An unavoidable ‘Reformation 500’ post

Image courtesy of Mae

Happy 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses!

It’s been a bumpy 500 years, hasn’t it? I mean, all Brother Martin, Augustinian canon and university theology professor, wanted to do was exercise his academic freedom and hold a debate about the sale of indulgences.

And now, with the western church fragmented beyond all human hope of repair, all sorts of people claim him and his own reform movement of the 1500s as their own, including around 9000 different Protestant denominations. (If you enjoy revelling in the 33,000 number, read this article by a Roman Catholic that refutes it.) To some extent, there is a truth in this. Luther’s actions, and the hierarchy’s response to them, led to much bolder actions on his part and the part of others, snowballing over the years of his own lifetime into different calls for different levels and kinds of reform, from canon law to theology to moral action to church order to liturgy to all sorts of things. In a way, regardless of how much we Protestants (and, yes, Anglicans are a variety of Protestant; please don’t argue with me about that in the comments because it makes me tired) agree or disagree with the vast corpus of Luther’s writings, we are all — somehow — descended from his original movement of protest and call for reform.

I would like to state that I agree with the 95 Theses. Even if one were to subscribe to the doctrine of Purgatory (which I don’t; see Article of Religion 22), Luther gives some pretty cogent reasons for why they are conceptually flawed and theologically false to Scripture and tradition.

I also think, from what I’ve read, that I agree with him about justification. But, of course, what Luther taught may not be what your local Pentecostal pastor teaches. So watch out for that. Not to say that the Pentecostal is wrong, but rather that saying, ‘I believe in justification by faith,’ doesn’t suddenly mean you actually agree with everyone else who says the same.

For example, sometimes I think I agree with the Council of Trent (of all things):

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Session 6, Chapter 5; pp. 32-33 of trans. J. Waterworth)

That is to say: God justifies us by grace acting in us. Our will cooperates with God’s grace freely, yet it is acknowledged that we are unable to cooperate freely without the grace of God acting in us. The awkward reality of faith as lived out in real life rather than in pious slogans.

Nonetheless, there are various other things that go on in Trent with which I disagree, so I’ll not convert to Rome just yet, thankyouverymuch.

Anyway, from what I recall from my studies back in 2011, around the time of Luther the teaching of the Latin church on this question was not, at large, clear. So when Luther found himself pushing back and resisted in the matter of indulgences, he found himself investigating the whole theological, sacramental, and canonical system of the Latin church concerning how we are saved and how this relates to the Bible.

And so we come to another happy Reformation slogan: Sola scriptura. I, again, take an Anglican line on this, that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. This does not mean that they are not to be understood in light of tradition or that tradition has no place in a healthy Christian life. More on that another time.

It has been said (possibly by Scott Cairns?) that Luther, a true Augustinian not simply by his vows but in his theology, who was steeped not only in Augustine but the other fathers and the greatest of the scholastics (whether he came out liking them or not is a different story) was in a very different position to say sola scriptura than the uneducated man on the street who reads the Bible for himself with no context.

That is, Luther claims in Table Talk to simply expound the plain sense of Scripture. But many of his meanings and understandings are those of Augustine. One’s past is almost inescapable. Either that, or the Holy Spirit inspired Luther and Augustine to say the same things.

So we see these things — justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, combating abuse and corruption in the church — and we say, ‘Huzzah! We are Protestants like Brother Martin!’

If you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or a certain variety of Anglican or Salvation Army, go and read Brother Martin’s treatise On the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like it. It has challenged my commitment to some of the Articles of Religion, I admit, but I still like it.

The upshot of this rambling post: Martin Luther did some Big Things, and his 95 Theses were the start of those Things. But as a figure, he is a man. Simul justus et peccator — at once justified and a sinner. You will like some of the things he says (even a modern Roman Catholic would!). You will probably dislike others (I know I do). But he is an unavoidable, unstoppable force who, I believe, did much good by the grace of God and despite his failings.

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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.

The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.

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.

How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.