Reformation Day!

The Posting of Luther's 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878
The Posting of Luther’s 95 Theses by Julius Hübner, 1878

It has become fashionable in some Protestant circles to poo-poo the Reformation or focus only upon its less impressive aspects and results, intended and unintended. And while I certainly mourn the destruction of beautiful Gothic abbeys and, indeed, the suppression of monasticism at large (why not Reformed reformed Benedictine orders?), as well as the unintended splintering of Protestants into a million factions with millions of individualist popes, I would like to focus on the positive aspects of the Reformation in this post. No matter how uncomfortable you may be with things people did in the name of the Reformation (like killing Carthusian monks), if you’re not Roman Catholic or from any of the Orthodox branches of Christianity, you are a child of this movement.

It’s time, then, to focus on the positive, as I said. And I mean positive in two respects. First, of course, aspects of which I approve. Second, however, things about being Protestant that are not simply un-Catholic or anti-Rome. I know I have some Roman Catholic readership — this post is not meant to cast shadows on your expression of the Christian faith but for me to take a moment and celebrate my own:

  • Sola fide. Justification by faith alone is one of the central tenets of Protestant faith, whether Lutheran, Anglican, Baptist, or places even more radical. This is not the doctrine that it is often derided as being, of course. The foundation for this belief is the recognition that none of our acts can gain merit or favour in the sight of God and thereby our salvation — not even what Late Mediaeval thinkers call ‘condign merit’, where God pretends that our deeds have merit but, really, they don’t. The grace of God alone saves us, and we gain that grace simply through faith in accepting it. Faith means trusting in God, Christ, and the Spirit to save us and make us holy. It does not mean becoming a couch potato Christian with no room for good works. Some of the most robust believers in sola fide have also been some of the most austere Calvinists, so that image is a false appropriation of the teaching (that, sadly, occurs).
  • Sola scriptura. I’ve blogged about this before from the perspective of how I view tradition’s role in the life of the Christian. I take the Anglican line on the Holy Scriptures — they contain everything necessary for salvation. Nothing not in the Scriptures can be imposed on Christians out of necessity. Now, I say that as a consciously conciliar Christian, so how can I reconcile these two facts? I would argue that the Seven Ecumenical Councils are the working out of teachings that can be proven from Scripture — including icons, since the justification for them is rooted in John 1 and a robust, biblical faith in the Incarnation. In tandem with this, I still believe in the importance of tradition for a vibrant and lively faith life.
  • Worship in the language of the people. Now, I know that post-Vatican 2 Roman Catholicism has English-French-Spanish-Tagalog-what-have-you liturgies. Nonetheless, for 400 years, if a western Christian wanted liturgy in the local language, he or she would have to turn to the Protestants. For Anglophones, the English Bible is also coupled with Reformation (not so for other European languages, as it turns out). The heart of the faith, as expressed in the words of Scripture and tradition available in the Bible and the Prayer Book, is meant to be available to all; this is part of the idea of Common Prayer. This fact also gave part of the educational impetus of Protestants such as John Knox — people have to be literate to read the Bible.
  • Direct access to the Scriptures. Yes, Christ is available to us most especially through the sacraments, and reading the Bible alone in a room is not the same thing at all. But we believe that private reading of Scripture can be blessed and moved by the Holy Spirit in a vigorous way regardless of the official structures of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, says that the Christian who reads Scripture apart from the magisterium has cut himself off from the authoritative and prophetic voice of the Spirit and cannot rightly interpret the text (as discussed by Miroslav Volf in After Our Likeness). I acknowledge the danger of this approach and wonder if perhaps some middle ground between Protestant muddles and Roman Catholic authority would be best?
  • Married clergy. As the son of a priest, I cannot stress the importance of married clergy enough. 😉 I also believe that married clergy are an important part of the gradual Protestant freeing up of women in the Church. The married priest (and, in Presbyterian circles, Elder) has a woman’s voice in his life — her voice thus enters into the life of the ministry of the Church. Without getting into the thorny issue of women’s ordination, the Protestant woman has had a place of ministry and felt part of the church’s work long before she had access to the priesthood. Again, married clergy = me and my siblings and my dad and his siblings and my cousin (my uncle’s a bishop) and my nieces & nephew (my brother’s a priest) and my granny and my great-granny. My family wouldn’t exist without married clergy.
  • The rebirth of expository preaching. This, I think, is something that ‘Counter-Reformation’ Catholics and Protestants shared, considering the fame of the gospel preaching of some of the Capuchins. So it’s more Reformational than simply Protestant, if we think of reform as cutting across those boundaries. Anyway, I like a good, meaty, expository sermon. Not a big, long-winded one. Nor a short but piquant one. Something that helps open the Scriptures. This is a tradition that, sadly, had dwindled in average parish preaching by the 1500s. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic Reformers helped bring it back into an important place within the local community’s life and worship.

These are just a few of the good results of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation — and one or two that also spill over into the Roman Catholic ‘Counter-Reformation’ (it has been argued to drop the ‘counter’ from the term and simply say ‘Catholic Reformation’), even if they had to wait a few centuries for vernacular liturgy. I am sometimes tempted by the Eastern Orthodox, and a Tridentine Liturgy moves me powerfully, and we all know how I feel about San Marco, Venice — but I’m still a Protesant.

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The End of Knee-jerk Anti-Roman Catholicism: What I think Leithart was aiming at

A little over a week ago, as I learned at Apologia and the Occident, Peter J Leithart published a piece over at First Things entitled ‘The End of Protestantism.’ Various people have since reacted and responded. R. Scott Clark’s response, ‘Contra Leithart: No, The Reformation Isn’t Over‘ seems to have missed the point of this individual article, caught up in intradenominational crises of the PCA; his piece stumbled over what a lot of people have been saying: Leithart redefines the word Protestant to suit the purposes of the current piece, thus confusing the issue. It struck me that Leithart’s ‘Reformational Catholicism’ wasn’t opposed to the Reformation and certainly doesn’t think the the Church of Rome is all hunky-dorey now.

The bigger issue with the piece was highlighted by Fred Sanders in his piece ‘Glad Protestantism‘ — people in the wider non-PCA audience of Leithart’s piece who already agree with its thesis may feel buoyed up by it, but the people Leithart should be trying to sway will be offended by Leithart’s rhetorical deployment and very probable use of a straw man or two.

And people who already agree sometimes try to convince Leithart to give up being Presbyterian (something, I think, some within the PCA wouldn’t mind).

So what is it that I think Leithart was trying to get across?

The time for knee-jerk, anti-Roman Catholic forms of Protestantism and similar Protestant ideas is past. Simply because something is done by Roman Catholics does not make it bad. Simply because someone is a Roman Catholic does not make him or her damned. Simply because a saint is revered by Roman Catholics does not mean that we cannot learn from and admire him or her.

This sort of anti-Catholic Christianity can be spiritually impoverishing. Rather than seeing the riches of a long, wide, broad Christian heritage that spans millennia and transcends national boundaries, many people have a vision of church history that has an enormous gap from the Apostles to Martin Luther or John Calvin or Menno Simons or George Fox. Or a smaller gap from Chalcedon to Luther. Or perhaps they fly from the Apostles with a touchdown on St Augustine of Hippo and then on to the Reformers or their own denominational founders — sometimes a detour to early mediaeval Ireland is involved. Anyway, I think you get the picture.

Why is such a view spiritual impoverishing? Such a view is spiritually impoverishing because of the beauty and truth and holiness expressed by Christians throughout all of those ‘dark’, ‘Catholic’ centuries in the middle. Rather than seeing the grace of God working in human lives for salvation everywhere, even when the institution of the Church was at its most corrupt, we see a belief that verges on people believing that all Christians of the ‘Dark Ages’ (that is, mediaeval era) are burning in Hell because they believed in saints and transubstantiation and hadn’t figured out Luther’s justification by faith formula ahead of time.

What Leithart envisages is a Christianity that embraces the glorious riches of those ancient and mediaeval centuries alongside the Reformers and modern heroes — although the Reformers, et al., get sidelined in the piece, he does mention them as being important for us today.

Opposed to knee-jerk anti-Catholicism, such a Christian vision would allow us to revel in God’s truth and God’s word as expounded in word and deed not only by St Augustine of Hippo (often the only Father known to many Protestants) but also by Sts Ambrose and Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Sts Leo and Gregory the Great, St Maximus the Confessor, the Venerable Bede, John Scotus Eriugena, Anselm, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and more, right up to Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker — but also John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, for the Most Holy Trinity has not abandoned the Roman Church, for all its error.

He also calls for a return to more liturgical forms of worship, or at least an acknowledgement that they are not simply empty ritual. A friend of mine who recognises the importance for a simpler worship in the 1500s thinks that perhaps Protestants — and not just Lutherans and Anglicans — are ready for expressing themselves with more ritual and liturgical expression. I don’t think your local Baptist church should suddenly blast out the incense and tinkle a few bells. But I do like the PCA church I’ve heard of where they have done some responsive, liturgy-lite using the creeds as well as the Shorter Catechism. Why not?

The riches of Christian history — of liturgy, theology, exegesis, private prayer, ethical exhortation, etc — should not be kept hidden or avoided simply because they are used by the Church of Rome or come from the pen of those she has canonised ‘saints’. To do so is to forget where we’ve come from and who we are, to lose the transhistorical reality of the God Who dramatically entered history in the person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Reformation Day — It’s about Luther

Image courtesy of Mae

A few moments ago, I wished a friend a Happy Reformation Day. He said he wasn’t sure whether he should celebrate it or not. I said that everybody can celebrate Luther. He agreed, saying that he’d been thinking about such persons as Calvin and Knox. And while Calvin and Knox are certainly part of the Reformation tradition, Reformation Day commemorates a very specific event, which hindsight counts as the start of the Protestant Reformation: Nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door.

This means Reformation Day is not about Calvin and the Reformed or Zwingli or Arminius, but about Brother Martin. It also means we can celebrate this day, contrary to this which I saw on Facebook (by a priest, presumably Orthodox):

Do people really celebrate an event which caused many to reject Apostolic Traditions and led to the splitting of the Church into over 36,000 separate groups?

Today we celebrated Reformation Day at lunch. A Lutheran friend of mine organised the event. We drank German beer. We played ‘pin the theses on the door’. We threw gummy worms into a bag, the winner gaining a bottle of Diet Pepsi (ie. Diet of Worms). We ate a Luther Bible cake. We sang ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ and we attempted to write out ’95 Things About the Church We’d Like to Change’, including such insights as ‘More beer’ and ‘Better songs’. When I wanted to add something about sermons that help explain the songs and the liturgy, the Presbyterian with the pen wouldn’t allow it, saying, ‘We are Reformed.’ This is, of course, unfair that a list of things to change about church that includes ‘More Cats’ and ‘Bacon rolls upon arrival with donuts for Jews, Muslims, vegetarians, and Hindus’ couldn’t have my suggestion, especially because I think Luther would have liked it.

Some days I dislike the Reformed. They try to steal the Reformation from the rest of us.

Once again, Reformation Day is about Luther, as well, I suppose, as the series of events his challenge to the Bishop of Rome’s authority set in motion. I favour the Magisterial Reformation, so long as we leave room for the Spirit (I am an Anglican who worships with Presbyterians and digs Lutheranism, after all), but the spiral of events led to Mennonites and Hutterites and Baptists and others as well. Luther’s action finally galvanised the Roman church to stand up and reform herself, a good thing, despite all of the other schisms that have resulted in the West from what transpired.

Luther, even when I disagree with his answers, was asking the right questions. And he held many of my prejudices — keep the liturgy, keep the images, even keep monstrances for the weak, but put preaching back into the centre of worship, bring vernacular Bibles to the people, help people realise that none of their own works will bring them to the safe side on Judgement Day and so forth. Transforming people from living lives of fear in the face of an angry God for whom no good work is sufficient to living lives of joyful obedience in faith that the God of justice will have mercy in the end — this is a good thing.

So drink a beer today in honour of Dr. Luther. He did well.

Christians killing Christians — Martyrdom? (Covenanters and Thomas More)

One of the things I find ridiculous about modern Anglican Kalendars is the presence of Sir Thomas More as a commemoration right alongside people like Thomas Cranmer or St Nicholas of Myra. Thomas More, from his own and Roman Catholicism’s perspective, was a martyr for his faith. From the perspective of Henry VIII, he was executed basically for treason, for refusing to follow the laws of his Sovereign. Both men were ostensibly Christian.

When I was a teenager, I read the book Jesus Freaks, edited by dc Talk and Voice of the Martyrs. It tells the stories of Christians from around the world and throughout history who have died for their faith in Jesus. This included more of Henry VIII’s victims.

Today, I listened to a gentleman I know give a talk on the religious history of Scotland. When he discussed the Covenanters, besides pointing out their importance for the development of democracy, human rights, etc, he talked about how they died for the Christian faith, for their faith in Jesus. Except that their persecutors, Charles I & II, were ostensibly Christians as well — who disagreed about certain points of Church polity (and I agree broadly with the Charleses, albeit not with their methods of dealing with the Covenanters).

These last two make me especially uneasy. Whilst the Covenanters are evidence of people who hold fast to their faith in the face of persecution, they are not a general vision of Christians vs. persecutors. They are, actually, Presbyterians vs. Anglicans. And that angle makes the story much more unpleasant. Is it as valiant as it sounds, then, to throw rocks at the people who tried introducing the BCP in Scotland, or to get your head chopped off over ecclesiastical polity?

When we recount Christian history, how do we tell it? This is especially important when we stumble on the sins of our forebears. As a person who day by day prefers Cranmer’s and Hooker’s Anglican vision to anything the Presbyterians have thrown at me, I cannot celebrate the Covenanters as martyrs for the Christian or even Protestant faith. But as a right-thinking Christian, I cannot approve of the methods used by the monarchs in this case, nor in the case of Sir Thomas More.

Certainly, emphasise that these people died for their vision of the Christian faith, that they believed that the arrival of Bishops and BCPs meant the compromise of the true Christian faith. But perhaps be transparent? Say, ‘Sadly, Charles II, himself an Anglican Christian, chose to turn aside from our Lord’s commandments to love, and used force to impose his religious polity.’ Admit that Anglicans and even the demonised Papis — er, Roman Catholics — are actually Christians, and say that the religious wars and persecutions of the Reformation era are a blot on Christian History, from Cranmer burned by Mary I to Cistercians drawn and quartered by Henry VIII to Covenanters executed by Charles II.

Then perhaps we can grieve for the sins of our ancestors and come together in our shared faith, rather than making the monarchist Anglican in the crowd feel highly uncomfortable.

This blog post for my friends studying the Reformation…

In Scribes & Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek & Latin Literature L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson write:

The dispute between Catholics and Protestants was still being carried on bitterly at the beginning of the next century (that is, the 1600s), and one indication of its power to deflect able minds from what might have been more profitable concerns is that Casaubon devoted two years or more to a refutation of the ecclesiastical history by Cardinal Baronius. (165)

Things that are more profitable than Catholic-Protestant polemic? Classical philology and literary criticism.

Looks like I’m in the right field.

John of Damascus, Martin Luther, and Monstrances (Pt 1)

Idolatry?

Back in 2005, when JP2 died, a lot of people had a lot of really nice things to say about him.  In response, an evangelical started circulating an e-mail full of nasty things about JP2 and the Church of Rome at large. This e-mail made its way to me, including a preface by a friend of a friend calling bowing to the Host ‘rank idolatry’ and said that, when the monstrance came out, he and his family

felt like Shadrack [sic], Meshack [sic] and Abednego, as most everybody bowed down around us and we remained standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs, in faithfulness to Christ and God’s 2nd Commandment.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if there’s not a way out of such a situation and if we may not find it profitable to form a synthesis of St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here), the ‘last’ Church Father of the East, and Martin Luther, Protestant Reformer.

John of Damascus on Holy Images

First, if you haven’t read St. John of Damascus, you really should. Now. Here’s the link.

John of Damascus speaks about veneration of the holy images rather than adoration. Veneration is the sort of thing you might do, for example, to an emperor, or a potentate, or a something like that. It is not what we would call, in current English usage, worship. Worship, or adoration, is reserved for God alone. Veneration can go around. It is a way of treating people or things with a special honour due to them.

When we kiss an icon or a cross, we are not adoring them. We are venerating them. In and of themselves, they are but

Idolatry?

wood, paint, metal — they are things crafted by human hands. The sort of thing that is here today and firewood tomorrow. An icon cannot talk to you. An icon cannot answer your prayers. However, by treating this physical objects that are here in front of us with a special honour, we are reminding ourselves of the greater honour due to the invisible God.

FACT: You cannot kiss Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can kiss an icon of Jesus. It’s right in front of you.

Kissing these objects is a way of honouring Christ, whom, in an Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, you would kiss. Not full-out on the mouth or something, but on the hand or maybe the cheek, the former because He is the Great Teacher, the latter because He is our Brother.

Luther: ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ (1523)

Martin Luther, in ‘The Adoration of the Sacrament’ annihilates many points of view concerning the Lord’s Supper. Is means is, not signifies, not is a participation in. Thus, when our Lord and Saviour says, ‘This is My Body,’ and, ‘This is My Blood,’ He means just that. They are not symbols or signs thereof. They are not a participation therein.

Furthermore, the Body and Blood are there, but the sacrifice cannot be repeated, and the bread and wine are not destroyed. The text of Holy Scripture calls them bread and wine. While they must be Body and Blood, transubstantiation is merely Aristotle playing Sacramental theology. Finally, the action that takes place on the altar is not a sacrifice of Jesus. That only happened once.

FACT: You cannot touch Jesus. He is in Heaven.

FACT: You can eat Him. He is in the Sacrament of the Altar. It’s right in front of you.

If Christ’s life-giving ‘Body and Blood are truly present,’* then that little bit of Bread is His Body. While what matters most to Luther is the spiritual act of worship that goes on in our hearts, we are allowed to engage in physical acts of worship as well. Therefore, monstrances are allowed but not necessary.

Synthesis?

Now, not everyone believes in the Real Presence. These people are wrong. However, they exist, and they love Jesus.

If John of Damascus is right, we can kiss an icon or a cross or a book of the Gospels and do so out of honour and love for the immortal, invisible God only wise. Our physical acts are in front of physical objects, but our hearts are turned to the metaphysical divinity, worshipping Him in spirit and in truth.

If we consider this along with Luther’s contention that monstrances — Host-holders — are indifferent, then there is no

This is a monstrance

reason why anyone who believes in the Real Presence or not need feel uncomfortable. Right? You are not bowing to a piece of Bread. You are bowing to the living, dynamic Christ Who is in your very midst, Who is glorious beyond compare, Who can see into your heart.

What matters is the inward person and the intention thereof. The Host is bowed to not because we think a bit of stale, circular bread is special but because we think that the living, risen Christ is superspecial, beyond special, holy, magnificent, majestic, glorious, all-powerful, worthy of all praise and all honour.

Part 2: What this means for me, and where on earth I’m going.

*’Corpus et sanguis vere adsint’ — Augsburg Confession, Article 10.

Protestant — but not Calvinist

¡Viva la Reformación! (credit: E Martin)

This week, for a course I’m taking, I had the opportunity to hunker down and read some confessional documents.  First I read The Augsburg Confession and the Catholic response, the Confutatio Pontificia, and then the more recent Joint Declaration on Justification.  I also read chh. 12 & 18 of Althaus’ The Theology of Martin Luther.

You may have noticed that sometimes I tag posts with “i might end up eastern orthodox at this rate”.  I think I may have used it only twice, but I could have used it more frequently.  Anyway, this feeling was increasing over Christmastide, not only with a lot of reading of St. Leo and a couple of trips to St. Andrew’s Orthodox Church, but also because of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book, At the Corner of East and Now.  I admit there is something compelling in Eastern Orthodoxy.

But then I read Augsburg and Althaus’ discussion of Luther’s theology.  And I realised that I am still a Protestant, for I found Luther’s explanation of Justification by Faith entirely reasonable and compelling, remaining faithful to Scripture whilst setting forth its doctrine with reason.  It holds in tension simul justus et peccator and faith-works and law-gospel — all of these things that, beautiful as so many Orthodox descriptions of the Christian life are, make the most sense to me and give me the greatest spiritual comfort of all explanations.

We are all bound by our understanding of Scripture.

Tonight, for the same course, I finished reading the Second Helvetic Confession.  I am clearly not a Calvinist.  Certainly not of this Confession’s ilk.  This is not just the predestination issue.  It is the overbearing, heavy-handed reliance upon public preaching of the Gospel.  As though this and the rational world of the mind were all that true piety consisted of — thus, even if the confession didn’t consider images in holy spaces as idols, it would still oppose them on grounds of their needlessness.  People don’t need pictures if they can hear the Word of God preached to them (so says this confession).

This Confession also shows many Protestant weaknesses.  It gives a fairly decent account of Eucharist when discussing it directly, but sidelines it the entire time whilst always talking about preaching.  Indeed, the Eucharist seems at one point to be best understood as basically a sermon that you eat.

It seems to support a presbyterian church order over all and rejects the Daily Office out of hand, making claims about the order of the church as handed down from the Apostles — but makes the claim that the Apostles celebrated together on the Lord’s Day!  This is a practice that has evidence for it of the same antiquity as the episcopacy and the Daily Office — evidence not clearly shown forth in the apostolic writings.  What has happened has that the Church, seeking to submit itself to nothing other than Sacred Scripture has become not only the judge of tradition but, at times, even of Scripture herself (see the bit where James is subordinated to Paul to the extent that they would be willing to jettison him from the canon if he disagreed with “the Apostle”).

Some of Helvetic II mirrored the 39 Articles.  But much did not.  So if I must turn anywhere in the Reformation, it is not to Calvin, whose followers haughtily claim that he finished what Luther began, but to Luther and the Book of Common Prayer.  No matter how hard I try, I always come up Anglican.