The Church of Christ in the days of Luther was spiritually in bad shape. The structure and the life of the Church was so skewed and overladen with foreign elements that the sound of the Gospel was muted and the glad tidings of liberation from sin and guilt could scarce be heard. The Church was hardly recognizable as a refuge for sinners, as a place where the smitten conscience could find forgiveness and acceptance by God. I he situation cried for a reshaping of the Church that the form of her life and orders might again be an articulation of that forgiving grace God offers in Christ to grant release and freedom to sinful men of tortured conscience.

But how was this to be accomplished? By direct and official action? By the adoption and projection of a plan of action as would give rise to the Reformation as we know it, and to the establishment of Protestantism? Luther had no such plan in mind. The Reformation as it in fact occurred was not on Luther’s agenda.

The 95 theses which Luther nailed to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg contained no suggestion for the establishment of a Protestant Church. They were no blueprint for the Reformation. Had they been, they would not be something which few Protestants have read or even seen. On the contrary, his theses were unspectacular, void of anything sensational. They suggested nothing new and contained no hint of what was actually to occur. They were not even heretical. Luther cried against the abuse of indulgencies and not against their use. And, in any event, nothing he said about indulgencies could have been judged heretical since they had not yet been officially defined by the Church. The thought of making protest against the impurity of the Church and giving substance to it through the establishment of a Protestant Church did not even occur to Luther on that October 31 of 1517. The idea of assuming the role of an ecclesiastical architect mapping blueprints for a new form of the Church in the shape of Protestantism, was further removed from Luther’s mind and intent than outer space. Separatists who leave the Church because of the spiritual shape it is in in order to create another of purer form will scarce find justification in Luther. This is apparent from the judgment Luther leveled against the Bohemian followers of John Hus who had left the Church. Luther declared that they had divine right on their side as regards their point of disagreement with the Church, but that they ought not to have left the Church.

Article continues below

Luther did not plan and design the Reformation. When it occurred, it came as an act of God, as a surprise of Providence, not as an objective set and a goal attained.

Luther had just learned that the just shall live by faith and that no work performed by him could give him life, or justify the life that he lived in the flesh. He had learned that only by ceasing to strive and casting himself upon the mercy of God that life and peace could be found, in humble trust and in faithful acceptance of the Word of God, his salvation came to him as a gift of grace from the hand of God. Caught up in this profound religious experience with its newfound joy and its knowledge that God is Saviour and he alone, Luther was in no position to entertain the notion that it was incumbent upon him to save the Church by giving it the shape and the form that we today call Protestantism. Luther had learned that he could not save himself; how much less the Church. Salvation is not a goal to achieve, but a gift to accept. For him it was but incumbent to walk in the way of faith in simple trust and loyalty to the Gospel whose secret he had learned to know. It was through Luther’s belief in the Word of God and through his loyalty to the gospel of God’s free grace that God himself wrought his work and reshaped the Church according to the imperatives of the Gospel. What God through Luther wrought came to Luther as surprise—as one is surprised on receiving the reward of a prophet for the giving of a cup of water in a prophet’s name.

Roland Bainton says about Luther what Karl Barth said about himself, “He was like a man climbing in the darkness, a winding staircase in the steeple of an ancient cathedral. In the blackness he reached out to steady himself and his hand lay hold of the rope. He was startled to hear the clanging of a bell.”

The sixteenth century Reformation of the Church is related to Luther’s strivings, as the gift of justification and life is related to the Christian’s faith. The former, in each instance, does not occur apart from the latter; but in each instance the latter has its cause not in the former but in the power and grace of God. In the sixteenth century the sola gratia was spelled out on the broad stage of history, so that the very manner in which the Reformation occurred and Protestantism was established was a historical parable of the Reformation theme: salvation through faith but by grace alone.

All who love the Church must be pained by her present condition. The present status of the Church, the Church for which the Son of God died, leads many to doubt that the death of the strong Son of God is as mighty as the sacred page teaches and the Church claims. The Church today is torn by strife, often confused and uncertain in her utterances, divided and subdivided into rival and often competing groups. To the majority of men living with the threat of destruction, the Church seems to possess no alternative to futility, no solutions for an age of crisis and revolution, no peace for men world-weary and homeless. Even in the eyes of a Christian, the Church scarce appears to resemble the hope of the world.

Article continues below

For the healing of her own diseases and brokenness, and for the task of meeting the new requirements of the grand and awful age she enters, the Church needs again to be reformed. Her life and orders must acquire such shape that her very form and life will be a demonstration of the truth and power of her message to a world entering a new era in history.

But how shall this be accomplished? Who shall refashion her that losing her shame she may reveal her glory as the Body of Christ, a body willing to serve, even to lose the historic form of its life for the salvation of the world?

The remaking of the Church will not be accomplished by planned scheduling, new projects, or decisions adopted by ecclesiastical boards and conferences. Nor will the Church be fashioned anew by contriving and compromising efforts to coalesce denominational structures (which are at best human creations for the expression of the oneness of the Church, and at worst embodiments of religious self-pride and power, and instruments to guarantee their perpetuation). When a new shaping of the Church occurs, it will again be an act of God. But this divine act will only occur when the Church bow’s once more before the Word of God, and in faithful service to it proclaims the presence of the free grace of God in the Word that became flesh, died for our sins, arose for our justification, now lives to make intercession for us, and shall one day return to judge the world, and through judgment, redeem it.

No man can reform the Church. Being a part of the Church, he himself needs reformation. Reformation is something accomplished by God, something that happens to us. Ours is but to follow Christ in faith and obedience. And it may then please God to surprise us anew by some fresh work of his grace. To seek ourselves to do what God wills to accomplish through our faithful service to his Gospel, is folly. Neither by taking thought, nor by direct action or resolve, can we give the Church the shape and the form it needs. This, we take it, is what some evangelicals mean when they say that what the Church needs is not the Reformation but regeneration. And this, we think, is what Karl Barth meant when as a guest speaker at the first meeting of the World Council in Amsterdam in 1948 he quoted Isaiah and shocked the assembly with these words: “You may take counsel together; but God will bring it to nought.” And this too is what Luther meant when he wrote: “Did we in our own strength confide, Our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side The man of God’s own choosing … And He must win the battle.”

Article continues below
Flood Tide Of Obscenity On American Bookstands

Publication in America of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (Grove Press) has produced the expected results among most literary critics. By the droves reviewers have hastened to hail the appearance of the long-banned record of a man’s meanderings through Montparnasse.

Among the critics who have leaped to defend Miller against the obscenity charges properly leveled against him are Karl Shapiro, Harry T. Moore, and the late Ben Ray Redman. Mr. Shapiro, who wrote the introductory essay to the current edition of Tropic of Cancer, seems to have lost the poetic touch of discernment that made him an honored name in American letters. His adulation of Henry Miller is the most grossly exaggerated flattery since Whitman’s preface of thanks to Emerson in the 1856 Leaves of Grass. Moreover, it is anti-Christian, anarchistic, and unprincipled. Shapiro says, “Let’s put together a bible of Miller’s work … and put one in every hotel room in America, after removing the Gideon Bibles and placing them in the laundry chutes.”

Professor Moore is one who sees in Henry Miller the signs of “a deeply religious man” and for proof reminds us that Miller has quoted from the Scriptures. The citation is noteworthy, for it proves again the propensity of sinful men to quote God’s Word in their own behalf. In his essay “Obscenity and the Law of Reflection,” Miller writes, “By a law of reflection in nature, everyone is the performer of acts similar to those be attributes to others.… In Romans 14:14 we have it presented to us axiomatically for all time.” The reference, of course, is to Paul’s statement concerning the eating of meat, but as is typical of the opportunist who employs the Bible only for his own benefit, Miller has misused the verse tom from its context. It further strikes one as blasphemous for Miller, a man whose tongue is full of cursing and vulgarities, to state, “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself.” Miller has forgotten that it was this same Lord Jesus who extended the limits of the Mosaic law from the act of fornication to include looking and lusting. And it was this same Jesus who said to the adulteress, “Go, and sin no more.”

Article continues below

It is regrettable to see so many major critics abasing themselves before such an idol as Henry Miller. Finding no other means to make an author’s crude work palatable, they employ one sweeping appraisal sure to make legitimate the vilest prose and plot: it becomes “religious in theme” or “morally significant.” Can they really agree with Shapiro in calling Miller “the greatest living author’?” These critics, who have read and studied the works of true artists yet living—William Faulkner, Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, Alan Paton—remind us of Gertrude, to whom Hamlet said, “What judgment would step from this to this?… But sure that sense is apoplex’d.”

Tropic of Cancer is an obscene book. But restricting the sale of a book like Tropic of Cancer never prevents its distribution and only serves to enhance its salacious reputation among prurient book-browsers. The tragedy of this book’s history is not that it has now been allowed legal publication. The tragedy is that it was ever banned, for it is only a sophomoric display of smut mixed with a dash of pseudo-mysticism and expatriate name-dropping. Its wild melange of crazy, formless expressions, its metaphors of sewage and disease have little subtlety and less taste. The imagination of the author is overripe, like that described in Genesis 6:5. Had this childish transcript of life among the vermin of Paris been ignored by its well-meaning censors, long ago the book would have met the fate which it so richly deserves. The demise of many books far less ineptly written than this has been noted by their appearances on the 59c tables in book stores. Instead, Tropic of Cancer is priced and selling at a level usually reserved for medical dictionaries or outlines of systematic theology. But not for long, we predict. The going rate for Lady Chatterley dropped to one dollar within a year after her legal entry into America, and Henry Miller, possessing none of D. H. Lawrence’s basic skill, cannot hope for better sales.

The past months have marked the passing of some of the world’s great figures of literature—Hemingway, Pasternak, Camus, Lampedusa. It is incredible that a man scarcely worthy to change their typewriter ribbons has achieved a renown at the very time when the world most needs strength to answer life’s demands. It is significant also that at this same time two other priests of secularism long absent have reappeared on the literary scene. Mickey Spillane, now a convert to Jehovah’s Witnesses, writes a slightly watered-down version of his tough-guy, tough girl paperbacks, The Deep. J. D. Salinger, whose caricature of life in a secular boys’ boarding school offers the best possible reason for Christians to support Christian secondary education, has released two stories in book form.

Article continues below

Disguised under the humorous title Franny and Zooey are two highly serious slices of modern life. Zooey’s lecture to his sister Franny on the person of Jesus Christ is a heart-rending view of unbelieving man’s attempt to understand the mystery of Christ’s mission, message, and methods. Although certain incisive points applicable to the Christian reader are made, Salinger’s whole approach to Christ is that in the Bible nobody “besides Jesus really knew which end was up.”

We may well expect a flood of obscene, even pornographic, literature to hit the American bookstands in the wake of Tropic of Cancer. In fact, Grove Press has promised further publication of Henry Miller’s trash. It is to be hoped that the American public, particularly the educated Christian public, will greet the arrival of future books of this kind with a campaign against the critics whose judgment we can no longer accept. The authors will drift into the obscurity to which all such peddlers belong.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.