23 October 2012

Continuity, Discontinuity and Reform

reformationWhen decisions are made to change things in a church, how does the church move forward? Let me share with you the words of a leader trying to guide his church in the aftermath of change.

The question arises:  Why has the implementation of the Council, in large parts of the Church, thus far been so difficult? Well, it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or - as we would say today - on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarrelled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call "a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture"; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the "hermeneutic of reform", of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split….

That church leader was Pope Benedict, speaking during his Christmas address to the Curia in 2005. His subject was the Second Vatican Council. Whilst the reception of the Council in the Roman Catholic church is an interesting issue, it’s not my interest here. I’m interested in how churches move forward after change.

The question is cogent, following the Free Church’s November 2010 decision to allow the use of hymns and other songs in public worship. There are those in the church who want to adopt and propagate a hermeneutic of ‘discontinuity and rupture’. We have seen all too often in the past that this does indeed appeal to the mass media who like nothing better than to help air the dirty laundry of the church and to spread ill-tidings. This hermeneutic proclaims that this is the end – the game is up. We might as well all pack up and go home. This hermeneutic is dangerous and divisive. And, more to the point, it ignores the great continuity in all that the Free Church has stood for, and still stands for today.

The correct hermeneutic for understanding the Free Church decision is the ‘hermeneutic of reform’. It is ironic that change in Reformed denominations does not come easily. And yet we have the call to be ‘always reforming’. Do we seriously think that we long-ago arrived? Or that there is no requirement on us to engage in the tasks of theology and mission in our age, and to reform our practices where we find that we have not reflected the truths of God’s Word adequately? A reforming church is constantly seeking renewal, is dynamic, Christ-focussed, Word-focussed, Spirit-led. And it does this without ever slipping its anchor. Those who adopt the ‘hermeneutic of reform’ in seeking to move forward in the Free Church will have truly understood the heart of the church for God-glorifying reformation, and they will silently, yet visibly, bear fruit. Renewal in continuity ought to be an idea that we are comfortable with. And discontinuity ought not to alarm us when it is the result of renewal.

It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists.