Michael Beintker: The Uniting Force of Reformation

In his speech to the General Assembly of the Community of Protestant Churches in Germany the Reformed Protestant Theologian defines Reformation as a change in direction and prioritises ecumenical endeavours.

Reformation is neither a historical phenomenon that occurred back in the 16th century, nor an exclusively Protestant privilege. Rather, Reformation should be interpreted in theological terms as a turning manoeuvre, “the decisive step, the underlying current of the church’s turn towards the Lord”. These were the words of Reformed Protestant Theologian Michael Beintker on Friday, 21st September, in his main address to the General Assembly of the Protestant Churches in Europe (CPCE), currently meeting in Florence. Prof. Beintker, member of the Presidium of the CPCE, warned delegates against a confessional constriction of the ideals of the Reformation for the very reason that “Reformation seeks to sweep away anything that stands in the way between Christians and Jesus Christ. It is not a divisive force, but serves to unite us by bringing together the individual churches on the converging path that points us all towards Jesus Christ.”

This major gathering of European Protestants has been convened under the motto “Free for the Future”, and Beintker was keen to emphasise that the freedom alluded to here also must include ecumenical freedom. The commitment to Christ, the promise of the Holy Spirit and the commandment to love were cited by the theologian as the “most essential principles for the future” of the Church of Jesus Christ. The main service towards unity would therefore lie in the “creation of as much room as possible, above and beyond any confessional boundaries,” for the application of these very principles. By now, he noted, the theological discussions between the churches had become rather transfixed with those issues “that concern only the churches themselves, almost to the exclusion of any other matters”, such as that of the different interpretations of the ministry. According to Beintker, the variety of different confessional approaches to Christian witness and service should no longer be viewed as a historical aberration, but instead “they can be interpreted as a manifestation of the diverse gifts bestowed upon us by the one Body of Christ, to which all of the individual churches and congregations have always belonged as intrinsic parts.”

Renewal and reform had become a continuing preoccupation within the Protestant churches, said Beintker, although he was careful to elucidate the clear demarcation between “reform pathos and potential for reform”. He observed that there has been quite inflationary usage of the term “reform”, particularly in political circles. Disenchantment inevitably ensues whenever the announced reforms fail to achieve any perceptible improvements, especially when the costs incurred are still borne by the taxpayer, or when drastic cuts or job losses are peddled as necessary “reform” measures. In the face of all this, Beintker expressed his wish for the churches of the Reformation to be “more reflective, circumspect and genuine” in their own use of the term; after all, they were handed this very mantle “from the outset”.

Beintker countered any suggestions that the fundamental issue of the Reformation, the Grace of God, might no longer be of any relevance to people today by grasping the issue of the burgeoning fear of the future. The fear of losing one’s salvation manifests itself these days in questions such as: “What is my significance? What meaning does my life have? Does anyone love me? Who can I trust anymore?”. Fears for salvation are evident in the fear of personal futility, to which the Christian churches are also not immune. In order to liberate ourselves for the future we must overcome any disparaging claims that the Gospel has supposedly lost its power to provide any solace. “The churches must free themselves from the quagmire of banality and self-trivialisation. We must free our minds to rediscover the true power of the Gospel and rid ourselves of any misplaced shame”, emphasised the Münster University Professor.

The responsibility lies with the churches to lead people “away from insecurity into the haven that Faith provides”. The theologian took care to systematically address the repercussions of secularisation in his speech, declaring the growing renunciation of religion as a mass phenomenon. There seems to him to be little attempt to raise any spiritual question as to “what God wishes to convey to us by sending us through this virtual desert in Europe right now”, and it also appears to remain quite unclear what a person actually loses when the “Christian focal point for their future” somehow melts away. Beintker describes this loss as “insecurity”, when humans are cast to their own devices and lose their sense of transcendence as well as any sense of direction “from which they emerge, which is their very own and in which they can aim”; in these circumstances people behave “like a radar without co-ordinates”. The theologian identifies pointers towards the dramatic repercussions of insecurity in the overwhelming permutation of choices now on offer in our lives and the simultaneous loss of social points of reference for orientation. Referring to the current crisis, Beintker asks: “How will the people of Europe, used as they are to a world of seemingly unlimited economic growth, cope with the successive restrictions and demands now being imposed upon them by politicians, should the financial rescue packages turn out in fact to be the speculation bubbles of formal politics?”

Once the position of Belief becomes vacant, the way is left open for surrogate beliefs to seize this opportunity: ideologies and philosophies with their various panaceas, bodily cults and esoterics. People who felt sure and secure in the Belief in God lived with the great hope of “the New Heaven and Earth” and in the knowledge that “the best is yet to come”, enabling them to develop a sense of patience and resilience, as well as humour, towards the trials of life, “honed in suffering, through trials and tribulations”. Beintker voiced his conviction that today’s Europe needs such people “more than ever before”. Nobody is free for the future as a matter of course, the theologian continued, but the Christian community is conscious of the broad horizon that is opened up to us each Easter, offering each and every one of us “the chance to be freed for the future”.

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