphery isn’t so bad after all
John Stackhouse teaches at Crandall
University in Moncton, N.B. His latest book
will be released later this year – Why You’re Here:
Ethics for the Real World (Oxford). Find more of his
columns at www.Faith Today.ca/ChristAndCulture.