The Spirit of Reforming Protestantism

By Ottati, Douglas F. | The Christian Century, December 16, 1992 | Go to article overview

The Spirit of Reforming Protestantism

Ottati, Douglas F., The Christian Century

A many-sided debate about Christianity and American culture is being carried on by camps whose religious and moral visions seem worlds apart. The debate often concentrates on understandings of family and sexuality, the place of religion in education, or the relation between Christian ethics and domestic and international policy. Occasionally it touches on broader questions of the church's role in public life.

My concern here is with what this debate means not for the ethos of the nation or for the quality of public discourse but for the vital spirit of "reforming Protestantism." Reforming Protestantism is a particular strain of Christian piety often associated with what used to be called mainline or mainstream churches. It is not a product of current culture wars and often seems lost in the scuffle.

Reforming Protestantism is theocentric. Its leading affirmation is that first and foremost, we belong to God. By this first principle, reforming piety means metanoia: not thinking about ourselves and our isolated groups but being caught up into the messianic event of Jesus Christ--the person-for-others who embodies a way of life oriented by radical devotion to God, the Word who discloses the faithful God-for-others. It means that the earth is the Lord's and that we are not our own. It means that genuine faithfulness is a living-for-others, a life reordered and reformed by devotion to God and God's all-inclusive commonwealth.

The basic insistence entails a number of further convictions. Reforming piety affirms that we are created good, equipped for an abundant and good life together in God's encompassing reign, fitted and sustained for conscious and responsible relations with God and others. Caught in the grips of a warping tendency, however, we become narrowed, curved in upon ourselves, unresponsive and irresponsible. Sin is a radical corruption of what we are equipped and sustained to be, a turning away from God and God's interdependent commonwealth, a dimunition and fragmentation of the abundant and good life that befits us. Where sin goes unrecognized, so too do the corruptions and persistently destructive tendencies of every person, community and institution.

The good news of the gospel is that the faithful God refuses to abandon creatures to corruption. God's faithfulness extends to sinners, to those who betray their fundamental vocation. If sin means derangement, grace means rearrangement. If sin means inordinate constrictions, grace means enlargement. Grace means regeneration: the renewal, conversion, restoration and rehabilitation of faithful participants in the divine commonwealth. Where the possibility of grace goes unrecognized, so too does the promise of every person, community and institution.

Within the frame of reforming Protestantism, then, all are subject to criticism even as all are affirmed. All are summoned to repentance and new life. Indeed, those who consciously acknowledge God's transformative way with the world in Jesus Christ are called to reform all persons, communities and institutions by relating them both critically and constructively to God and to one another. They are called to denounce and restrain corruption, and to announce and pursue promising possibilities for renewal. They are called to participate faithfully in God's inclusive commonwealth.

Today this reforming stance is at odds with three movements that receive a good deal of press and attention. One is the celebration of reductively therapeutic spiritualities. In the midst of changing lifestyles and the pervasive ethos of individualism, many people find that life lacks compelling meaning and purpose. They come to the church as a haven for pieties centered on individual wholeness and personal growth.

Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., and some other advocates of the pastoral counseling movement often commend this kind of stance. They interpret our situation as one in which impersonal organizations block personal growth and diminish self-esteem Thus, Clinebell decries life on the "success treadmill," and the suppression of the "feeling side" of life (to the impoverishment of men's lives especially). …

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