Posted on Sat, Oct 20, 2018
What does Martin Luther have to do with the United Methodist Church?
Understanding our Theology
By Rev. R. Randy Day*
Several years ago at a meeting of the World Methodist Council in Seoul, Korea, most minds turned during one session toward a small medieval town in Germany, to an event that happened almost 500 years ago; an event we observe each October as Reformation Sunday.
Wittenberg was bound to enter our thoughts in Seoul as the World Methodist Council took the bold step of joining itself to a theological statement reached earlier by Lutheran and Roman Catholic leaders. The statement goes a long way toward healing historic theological disagreements almost a half millennium old.
On October 30, the eve of All Saints Day, in 1517, Martin Luther, a young professor of theology in Wittenberg, tacked to the local church door an open invitation to debate the issue of Christian penance and forgiveness. He posted 95 "theses" for consideration. It was the first act in what was to become the Protestant Reformation—a protest against various religious assumptions of that day and an attempt to reform certain teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Churches.
The debate soon went beyond penance, coming to include matters such as the authority of Scripture, sacraments, and the nature of God's love and grace. A major issue concerned the means of salvation. The Protestants insisted that people are made right with God, that is, "justified," only through faith in response to God's grace. Luther charged that the Catholic Church taught that people might "merit" salvation.
Fierce opposition greeted Luther. The outcome was a split in the Church of Western Europe, a division that would be carried into many other parts of the world. The Protestant party would itself divide and divide again because of theological and cultural differences.
As United Methodists we are heirs of a renewal movement influenced by Luther's initiative and shaped by John Wesley and others looking toward reform in the late 18th century Church of England.
The annual Reformation Sunday, the last Sunday of October, is a time to remember, to praise the courage of men and women who have dared to raise their voices and exert the energy of their faith to gain clearer understandings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Reformation Sunday is also a time to confess the fractures within the church as the Body of Christ in the world. It is a time to thank God for the ecumenical spirit that in recent decades has brought many Protestant denominations closer together and also begun to bridge divides between Protestant and Roman Catholic.
In Seoul, we celebrated 40 years of dialogue between Methodists and Roman Catholics. The 2006 meeting of the World Methodist Council joyfully joined itself to a joint Lutheran-Catholic theological declaration on justification by faith, an affirmation we Methodists found to be in conformity with our theology. A key section of the Methodist statement says:
These words likely seem like very heavy theology to many ears, and they are heavily theological, and also extremely important. They acknowledge across age-old divisions the central importance of Jesus Christ as the cornerstone of faith and salvation. This is theology we need to know, theology we need to ponder, and theology we need to talk about together. We who are Christian, we who are United Methodists, are called to study and comprehend our theology and our history. Otherwise, we cannot communicate our faith to others and carry out the mission commitment to make disciples everywhere.
John Wesley sometimes disagreed with both Lutheran and Roman Catholic language on theological points and, when he did, he took the time to explain his own theological perspective. We of the early 21st century have the responsibility to clearly state our theology and to join in civil dialogue with others about our understandings and practices.
The World Methodist Council voted to continue our theological discourse with Roman Catholics, looking forward to the day when Methodists and Catholics will share "full communion in faith, mission and sacramental life." That is a large order but it is not impossible through love and a reliance on the grace of God.
Reformation Sunday reminds us that the church must always be re-forming itself in order to be more faithful to Jesus Christ; that the church must always seek unity in order to witness as one body in God's world.
*Rev R. Randy Day was General Secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church.
See the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenburg church door under PASTOR'S CORNER
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