Although provoked by the indulgences peddled by Johannes Tetzel, the very first proposition which Luther offered for public debate in his Ninety-Five Theses put the axe to the root of the tree of medieval theology: ‘When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent,” he meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance.’ From Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, Luther had come to realize that the Vulgate’s rendering of Matthew 4:17 by penitentiam agite (‘do penance’) completely misinterpreted Jesus’ meaning. The gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind-set and an equally deep transformation of life. Later he would write to Staupitz about this glowing discovery: ‘I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek!’
Is it not true that we have lost sight of this note that was so prominent in Reformation theology? We could well do with a Luther redivivus today. For a number of important reasons evangelicals need to reconsider the centrality of repentance in our thinking about the gospel, the church and the Christian life.
One of our great needs is for the ability to view some of the directions in which evangelicalism is heading, or perhaps more accurately disintegrating. We desperately need the long-term perspective which the history of the church gives us.
Even within the period of my own Christian life, the span between my teenage years in the 1960s and my forties in the 1990s, there has been a sea-change in evangelicalism. Many ‘positions’ which were standard evangelical teaching are now, after only three decades, regarded as either reactionary or even dinosauric.
If we take an even longer-term view, however, we face the alarming possibility that there may already be a medieval darkness encroaching upon evangelicalism. Can we not detect, at least as a tendency, dynamics within evangelicalism which bear resemblances to the life of the medieval church? The possibility of a new Babylonian or (more accurately, following Luther) the Pagan Captivity of the Church looms nearer than we may be able to believe.
Consider the following five features of medieval Christianity which are evident to varying degrees in contemporary evangelicalism.
1. Repentance has increasingly been seen as a single act, severed from a life-long restoration of godliness.
There are complex reasons for this — not all of them modern — which we cannot explore here. Nevertheless, this seems self-evident. Seeing repentance as an isolated, completed act at the beginning of the Christian life has been a staple principle of much of modern evangelicalism. It is sad that evangelicals have often despised the theology of the confessing churches. It has spawned a generation who look back upon a single act, abstracted from its consequences, as determinative of salvation. The ‘altar call’ has replaced the sacrament of penance. Thus repentance has been divorced from genuine regeneration, and sanctification severed from justification.
2. The canon for Christian living has increasingly been sought in a ‘Spirit-inspired’ living voice within the church rather than in the Spirit’s voice heard in Scripture.
What was once little more than a mystical tendency has become a flood. But what has this to do with the medieval church? Just this: the entire medieval church operated on the same principle, even if they expressed it in a different form: the Spirit speaks outside of Scripture; the believer cannot know the detailed guidance of God if he tries to depend on his or her Bible alone.
Not only so, but once the ‘living voice’ of the Spirit has been introduced it follows by a kind of psychological inevitability that it is this living voice which becomes the canon for Christian living.
This view — inscripturated Word plus living voice equals divine revelation — lay at the heart of the medieval church’s groping in the dark for the power of the gospel. Now, at the end of the second millennium we are on the verge — and perhaps more than the verge — of being overwhelmed by a parallel phenomenon. The result then was a famine of hearing and understanding the Word of God, all under the guise of what the Spirit was still saying to the church. What of today?
3. The divine presence was brought to the church by an individual with sacred powers deposited within him and communicated by physical means.
Today an uncanny parallel is visible wherever cable TV can be seen. Admittedly it is no longer Jesus who is given by priestly hands; now it is the Spirit who is bestowed by physical means, apparently at will by the new evangelical priest. Special sanctity is no longer confirmed by the beauty of the fruit of the Spirit, but with signs which are predominantly physical.
What we ought to find alarming about contemporary evangelicalism is the extent to which we are impressed by performance rather than piety. The Reformers were not unfamiliar with similar phenomena. In fact one of the major charges made against them by the Roman Catholic Church was that they did not really have the gospel because they lacked physical miracles.
4. The worship of God is increasingly presented as a spectator event of visual and sensory power, rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God.
The mood of contemporary evangelicalism is to focus on the centrality of what ‘happens’ in the spectacle of worship rather than on what is heard in worship. Aesthetics, be they artistic or musical, are given a priority over holiness. More and more is seen, less and less is heard. There is a sensory feast, but a hearing-famine. Professionalism in worship leadership has become a cheap substitute for genuine access to heaven, however faltering. Drama, not preaching, has become the ‘Didache’ of choice.
This is a spectrum, of course, not a single point. But most worship is to be found somewhere on that spectrum. There was a time when four words would bring out goose-bumps on the neck of his grandfather: ‘Let Us Worship God’. Not so for twentieth-century evangelicals. Now there must be colour, movement, audio-visual effects, or God cannot be known, loved, praised and trusted for his own sake.
5. The success of ministry is measured by crowds and cathedrals rather than by the preaching of the cross and the quality of Christians’ lives.
It was the Medieval church leaders, bishops and archbishops, cardinals and popes, who built large cathedrals, ostensibly Soli Deo Gloria — all this to the neglect of gospel proclamation, the life of the body of Christ as a whole, the needs of the poor and the evangelism of the world. Hence, the ‘mega-church’ is not a modern, but a medieval phenomenon.
Ideal congregational size and specific ecclesiastical architecture thankfully belongs to the adiaphora. That is not really the central concern here. Rather it is the almost endemic addiction of contemporary evangelicalism to size and numbers as an index of the success of ‘my ministry’ — a phrase which can itself be strikingly oxymoronic. We must raise the question of reality, depth and integrity in church life and in Christian ministry. The lust for ‘bigger’ makes us materially and financially vulnerable. But worse, it makes us spiritually vulnerable. For it is hard to say to those on whom we have come to depend materially. ‘When our Lord Jesus Christ said ‘Repent!’ he meant that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.’