Reformation Day can be both a help and a hindrance in ministry in the 21st century. If our adherence to its truths and our interest in its main figures begins and ends with a nostalgic harking back to a bygone age, or an anachronistic copy and paste of certain mannerisms and quirks of Luther or Calvin, then we are bordering close to idolatry. If, on the other hand, we see the continued currency of the Reformation in the doctrines it recovered and the stance it adopted to Scripture, Church, and culture then an almost endless road of relevance opens before us. We celebrate the Reformation most fully by continuing its work in our own day, and adopting the best of its thinking in our own practice.
In this post I want to think out loud about some lessons the Reformers can bring to our present concepts of knowledge and information, suggesting that their legacy lives on in the democratisation of learning, and how it can be threatened by precisely the same thing. I want to focus on what the Reformers can say to our present ‘knowledge economy’, particularly the rebuke and correction they can offer to us.
Information for all, knowledge for the few
One of the undoubted features of our age is its emphasis on knowledge. Philosopher and sociologist Renata Seleci has highlighted the notion that where early capitalism stressed the power and worth of ‘the self-made man’, our modern society emphasises the virtue of self-learning as key to advancement. We have never had so much information at our fingertips, with search engines summoning answers to almost any question we can muster, including those which focus on metaphysical issues. This gives us an inflated sense of how much we can truly understand of our world, and encourages us to mistake information for knowledge. Seleci points out that much of the most valuable knowledge in our world remains unavailable to the larger percentage of society, hidden behind high cost subscriptions, and patented by those who stand to profit by it. In these terms the ‘knowledge economy’ relies on ignorance, or subterfuge, and a subtle shielding of the facts most vital to us.
In terms of celebrating the Reformers and continuing their legacy, this is highly informative. It is easy to look back on the medieval period as the Dark Ages, on a time when knowledge failed to grow or develop, and when the common populace were without understanding. Standing on the mountaintop of a modern ‘knowledge economy’ can give us an inflated sense of how much we know, and how little we have to fight for it. The truth is that for those living at the time just prior to the Reformation there was no shortage of information, just an absence of knowledge. The clever codification of approaching God, the enriched systems of how to be saved, were intricate and well publicised, and piety was a popular as well as priestly pursuit. What was missing was knowledge, the premium content of what the gospel actually says for itself. This was put behind the paywall of lettered and Latinate culture which was unavailable to the common man or woman.
If we are to follow in the footsteps of those who prefigured the Reformation or pressed it into being, we may need to show our world the fact that there is darkness before light. Our communities and our families are saturated with information, and have a smorgasbord of options when it comes to faith, belief, and devotion. The ideas and philosophies of our world appear to be democratically available to all, so that rational and independent choices can be made by every single human being. The truth, however, is very different. Our information now is more mediated than a generation ago, and is often curated carefully so as to conceal as well as to reveal. The most dangerous part of this is that, in such a context, people are quick to believe that they are freethinkers and independent spirits. The commonality of popular devotion gives evidence to the contrary, showing how a global community can read the same things and believe the same things although culturally and educationally diverse.
To embody the spirit of the Reformers in this kind of world is to pierce the film of information overload and insist on true knowledge. One of the outstanding ways in which we might do this (as was the case for the Reformers) is through preaching. There is a transparency and integrity in the Word preached faithfully which unravels the packaging which much of the world’s information and knowledge comes in. Preaching, rightly understood, is a free medium which magnifies the free grace of God in the gospel, it is an outright refusal to pedal the gospel but we are to be those who are ‘men of sincerity, and commissioned by God, speaking the truth in Christ’ (2Corinthians 2:17). With the Reformers we allow neither paywall nor priesthood, to cloud or shroud the truth, but plainly, and without economics getting in the way, we proclaim Christ. The very foolishness of preaching, its angularity and peculiarity in a world of monotone information media is startling and striking to our culture, though they may deride it as being without wisdom, much as the Greeks of Paul’s day did.
Ad fontes and Sola Scriptura
One of the great tricks of the ‘knowledge economy’ is its merging of message and medium, and the potential for this to reduce rather than increase thought. If everything I need to know can be mediated to me via the priesthood of Big Tech, then I need never truly question the cultural underpinnings of the ‘knowledge’ I am consuming. Most of what is now shared in our world is secondhand, and the outworking of this is the advent in the twenty first century of ‘fake news’ and claim following counter claim. The Enlightenment has superseded the Reformation in terms of how we know as well as what we know. Matthew Barrett states that ‘while Luther and Calvin made the individual captive to the Word, the Enlightenment made the Word captive to the individual’, and our current climate where the truth itself is subjective is the natural consequence of that shift.
As thinkers, the Reformers eschewed all appeal to blind tradition or received wisdom. Ad fontes, to the sources, was their intellectual battle cry, urging people to think for themselves by going back to what God himself had said, and to what the earliest Christians had thought. Theirs was a revolution in reverse, not pressing for new norms and forms, but for the earliest and most fundamental realities that God himself had made known in his Word. Their concern to translate and preach the Scriptures, and to press them into the hands and hearts of ordinary people reflected a setting aside of the received ideas of their world, in favour of God’s revelation in his Word.
Our calling in a ‘knowledge economy’ is to likewise make this trip back to the sources. This is a revolutionary step. To read and research outside of the algorithm, to think outside of the search engine, to found our worldview on what God himself has said, is to stand against the torrent which drives much of the ‘knowing’ of our world. This will demand a confidence in Scripture which is not common, even in the world of evangelicalism. It is to step away from mere statements about the Bible’s infallibility, and to confess, in tandem, its sufficiency and clarity. The Reformers did not enlist the sophistication of the Schoolmen (though familiar with their writings) but contended for the Scriptures ability to do the work of God by the Spirit of God. This was neither an easy nor natural step, but it was the match which set their world on fire. It can be so in our day too.
Celebrating the Reformation is a good thing to do, but seeking to emulate the approach and worldview of the Reformers in our own age is even better. We are called not merely to admire men of the past, but to see our calling in the present, to proclaim Christ with fearlessness and faithfulness, to insist on a different and better way of thinking and knowing than the click of a mouse or the swipe of a screen can offer. It is to step away from the zeitgeist and preach Christ with the candour and integrity of those to whom we humanly owe our understanding and affirmation of the gospel. What a calling.