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On the Cusp of a Second Reformation


Most of us would agree that using current events to predict the future is a good way to be wrong. Yet as we are one year short of the quincentennial anniversary of the Reformation, the seismic shifts in our culture – particularly the rapidity of information dissemination and the resulting ability to tear down venerable authorities – should compel us to examine how we might be able to engage people in Western culture.

This essay steps back to look at a broader sweep of church history, and then offers some observations about the possibilities of a Second Reformation. Phyllis Tickle raised the notion that each monotheistic faith has undergone a massive shift roughly every 500 years. She described paradigm shifts that could be seen as sorts of rummage sales in which a multitude of societal forces coalesce to effect a cleaning out or reorganization of religious structures. That is to say that about every 500 years amongst the monotheistic faiths, believers have been a part of a sort of debarnacling from dominant religious edifices.1

Constantine’s conversion was a major catalyst for the first such shake up in Christianity around the 5th century when his political maneuvering resulted in a church with a militant, triumphal, and creedal focus. In a second major change, the Great Schism of the 11th century separated the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Roman) churches. Then, the Reformation resulted in modifications such as priesthood of all believers, sola scriptura, and a peaceful acceptance of Christ’s abundant justification.

Calls for a Second Reformation

In the last 50 years numerous voices have noted the need for a second reformation. In addition to her historical observations, Tickle became an advocate for 21st century change:

“Superimpose everything happening to us on the Great Reformation of 1517. For example, lay the Internet on the printing press, the music Luther used to carry the theology, the science of Copernicus. The Reformation era was characterized by the rise of nation states; now we have the rise of globalization. We’ve gone from a cash-based society to an information society. The social unit has changed—the Protestant Reformation configuration of the nuclear family doesn’t occur now. We’ve gone from hierarchy to globalized networking, from the growth of the middle class to the death of the middle class.”2

Thirty years ago William Beckham, Baptist missionary and author, advocated cell churches as a way to address the problem caused by the current hierarchical organizational form of ecclesiastical structure.3 Among many changes, Beckham urged a commitment for servant leadership and a shedding of the corporate milieu that had infected twentieth century Christianity.

Rick Warren also uses the term Second Reformation4 to emphasize the massive shift needed from creeds to deeds; a concept that should not be foreign to Adventists:

“The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian.”5

Though he didn’t call specifically for a second reformation, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote almost prophetically about the problems that had arisen since the first one, identifying pervasive weaknesses of 20th century Christian worldview. Drawing on the Sermon on the Mount, The Cost of Discipleship has become a current Christian classic with its thought provoking definitions and analogies in the struggle of cheap vs. costly grace.6 As the title implies, Bonhoeffer believed that true grace must lead to a costly discipleship, a step that has been omitted from most Christian salvation formulas.

Even in Islam, the call for a shake up or Reformation has been issued by some as a way to cope with current internal tensions. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born author and human rights activist, bravely describes the importance of Islamic religious doctrines, yet their desperate need for reform within.7 The tension she describes about interpretation of the Qur’an is a familiar one to Christians who are realizing our own hermeneutical struggles as well. Ali contends that as long as Muslims hold to the notion that the Qur’an is the literal word of God then extremists will be able to lay confident claim to theological rationale for their acts. Though Ali offers no convincing evidence that Islam can successfully have a reformation, she optimistically promotes such a constructive shake up as the way forward for the faith.

Most familiar for Seventh-day Adventist readers is the rallying call from the 2010 General Conference Session in Atlanta – “Revival and Reformation.”

A couple months ago in a very crowded Wittenberg on Reformation Day, I saw several groups of fervent Adventists amongst the street merchants. One of these groups, just 20 feet from the famous doors of The Castle Church where Luther nailed his 95 Theses, featured a quartet of Adventist Europeans singing the English version of “Blessed Assurance” to the German crowd. Others distributed literature proclaiming familiar prophecies. As I meandered through the crowd, I enjoyed observing the interactions of these fellow Adventists. When they discerned that I spoke English, their appeal to me was that it was time to move forward beyond the Reformation, implying that a Second Reformation was needed and at hand. What concepts would make up the core of a Second Reformation to which these young friends refer? Would their construct be such that they could engage people in Western culture?

The Reformation was a part of a changing civilization in which a more literate people would gain a better understanding of nature and science. It was believed that with enough effort it would be possible to comprehend everything. Our world realizes the impossibility of that dream, moreover our experience reveals that what is truth today is quite likely to be shown as error tomorrow.

Thus, I believe the struggle today concerns two main questions:

1. What does an authentic Christian look like?
2. Where is the authority?

Authentic Discipleship

Perhaps all can agree that one prominent goal in any sort of reformation should be the call to discipleship. Maybe we now reap the results of an over emphasis on the beautiful, but limited, mathematical formula popularized by Luther in which Christ’s blood covers our sin and we are instantly justified – end of story. Is it possible that as a result we have a multitude of Christians in name only, whose lives exhibit a constant breaking of the third commandment as they take the name “Christian,” but choose to adopt a “sin now, repent later” permissiveness?

Perhaps leaders have subconsciously been okay with this since, by its very nature, discipleship can be messy. It cannot be regulated, dictated, prescribed, reliably judged and quantified. Discipleship is Spirit directed, and the wind blows wherever it pleases (John 3:8). Thus, discipleship might contradict the modern corporate structure which insipiently has been overlaid on Christianity with its metrics, goals, policies and pronouncements.

Perhaps we also can agree that Jesus must be the model of authentic faith and discipleship. “Jesus defines what God is really like. God is love – co-suffering, all-forgiving, sin-absorbing, never-ending love. God is not like Caiaphas sacrificing a scapegoat. God is not like Pilate enacting justice by violence. God is like Jesus, absorbing and forgiving sin.”8

Lastly, an authentic discipleship would require a reexamination of the notion of prayer. In many ways prayer has become a path of management and acquisition in which we manage God and acquire for ourselves. Prayer has been skewed in an accommodation to the 20th century goal attainment ethos – hints of the prosperity gospel taint the conception of prayer. It is time to return to true prayer, which leads to openness to aligning oneself with God and His path. As Bonhoeffer recommended, authentic discipleship means to take Jesus’ admonitions very seriously. “Your will be done.”


A commendable, yet bookish goal, throughout the Reformation was to get scripture in the hands of the common people in a language that they understood; something we take for granted today. Prior to this era all study had been done in Latin, the language of the educated minority. Latin was used in law, science, and religion. Dedication to removing barriers between the learned and unlearned motivated Tyndale and others. They were influenced by their cultural era, the Enlightenment, which assumed that truth could be investigated and ultimately understood. Calvin described the heavens as intelligible in their deepest meaning to the unlearned as well as the learned. Yet, Shakespeare had some understanding of the difficulties which could arise when he said, “The devil can cite scripture for his own purpose.”

We must acknowledge that the Enlightenment promised a utopia that it couldn’t deliver. Now, believers and non-believers would agree that Christianity must be more than proof texts or bumper sticker proclamations. It must be more than an intellectual knowledge, which leads to parroting the propositions of the dominant institutional political power. Perhaps, Christians have become too clingy and finicky about certain code phrases, missing the broader truth of the radical subversion of religion, which happened two thousand years ago with the mystery of the incarnation – the Word dwelling among us. Any authoritative stance would gain credibility if it were bathed in a clarifying humility.

Now with abundant Biblical translations, scholars discover new historical slants and documents. Perhaps it is time to abandon the exercise of propping the Bible as an end to itself. Maybe it is time to shift the emphasis from the Bible as an inspired sign; to a stance that the Bible is a Spirit infused document which points to the true Word.

So, where is the authority? Church leaders? A policy? A Bible verse? Which one? A Biblical interpretation? Which one? Red letter Jesus quotes from the gospel? And what is the nature of this authority? Does it address every conceivable issue? Does Biblical authority require us to build a fortress theology? Does authority allow for verstehen – an empathy of others and their point of view?

Indeed, people are growing less confident in asserting the human ability to have exhaustive knowledge of anything. Western society has turned the page from certitude to mystery. Ask a quantum physicist. Yet, a residual consequence of the Enlightenment’s certainty of ultimate understanding has provoked a fear of deviating from a prescribed script. This fear of finding previous beliefs modified or contradicted inhibits a large portion of Christians from digging deep and truly examining the Bible under a Spirit guided quest. After all at the end, no definitive conclusion may be possible. This reticence to allow for mystery hurts the Christian witness in Western culture today. Perhaps, in many cases belief has become a thin veneer of confident propositions that masks the artistic masterpiece just under the surface. Paradoxically, this artistic masterpiece (an authentic disciple) would be more impressive with a humble presentation.

So, what is the appropriate tension between doubt and certitude? Can methods for coping with this tension be prescribed from a central authority? How much doubt can be allowed?

Turning to Jesus as a model again, one must acknowledge that He experienced the ultimate doubt. Some of His last words were “My God, why have you forsaken me?” From this, let us derive the construct that real faith can allow doubt, and let us accept the opposite corollary that false faith cannot.

We would do well to consider the thoughts of nineteenth century Scottish Pastor George MacDonald:

“Do you love your faith so little that you have never battled a single fear lest your faith should not be true? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth.”9


Everlasting Gospel Ever-Changing World: Introducing Jesus to a Skeptical Generation by Jon Paulien (Pacific Press, 2008) has been helpful to jumpstart the conversation to attempt to describe a path for Seventh-day Adventists to engage people in 21st century Western culture. Paulien describes ways to maintain faithfulness to core truths, while pursuing authentic discipleship; he advocates keeping the basics, but adjusting our emphasis.

As we swim in a torrent of societal forces that seem to mandate a Second Reformation let us consider the possibility that all the important words may have been said – too often. Maybe the important thing now is to start to live them. A paradigm shift has occurred.

Discussions are becoming less effective when one approaches from a stance of, “I am right, let me prove it.”

Let us consider that one can have basically the same sorts of conversations with greater effect from a stance of, “Here is what I believe and this is how I live because of it.”

It is by grace that you are saved, through faith, not by anything of your own, but by a pure gift from God, and not by anything you have achieved. Nobody can claim the credit. You are God's work of art.–Ephesians 2:8, adapted.

It has been said that fundamentalism is to Christianity as paint-by-numbers is to art. It is time to be a true work of art.


1. The Great Emergence, Baker Books, 2012.
3. A Second Reformation: Reshaping the Church for the 21st Century, TOUCH Publications, 1995.
5. Ministry of Healing,p.470 Pacific Press, 1905
6. The Cost of Discipleship, Simon and Schuster, 1959.
7. Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, Harper Collins, 2015.
8. Brian Zahnd, Water to Wine, Spello Press, 2016, p.15.
9. The Curate’s Awakening, Bethany House, 1985 p. 217


Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Image Credit: Painting by Greg Copeland which first appeared in the book, Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul Maier, published by Concordia Publishing House in 2004.


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