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Can Germany rediscover the Reformation?

October 2003 | by Martin Erdmann

 

Humanly speaking, the Protestant Reformation began in Germany, where Martin Luther discovered justification by faith alone and spoke out against the errors of Rome.

 

As the Reformation spread to other lands, and new leaders emerged, German preachers and theologians remained in the forefront of what was perhaps the greatest spiritual movement since the first century — a movement to which all Protestant Christians trace their roots.

Yet today, reformed Christianity is virtually unknown in the German-speaking church.

Theological wasteland

Only a handful of German or German-Swiss pastors are reformed in their theology or preaching, and even they do not always have churches committed to reformed doctrine.

Doctrinally, the Evangelical churches in Germany are a theological wasteland, swept with Willow Creek and Church Growth Movement teaching.

A few years ago, the pastor of a Baptist church in the Rheinland (near Cologne) was asked to leave after a mere 16 months when he refused to get involved in these movements and insisted on teaching Calvinistic doctrine.

There is, however, a movement of God’s Spirit among believers in Germany to return to a confessional position. A small contingent of churches subscribe to a reformed standard, either in its Presbyterian/Dutch Reformed or Baptist expression.

Among those who uphold the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 are three churches. One of these is the Emmanuel Gemeinde in Wetzlar. Although still small in number, the believers there evidence God’s grace in marvellous ways.

Visitors are impressed by the warm brotherly love among those attending the well-grounded preaching and regular Bible studies.

Currently, the church cannot afford to call a full-time pastor, but it is being helped by Robert Briggs, a Baptist pastor. His deep commitment to further the spiritual well-being of this group of Christians motivates him to travel from Ireland four times a year to provide pastoral oversight and care.

Russian Germans

Dr Karsten Ernst, a church historian by training, oversees a group of believers in the region around Stuttgart. He works full time in the computer industry because the church is unable to support him financially at present.

A keen theologian with a pastor’s heart, Dr Ernst has recently been asked to speak to large ‘Russian German’ churches located in the south.

These ‘Russian Germans’ are Germans who emigrated to Russia at the beginning of the 20th century but have now returned — having retained their German identity but added to it aspects of Russian culture.

They are attracted to Karstens’ serious approach to Scripture and the Christian life, and open to hearing his reformed teaching.

Baptists

Audey Shepard, an American missionary, who came to Germany with the military, pastors a reformed Baptist church in Heilbronn. He was converted to Christ and came to embrace the doctrines of grace by reading the Scriptures and the Puritans.

He only really discovered the existence of reformed Baptists about five years ago — through the Internet — and realised that this was his own theological position.

Apart from these three independent reformed Baptist assemblies, there is another church in Riedlingen which belongs to the German Baptist Union. Pastor Ingo Pettke came to embrace a reformed position while in the ministry.

His congregation has consistently rallied around him over the years to prevent Union officials from ousting him from his church. This is the only way a Baptist Union pastor with reformed convictions is able to stay within that particular denomination.

The other 800 or more Baptist churches in Germany are either thoroughly Arminian or liberal in their doctrinal stance, a fact which reflects the orientation of their theological seminary in Berlin.

Difficulties

Although it is less troublesome to plant an independent reformed Baptist church, being a pastor of a recognised denomination such as the Baptist Union has its advantages, which are not obvious at first sight.

Government regulation of religious establishments, and tax laws, have become rather stringent in Germany to impede the proliferation of ‘cults’. Any religious group outside established denominations falls into this category.

In spite of these difficulties, God’s sovereign hand is evident in the circumstances of these Independent churches, united as they are by a common reformed faith. They are separated by significant distances and have only come to know about one another in the last few years through God’s providence.

They are enduring many difficulties as they pave the way back to a sound faith against the opposition of frivolous and superficial religion.

Insignificant as these four churches may seem as they seek to influence the overall Christian scene in Germany, they do represent a sign of hope to those who feel strongly about a renewal of the reformed faith in the land of Martin Luther.

Since God once used just one man to ignite a spiritual reformation in the face of overwhelming opposition, it should not be deemed impossible that something similar can happen today. Our God is the God of the impossible.

Reformed literature

What needs to be done, first and foremost, is to proclaim with fearless conviction the gospel of God’s sovereign grace. Once this message becomes known, genuine believers will respond to its truth and will want to be further taught in the precious doctrines of God’s Word.

Good reformed literature will be one of the most effective ways for them to grow to spiritual maturity. In recent years Pastor Jörg Müller, working under the auspices of EMF, has set up the 3L Verlag in Filderstadt.

Initially assisted by Evangelical Press, this publishing house has begun to translate and print well-known English classics of the reformed faith.

This effort is partially subsidised by individuals in the UK who are eager to make Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ books — and those of other reformed stalwarts — available to German believers.

The distribution of this spiritually rich literature is indeed helping to raise a general awareness of a more biblical Christianity and nurture those willing to live by God’s truth.

Biblical training

However, much more needs to be done in terms of a sustained church-planting effort and the confessional transformation of existing churches. The key to accomplishing this must surely be the biblical training of pastors and active laymen.

Often they hold Arminian doctrines simply because they do not know any better. They need to be exposed to Reformation doctrine in the form of biblical and historical theology

But how can this be done? There are simply no reformed Bible colleges or seminaries in Germany. The handful of reformed churches in Germany cannot even support their own pastors financially, let alone mount the effort to set up and finance theological training.

If it is to be done, an innovative way of teaching the doctrines of grace will have to be found.

A feasible solution

Many institutions of higher education have begun ‘distance learning’ programs as part of their educational mission. Newly available communication technologies have been employed to deliver basic and advanced training in every discipline.

The amazing growth of the University of Phoenix Online is an example. It has progressed from 8,000 to 35,000 students over a period of three years. All the education is transmitted via the internet using Word and PowerPoint, including lectures, discussion questions and current articles from periodicals.

Student responses lead to student-to-student and faculty-to-student interaction. One course is taken at a time, assignments are submitted and grades are given.

Understandably, perhaps, those involved in theological education and pastoral training have hesitated to move from traditional methods. But the special needs of the German-speaking church call for drastic measures.

The Verax Institute

To make the reformed faith truly accessible to German-speaking pastors and believers, the writer has initiated an on-line teaching and training ministry under the name of the Verax Institute (www.verax.ws).

The aim is to promote the spiritual renewal of German-speaking churches by offering a well-rounded distance-learning program, together with preaching, literature and seminars.

The goal is to equip God’s people to think self-consciously as New Testament believers by emphasising the doctrines of grace and their outworking through preaching, biblical evangelism, and the local church.

Practical steps

Concerning distance learning, the Verax Institute will use a two-pronged approach. Initially, single courses will be developed in Systematic Theology, Biblical Studies, and Apologetics. These courses will be offered to a broad spectrum of interested persons, for ‘the defence and confirmation of the faith’ among German-speaking believers.

Later, a much fuller program will be implemented to attract full-time and part-time students desiring to train for the ministry and other leadership roles. Students will be offered a degree curriculum including distance courses, weekend seminars, and church-based mentoring.

A number of reformed Baptist churches and individuals in different countries, desiring to see this effort take root, have committed themselves to support the work in various ways.

Intercessory prayer and financial help from outside Germany will be essential to support the endeavours of those actively involved in the development and operation of the distance learning centre and its associated preaching and literature ministries.

Ultimately, however, it is God’s gracious guidance and provision which will determine the effectiveness of the institute in grounding German believers on the rock of divine truth.

Formerly a reformed Baptist pastor, the author has been lecturing in New Testament Studies at the State-independent Theological Seminary, Basel, for the past four years. He is married to Joy (who is American) and has two children, Estelle and Johannes. UK enquiries to Edgar Andrews at

ET.

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