Monday, October 31, 2011

Visiting The Crossroads: 494 Years After The Protestant Reformation

The door to the Wittenberg Castle Church engraved with Martin Luther's 95 Theses
          Today, a sizeable portion of the population of North America will celebrate a festival that is common to the prevailing culture and environment, that of Halloween. Over the last few days, I had seen people around Vancouver dressed up in various costumes - some comical, others provocative. But today is important to me for a very different reason. It marks an event whose repercussions have played a large part in defining the identities of millions of Christians over the last five centuries and today as well, including my own. Today is Reformation Day [1], marking the event of October 31, 1517 that began the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century and resulted in the biggest fracture in Church history that has drawn a firm dividing line between the Roman Catholic Church and all others who identify themselves as Christian for the last five centuries. I have been listening to some great talks from Dr. R. C. Sproul today, outlining the historical events of the Protestant Reformation, and thought I'd post the links to two of them here:

    Although I had never bothered with it before, Reformation Day is very important to me this year for a very personal reason. I am at a point in my own spiritual journey where I am attempting to sort and think through the deep theological issues, differences, teachings and controversies of differing church environments that I have been part of over the last 30 years. I am doing this because I want to better discern the truth of my faith and decide with conviction what my stand will be.

    Much of this is tied to my own spiritual history. I was born into a Christian family in India that was several generations old and originating from an apostolic-era church unique to Southern India, the Mar Thoma Syrian Church [2]. One of the churches in India that traces its origins back to the missionary work of the Apostle Thomas, it describes itself as "Apostolic in origin, Catholic in nature, Biblical in faith, Evangelical in principle, Ecumenical in outlook, Oriental in worship, Democratic in function, Episcopal in character and is a Reformed Church". At the age of two, my parents moved to the Middle East, and we attended an Anglican Church there [3] - for almost a decade. At the same time, I attended an international Catholic school [4], just up the road from our church where I spent all 15 years of my school life, well versed in Catholic theology and doctrine, but still inherently Protestant in my faith. When I was about 10 or 11, events in my family resulted in us transitioning in our church attendance into a Pentecostal and Charismatic Church [5] that used our Anglican Church's compound for their services. While my family has stayed within that general community of Christians since then, I left to pursue a Bachelor's and later, Master's degree that took me on quite an adventure (which I wrote about two years ago in my post 'Where Is Home?'). In the process, I attended four different churches in almost as many countries [6 - 9]. The last church, in Vancouver - Willingdon - is where I have stayed for the last three years, and God willing, will never leave because I have found a rare gem and as the saying goes, "once you find a good thing, don't let go".

    The upshot of such a hike (through the spiritual terrain of differing church groups and perspectives of faith - Mar Thoma Syrian, Anglican, Catholic, Pentecostal, Charismatic, Mennonite - is that I've had first-hand, in-depth experience of differing perspectives, theology and teachings in Christendom. The downside, which was inevitable, was that I came to a point of crisis a few years ago in trying to figure out what to believe and where to find truth and take a stand among the differing, contradictory, and sometimes seriously erroneous teaching that I had seen, heard, learned and experienced. Although there was a common core of agreement that I could see, I was confused about differences and disagreements in doctrine, theology, attitudes towards each other, practice of their faith and many other things. Catholics taught one thing, Protestants another; Pentecostals and Charismatics emphasized different things from Anglicans and Marthomites; the Word of Faith movement preached a God who would deliver unlimited blessing and anything one asked for. I believe that this eventually led to a 'patchwork quilt' theology and confusion in my own walk with God, and was directly responsible for some of my personal failures and the painful correction that has been necessary over the last few years.

    Consequently, the last two years have been spent doing a lot of hard thinking, reading, research, conversation with solid believers, prayer and seeking of discernment in trying to figure out what is truth and error, right and wrong. Two books that have been of tremendous help and influence in establishing a foundation for thinking were both given to me by very dear friends - "The Knowledge of the Holy" by A. W. Tozer and "The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment" by Tim Challies. I still struggle a lot and haven't found conclusive answers to all my questions, but through these books and other resources, a coherent church community at Willingdon and some wonderful friends, I believe God has granted me a firm footing to start with, and out of my pain, an idea for a theory related to a framework for testing the integrity of doctrine. I hope to write about and develop all of these ideas, slowly but regularly, in future posts.

    In my search for answers, my current study is spanning church and secular history, theology, doctrine, hermeneutics, philosophy and many other areas of study. It is hard work with toil, tears and sometimes sleepless nights. But it is worth it because the truth, when we find it, is sweet. As I wrap up this post in the midst of some of the internal frustration and conflict that I still wrestle with, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in his second letter to the Ephesian church. I feel that they are a gentle reminder from the Holy Spirit in moments like this:

     "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of other calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all." - Ephesians 4:1-6, ESV

    Thanks for taking the time to read what I consider to be a very important post on this blog. To those who read this - Catholic and Protestant - and would like to share their own experiences, questions, doubts, and insights on their own spiritual journey through the Church and Christian community, I would love to hear from you. I hope you had a great Reformation Day and have a blessed week ahead!

- The Wisdom Seeker

[1] Reformation Day
[2] Mar Thoma Syrian Church
[3] Holy Trinity Church
[4] St. Mary's Catholic High School
[5] King's Revival Church International
[6] Cathedral of Praise
[7] New Life AG Church
[8] Kerala Christian Assembly
[9] Willingdon Church

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