Recipe for a Modern Reformation? Return to Tradition, Pastor Says

A statue of the reformer Martin Luther, standing with a Bible.

This Tuesday will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. Luther corrected a church enslaved to tradition, but pastors in the 21st century seeking to preach Jesus Christ anew may need to resurrect some forms of tradition.

"In the name of freedom, we have left all meaningful forms of tradition, and so much of tradition was how to pass on the things of God," Michael Sherrard, pastor at Crosspoint Community Church and director of Ratio Christi College Prep, told PJ Media.

Sherrard painted a distressing picture of Protestant Christianity in the 21st century United States. "This generation has to be reintroduced to this forgotten faith," he said. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half (52 percent) of U.S. Protestants say both good deeds and faith are needed to get into heaven, as opposed to the central Reformation creed Sola Fide, that Christians are saved by faith alone. Only 27 percent of American Protestants could identify Sola Fide as a Protestant belief.

"Many Christians just don't grow up in an environment where Christian doctrine is taught," the pastor argued. He faulted a "topical, self-help church environment," and suggested something more grounded. "What pastors need to do is teach Christian belief in a systematic way to their church — not absent of practical ethics or application, but resting upon a systematic understanding of who God is."

Sherrard then suggested something unexpected. "The practical way to do that is to bring out some catechisms," he said. "Another practical thing that we're doing is bringing back hymns — how to pass on the things of God through song, so they stay in your heart." The Protestant pastor also suggested a return to liturgy, a formal system of prayer, Bible reading, sermons, and song long associated with "high church" traditions like the Roman Catholic Church.

Make no mistake — Sherrard was not suggesting a return to Catholicism. He presented a very Protestant catechism, Tim Keller's The New City Catechism: 52 Questions and Answers for Our Hearts and Minds. Many great hymns come from Protestant denominations — Martin Luther himself penned many, including "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." High church liturgies range from Anglican, Presbyterian, even Baptist — as well as Catholic.

Many look down on catechisms, liturgy, and hymns as boring and lifeless, but young people are entranced by them. "Amongst the younger generation I find a movement towards high church because they love being given these deep truths in a systematic way," Sherrard said. "It's not the liturgy that robbed your church of life, it's something else." He suggested sexual sin (about 64 percent of Christian men in America admit watching porn once a month).

Timothy McGrew, professor and chair of philosophy at Western Michigan University and a faculty advisor at Ratio Christi, presented two problems in the church requiring a modern reformation. "We are weak on reasons and we are weak on morals, and that's a terrible place for an institution that claims to have good news," he said.

McGrew told the story of a friend of his, "a good pastor who cares about his people," who sold most of his books from seminary but kept one. He kept that book because "it had half of one page on reasons to trust the scripture."

The professor chided American seminaries for failing to equip pastors to train their parishioners to give a rational defense of Christianity. "We train them on counseling, fundraising, how to make newsletters for your church, but we don't train them to make disciples," McGrew charged. "I'm not saying we should turn all of the pews into apologetics Jedi, but we could give them something."

But it is not enough for Christians to explain why their religion is true, they also have to show that it is beautiful, the professor said. He quoted the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who told Christians to make religion attractive — "make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is."

Christians need to champion the Judeo-Christian moral vision, McGrew said. He cited Darren Aronofsky's new film "Mother" as an example of how many secular people view the general Christian as "a nasty person, some kind of snake oil salesman who would like to control people in every way."

This view follows from an understanding of the Bible as some list of arbitrary rules and punishments. The actual Judeo-Christian moral code in the Bible is more like a user's manual for being human, McGrew argued. "Many of the prohibitions are more like, 'don't touch that fire or you will get burned.'"

In light of these intellectual and moral problems, the philosophy professor said that a return to tradition — catechisms, liturgy, and hymns — "would be valuable for many people, and I would consider myself among them."

At the same time, he insisted that "part of the beauty of Christianity is that it does not prescribe how one must worship (facing Mecca, five times a day, saying these words)." Rather, Christianity "allows for different forms to carry the same essential content."

Matthew Young, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, agreed that "a modern Reformation would return to some traditions that have disappeared in recent years." Such a move may or may not be "helpful in the long run," he added, but he agreed that "young people are attracted by old traditions."

Young recalled a conversation with a student at his church. The student "strongly endorsed 'deep hymns,' even though he holds very liberal views of Scripture interpretation," the professor said. "He is rebelling against 'modern' music, but he is not 'reforming' to hymns that are driven by scripture, necessarily."

The engineering professor called for a reformation — "a recognition of what is wrong, and a recognition of where we need to return." Even so, he warned that without the aspect of a return, a "reformation" could really end up becoming a rebellion.

Young said that millennials — Christians and non-Christians — are rebelling against many things. He noted a rejection of the organized church, and the trend of rejecting "labels." He warned about denial of social norms, arguing that millennials have lost a respect for the United States, and they are trying to redefine humanity "with homosexuality and gender confusion."

In this framework, the professor called upon American Protestant churches to embrace the five "solas" of the Reformation (scripture alone, faith alone, grace alone, Christ alone, and glory to God alone), each of which has been subverted in recent decades.

As opposed to upholding scripture alone, "church teachings are increasingly 'application driven,' in the sense that the teacher elevates his/her opinion to that of scripture," Young said. While the Reformation taught that salvation came through faith alone, "the American Protestant church has turned this concept into an internal emotion, and we now state that salvation comes from optimism (faith in faith, alone)."

As for grace, it "has been redefined as mercy," and emptied of the call to discipleship. As for Christ, "we have re-instituted a human priesthood," elevating the pastor so much, he functionally replaces Jesus. Finally, rather than giving the glory to God alone, modern Protestant churches "function as a corporation," giving glory to "the church facility and the church leaders, instead of God alone."

Young said millennials are "right in noticing a deficiency in the American Protestant Church," but they may not understand how it has strayed from the truth. "We as believers would do well to present historical Christianity; specifically, the gospel (which is the birth, life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ), and the sufficiency of Scripture."

"Change is coming," the professor said. "Will it be a Reformation or a Rebellion?"