It has been 500 years since the Reformation movement occurred, but the Christian Church has a history that far exceeds that. Although the movement resulted in the emergence of Protestantism which split from the Western Roman Catholic Church, church history was not curtailed. Moreover, the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople remained relatively unaffected by the movement. It can be said, therefore, that the history of the Christian Church began when the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples who were gathered in Jerusalem.
In the 2,000 years of its history, the Christian Church experienced two major divisions. The first was the East-West schism in the 11th century which separated the Church into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The other was the 16th century split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants. The root cause of the two schisms was divergent views in the interpretation of Scripture regarding the theology of the church (ecclesiology), salvation (soteriology), the Sacraments and liturgy, and so on.
From time to time, there may be new interpretations of Scripture. If these help to clarify issues of our faith based on the truth of Scripture revealed, it is good for the Church. However, sometimes new interpretations and teachings may arise that deviate from Scripture’s original intended meaning. This has no benefit and may even harm the Church. This is the reason why the Church has drawn up a set of rules for determining whether theological theories are doctrinal or fallacious.
What has the Reformation movement shown us?
Firstly, the truth of Scripture is unchangeable, even though new interpretations and explanations of Scripture may develop occasionally.
Take the example of the sacrament of baptism. Jesus instructed the Church to baptise disciples in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the last century the emphasis was that baptism symbolised the washing away of one’s sin as well as the original sin that was inherited from Adam and Eve.
In the last 20-30 years, baptismal theology has emphasised the covenantal meaning of baptism. Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant with Christ, just like the circumcision of the Israelites in the Old Testament was a sign of God’s covenant with them, that they were God’s people. It gives a fitting reason for infant baptism: Just as Israelite children were circumcised on the 8th day as their mark of being in the covenant, in the same way children enter into the covenant with Christ through baptism. Children are therefore welcome to partake of the elements of Holy Communion, as it is a covenantal meal prepared for all who are in the covenant with Christ.
Secondly, theological discourse helps to promote mutual understanding and avert conflicts.
Perhaps if there had been more open discussions between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago regarding the many practices of the Church during the time that deviated from the Bible’s teaching, the Roman Catholic-Protestant schism might have been averted. Fortunately, we now have various platforms for dialogue on our faith, which help to promote inter-denominational relationships and clarify Scriptural truth.
Thirdly, the Bible is the supreme and ultimate standard for discerning theological truth.
The Methodist Church is of the position that any theological teaching must be accordingly verified by the Bible and by Church tradition, must stand up to rational and reasonable explanation, and be borne out by experience. The Bible provides the strictest standard for our reference and is our highest authority. This helps to ensure that believers are not misled by variant theological views and practices that do not align with Holy Scripture.
Today, whenever the Christian Church needs to scrutinise its tenets of faith, the process of dealing with differences in our views and interpretations of truth is much improved compared to 500 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church has shown its readiness to engage in positive dialogue with various Protestant denominations, and is itself undergoing serious self-renewal.
That said, the Christian community still holds differences in views, interpretations and practices of Scriptural truth. These divisions may seem inevitable, but through positive and amicable dialogue, we maintain mutual respect for each other as members of the family of Christ. Let us continue to pray for the unity of the Church, in the hope that all will be turned to the truth of the Bible and be one in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Bishop Dr Chong Chin Chung –
was elected Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore in 2016. He served as President of the Chinese Annual Conference for two quadrennia from 2008 to 2016.
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