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Reformation’s legacy: The revolution of inner renewal

When Christian Courier asked the question prior to his talk, “What area(s) of the church need ‘reforming’ today?” Ryrie’s response was “fear and politics.”

Reformation’s legacy: The revolution of inner renewal

On October 11 at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College, Professor Alec Ryrie from UK-based Durham University spoke on “How the Reformation Made Our World (And it’s Not Done Yet)” to a largely academic crowd. He was a featured guest as Wycliffe College marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by exploring the impact of the Reformation on the church in our times.

When Christian Courier asked the question prior to his talk, “What area(s) of the church need ‘reforming’ today?” Ryrie’s response was “fear and politics.”

He said “fear” because “churches of all kinds have for a long time used more stick than carrot. That was never a particularly good idea and it has now completely run out of steam.

Churches that can’t offer good reasons to belong to them, and instead try to use fear, threats or pressure of any kind to compel people to, not only deserve to fail [but] in the modern world, they will.”

He said “politics” because “churches of all kinds will have and will continue to have political views, and views that have political implications. But churches whose gospel is formed by their politics, rather than vice versa, no longer deserve the name. Same goes for churches who think politics matters more than anything else, or who act as if that’s true, regardless of what they claim to think. Politics matters, but almost all the time (thanks be to God) others things matter much more.”

Apolitical Christians
As he began the lecture, Ryrie shared that it was his first time in Toronto, having landed only three hours before. His focus on three points and his exploration of what he termed the “hidden strand” of Protestant politics held the interest of the audience.

Ryrie boiled the impact of the Reformation down to three stories in order to highlight what the Reformation means to the world, and the church, today. He first detailed two “conventional” (as he termed them) stories: the Defiance / Revolution story and the Authoritarian Protestantism story. The former is a story of heroes, the latter of villains.

In the Defiance / Revolution story, Protestants celebrate rebellious “princes and governments” – they are heroes. In the Authoritarian Protestantism story, the church is more closely allied with the state and enables evil activity (case in point: the involvement of German Protestants in Nazism). Ryrie provided many historical facts to illustrate the nuances of these two stories.

But, he said, “these polarities do not fully explain what the Reformation was about. Protestantism is not a political movement. It is about God and salvation.” And this leads him to the “hidden strand” that he calls “Protestant Apoliticism” which considers the government as necessary but not very important, and asks the Christian to pay more attention to the Kingdom of God. In this way, “revolutionary power comes from bypassing the government,” says Ryrie. In fact, Ryrie believes that governments allow apolitical protestants to worship as they please – and have done since the 16th century – to “buy their votes cheaply.”

He pointed out that the apolitical way of thinking “may be of increasing importance in our own age,” and yes, he added, “I am conscious that I’m standing in the least dysfunctional of the big western democracies.” His point was received with laughter. And gave pause for thought because the questions following the lecture included the inadequacy of apolitical Protestantism to withdraw from totalitarian regimes like communism, the notion that insisting the name of Christ is more important is tantamount to abandoning the public square entirely, and the impact of the state on the family (using the example of physician-assisted suicide) and the Christian response that results.

Ryrie said that while Protestant Apoliticism could make today’s world worse, it does offer two benefits: moral renewal (where protestants focus on electing moral people – but, says Ryrie, their track record at this is “dismal”) and a sense of inner renewal based on the realization that salvation is not rooted in the government.

Ryrie concluded by saying, “A Protestant gospel which emphasizes inner renewal may just discover its time has come,” because, as he put it, “there are better responses than impotent rage.” Indeed, what matters more is the evolving story that puts Christ and the Kingdom of God at the centre.   

About the Author
Reformation’s legacy: The revolution of inner renewal

A. A. Adourian

A. A. Adourian has an abiding interest in faith and the workplace, and continues to write non-fiction as the Spirit leads.