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.

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.