Reformation, part three

My last post described the political and economic factors that led to the Reformation of the Church, as sparked by Martin Luther. I did not mention Jesus Christ or redemption; I described the Church only as a political entity, not as the Bride of Christ and the mission agency established to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world. Martin Luther was aware of the political implications of the Reformation, but those implications did not change his thoughts, his words, or his behavior. He was deeply committed to Jesus Christ. He cared more about redemption than about all the kingdoms of the world. He saw the Church as Christ’s own people, not as the possession of any pope or archbishop or emperor.

The young Luther is often pictured as a troubled man, deeply aware of his sin and his guilt, desperately seeking a way to be reconciled to God. Genuine Christianity, it often is implied, had disappeared from the world until Luther rediscovered the true faith. Luther did want to know God and to be right with God. He was, for a time, drawn to seek God through his own penance, his own good works, and his own efforts to love God and serve God. But the true Christian faith had not vanished. In many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, men and women and children were still calling on the name of the Lord, seeking redemption in Jesus Christ. The movements of John Hus and Peter Waldo had brought many Europeans to a proper knowledge of Christ. Even within the accepted movements of the Church in western Europe, many Church leaders knew and shared the Gospel. Luther had a mentor named John Staupitz who encouraged Luther to read the Bible and to believe the promises it contains. Staupitz even assigned Luther Bible classes to teach, hoping that teaching others would make Luther aware of the Bible’s message of the grace of God, of salvation by that grace through faith, and of the love of God who wants to be reconciled to sinners. On the cross, Jesus paid the debt of sinners; he gave his life to reconcile sinners to his Father and to claim those sinners for his kingdom. The Bible clearly teaches this promise, and Luther came to believe this promise.

Therefore, Martin Luther challenged the faulty theology used to sell indulgences and to acquire money for the Church through that marketing. He posted 95 theses to be debated in the seminaries—that is what seminaries did back then; instead of playing football and basketball, they debated theology. In the 95 theses, Luther wrote that repentance is not an occasional act of penance or a one-time act, but is an on-going reality in the life of a Christian. He said that, if Church leaders want to release sinners from purgatory, they should do so out of love and not for money. Luther did not want to split the Church or start a new movement in the Church—he was calling all Christians to understand and believe what the Bible says about redemption and forgiveness, about repentance and faith.

The more Luther defended these ideas, the more he studied the Bible and the early leaders and thinkers of the Church. The more he studied, the more firmly he believed that redemption and repentance and faith were being taught wrongly by many in the Church, all for the sake of money and of political power. By the time he was called to answer for his words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was firm in his faith. He demanded that his accusers show him from the Bible where he was wrong. He would not accept the statements of popes and councils, because they contradict one another and are sometimes wrong. “Here I stand,” he reportedly said, “I can do no other.”

Pope Leo had already declared Luther a heretic and had excommunicated Luther, claiming that Luther was not part of the true Christian Church. Now Emperor Charles also called Luther an outlaw, saying that anyone who killed Luther would be doing a favor for the Empire and for the Church. Luther was kidnapped on his way from Worms back to Wittenberg. He was taken, not by enemies, but by friends, by servants of Elector Frederick. For about a year, Luther was hidden in a castle called the Wartburg. He was disguised as a knight, Sir George (not to be confused with Boy George!).

While at the Wartburg, Luther continued studying and continued writing. He began translating the Bible into German. After that year, he returned to Wittenberg. He continued teaching at the University of Wittenberg and preaching in the Church. He redesigned the traditional Christian worship service, removing elements that supported false beliefs and emphasizing the true promises of redemption and forgiveness, with traditional and with new material. He wrote catechisms—books of instruction to instruct children and adults the basic teachings of the Bible and the Church. He wrote several hymns. He lived two dozen more years in Wittenberg, remaining condemned by Church and Empire. He married a former nun, and together they were the parents of six children.

Eight years after Luther left the Wartburg, another Diet was held at Augsburg. Charles had concluded his war with France and needed to discuss three issues with the kings and dukes and princes and margraves and archbishops of his Empire. He needed to discuss the economy. He needed to discuss defense against the Ottoman Empire. And he needed to discuss division among Christians in the Empire. Luther’s supporters used the occasion to present the Emperor with a document stating their beliefs. Longer and more detailed than any creed, the Augsburg Confession explained what Lutherans believe and teach, showing that Lutheran beliefs and confessions match the teachings of the Bible and the early Church. Along with the ancient creeds of the Church and the Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Augsburg Confession remains a document that describes Lutheran beliefs—church workers among Lutherans pledge to follow the teachings of the Confession, not in place of the Bible, but because it correctly summarizes the Bible’s teachings. Luther did not write the Augsburg Confession; it was written by a fellow professor from the University of Wittenberg, a man named Phillip Melanchthon. But Melanchthon’s writing summarized Luther’s own thoughts; Luther himself said that Melanchthon was more tactful than Luther could be, but that he was correct in what he had written.

Lutherans—and other Protestants—celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, the anniversary of the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession and the Catechisms of Martin Luther are far more important than his 95 Theses. And there are many other results and ramifications of this Reformation that must still be addressed in future posts…. J.

Reformation, part two

Albert of Brandenburg was born June 28, 1490, in what is now part of the city of Berlin. His father, John, was Elector of Brandenburg. This position gave John political authority over a region in the Holy Roman Empire which, around that time, consisted of roughly 10,000 square miles and contained about 400,000 people. More importantly, the Elector of Brandenburg was one of seven Electors in the Empire. When an Emperor died, the seven Electors (three archbishops, one king, one duke, one count, and one margrave) would meet, discuss, and vote to choose a new Emperor. Albert had an older brother, Joachim, who was destined to inherit the political office from his father. Therefore, Albert went into church work, ambitious to become as important a man as his father.

Albert studied at the University of Frankfort. In 1513, the Archbishop of Magdeburg died (reportedly of syphilis), and Albert was named new Archbishop, even though Albert was only twenty-three years old. (According to Church Law, an Archbishop needed to be at least thirty years old. However, the pope could make exceptions to that rule.) The next year, the Archbishop of Mainz died, also under unusual circumstances. (It is said that he had a fight with his cellarmaster over missing wine; some historians claim that the Archbishop murdered the cellarmaster and then fled the country, with the cellarmaster buried in the Archbishop’s tomb.) Albert wanted this job, since the Archbishop of Mainz was, like the Margrave of Brandenburg, one of the seven Electors. But Albert was still not yet thirty, and Church Law also prohibited any person from being Archbishop in two places at the same time.

The Pope at this time was Leo X. Leo was the son of Lorenzo de Medici, a wealthy and powerful leader in the Italian city of Florence. All the Medicis were wise in the ways of the world concerning political power, money, and Renaissance art and culture. Leo, seeking funds for the beautification on Rome, was willing to appoint Albert as Archbishop of Mainz, for a price. Albert borrowed money from the Fuggers, a wealthy German banking family, and he was granted the job he sought.

Now Albert was deeply in debt to the Fuggers. He appealed to Pope Leo for help, and Leo knew how to help. He proposed that indulgences be sold in Mainz and the surrounding area. Half the money would go to Archbishop Albert to repay the Fuggers. The other half would go to Pope Leo to pay the expenses of building St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. (Michelangelo was one of several architects employed to build this basilica, and one of his most famous sculptures is contained therein.) Among the church workers brought to Mainz to sell indulgences for Albert and Leo was a Dominican friar, John Tetzel. Tetzel’s extravagant claims about the power of his indulgences prompted an Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, to post ninety-five ideas, or theses, regarding penance and forgiveness. Luther, a Doctor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg in Saxony, was deeply concerned about penance and forgiveness. Luther also believed that Albert and Leo would renounce the salesmanship of Tetzel and would approve of Luther’s attempts to explain God’s forgiveness to the Christians living in Europe at that time. Luther even sent copies of his ninety-five theses and explanations of their meaning to the Pope and the Archbishop, expecting a favorable response from these Church leaders.

Albert and Leo were not pleased. But they could not respond to Luther as quickly and emphatically as they would have liked. The Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian Hapsburg, was in ill health and would soon die. An election would be held to replace him. Archbishop Albert and his brother Joachim were two of the Electors, but a third Elector was the Duke of Saxony, Frederick the Wise. Frederick had established the University of Wittenberg. Technically, Doctor Luther worked for Frederick. This was not a time to have Frederick become angry with Albert and with Leo.

Maximilian died in 1519. One of the candidates to replace him was his grandson, Charles, who inherited power over the kingdom of Austria at Maximilian’s death. Charles had already inherited the kingdom of Spain from his other grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella. This made him ruler, not only over Spain, but also over Belgium and the Netherlands, and over most of the western hemisphere recently claimed by Spain. That was a lot of power for one man to hold. Pope Leo was not comfortable with the prospect.

Another candidate for Emperor was Francis I, King of France. Combining France with the Holy Roman Empire would also create an overwhelming European power that might threaten the rest of the continent. Leo preferred a compromise candidate. While Charles and Francis campaigned, making generous gifts to the seven Electors, Pope Leo sought a compromise candidate. His first choice was Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony and founder of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught.

Frederick declined the honor. When the seven votes were cast and counted, Charles was declared the winner. Now Pope Leo felt free to publicly condemn Luther and his ideas, which he did. But by this time, Luther had gained a large audience. Many of the rulers in the Empire agreed with Luther, some for purely religious reasons, and others for political reasons. Frederick wanted Luther to have a fair hearing, which he knew would not happen if Luther met the Pope in Rome. As a result, Luther was instead invited to a Diet (a meeting of leaders in the Holy Roman Empire) scheduled to be held in the city of Worms in 1521. Luther was not the only item on the agenda; members of the Diet would consider many topics, including the military threat of the Ottoman Turks. (Ironically, Charles would spend more energy at war with Francis than with the Turks.) But the famous Diet of Worms—not a weight-loss program, but an important political gathering—would make Martin Luther famous and would solidify the progress of the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

The High Middle Ages

Historians like me discuss the medieval papacy, the Investiture Controversy, and the Crusades without saying much about Jesus Christ and his mission for the Church—a mission to bring forgiveness to sinners, to rescue victims of evil, and to heal the hurting in this world. Had the entire Church on earth fallen into apostacy during these centuries? Some writers claim that it had fallen, but the real Church still existed on earth, just as Jesus always promised the Church would continue. Individuals, families, congregations, and communities preserved the pure Gospel, even while the few popes and kings and crusaders went their own direction. The Church does not consist of Popes and Archbishops and Crusaders, any more than it consists of boards and committees and officers. The Church is found wherever people gather in the name of Jesus—that is, wherever his Word is preached correctly, wherever people are baptized in his name, and wherever people eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, remembering him.

As the Cluny Reform helped to counter abuses in the monasteries during the tenth century, so many movements among European Christians in later centuries helped to reform the Church—a body of sinner saints that always needs reformation. A preacher named Peter Waldo spoke against the church officials and their faulty behavior; although he and his followers were attacked by Church officials as heretics, they are often remembered today as genuine Christians and forerunners of the Protestants to come. Another group clearly fell into heresy. Called the Albigensians because of a region in France where many of them lived, they were also known as the Cathars or Cathari—the pure ones. They believed that they could stop sinning and could please God by their lives. They also revived some of the misunderstandings about God and Christ that had already been rejected by the Church. Warfare against the Albigensians was called a Crusade; killing an Albigensian in France was seen as equivalent to killing a Muslim in Jerusalem.

But a man from Spain named Dominic suggested a different approach. He said that if Christians knew the faith and proclaimed the faith, heretics and unbelievers—even Muslims and Jews—could be converted to the true faith. Dominic started a “back to the Bible” movement that stressed Biblical knowledge among Christians (especially preachers) and promoted sharing the faith in preference to fighting Crusades. While Peter Waldo’s movement was rejected by the Church leaders, Dominic’s approach was approved. He began a new order of Church workers who were called the Dominicans.

Around the same time, a man from Italy named Francis also tried a different approach. After a profound religious experience, he felt moved to obey literally Christ’s command to abandon all wealth and property and to dedicate his life to Christ. Feeling called by Christ to rebuild the Church, Francis began by repairing ruined church buildings around his home city of Assisi. Later, he came to believe that he could rebuild the Church by his example of faith and voluntary poverty. Francis’ approach was also approved by the Pope, and those who lived by his rules were called Franciscans.

The rules Francis made for himself proved impractical for some of his followers, and he was forced to soften his requirements. Discouraged, Francis looked for new ways to serve the Lord. He joined a group of Crusaders, traveled with them to Egypt, crossed enemy lines, and sought to preach Christianity to the Sultan. Although the Sultan was not converted, he admired the zeal of Francis and sent him back across the battlefield safely. Francis later received wounds in his hands and feet and side that resembled the wounds Christ received on the cross. Among western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, Saint Francis is probably the most popular of all the post-Biblical saints.

Another order, based on the rules written by Augustine of Hippo, was also established at the same time as the Franciscans and Dominicans.

Many Christians joined these orders. Chapters were established for women as well as for men. Separate chapters were made for people who wanted to imitate the work of the orders part-time without abandoning families and careers. Wealthy people gave generous gifts to the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Because all three orders were trying to live in poverty and simplicity, receiving gifts was an embarrassment to them. But they put the wealth to work, establishing and maintaining hospitals and schools. In fact, the idea of the university came from these Church orders, and the great philosophers and scientists and other thinkers of medieval Europe were gathered into these universities. They had not yet invented football or basketball, but the universities competed in debate. A thinker at one school would publish a document of sentences, or theses, to be discussed at his school, and often these were shared among schools and promoted discussion between faculties. The system of thought used in these discussions is called “scholasticism.” Sometimes scholasticism is represented as covering trivial issues—a common example is the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Such discussions do not happen today—some Christians do not believe in angels, others do not believe in dancing, and a few don’t even believe in pins.) But major issues also were open for debate. Some of the great scholastic scholars still read today include Peter Abelard, Anselm, Albert Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. And an Augustinian monk was still following the same procedure of posting theses for debate when the Protestant Reformation began in Wittenberg in 1517.

Along with theology, music and communication and history and science were also studied in these universities. Although alchemists still believed that matter consists of only four elements, they performed chemical experiments that ultimately would lead to modern chemistry. Although astronomers still believed that the Earth rests unmoving at the center of the universe, they knew that the Earth is round, knew about how large it is, and measured the motion of the other planets with increasing precision—measurements that would result in more accurate perceptions of the solar system. Mathematics and medicine were also studied, including information imported from the Muslim world. And during these years—the centuries called the High Middle Ages—the grand cathedrals of Europe were designed and built. Later generations would dismiss these buildings as “Gothic”—suggesting that they were barbarian and uncivilized—but today they are recognized as magnificent achievements in art and design, as well as eloquent expressions of the Christian faith belonging to those who designed and built them. J.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be greatest must be servant to all.”

Although many events from medieval Church history seem to have been guided by the power of the Pope, head pastor in Rome and (according to the various popes) Vicar of Jesus Christ on Earth, Christianity was never united under a single worldly leader. Jesus Christ and the Bible unite Christians in heaven and on earth. Other attempts to impose unity and conformity upon Christians result only in division, separation, and sometimes violent opposition.

In early Church times, leaders of the Church in five cities were generally respected as foremost among Christians on Earth. Those cities were Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Councils that discussed and defined the teachings of the Church did not submit to any of these five bishops; one council even condemned Pope Honorius as a heretic!

The sudden appearance of Islam overwhelmed the congregations in Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch. While they still existed, they were much smaller and exerted little influence on the rest of Christianity. Given two powerful centers of the faith, it perhaps was inevitable that a showdown would arise involving the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople.

The groups of Christians led by these two figures disagreed about several matters. Probably the most important theological matter was the question of the Holy Spirit, whether he proceeds from the Father and the Son (as is taught in the western Church) or from the Father alone (as is taught in the eastern Church). A more practical matter on which the groups differed was the question of religious artwork. Byzantine emperors grew increasingly hostile toward artwork in the Church, pointing to the Ten Commandments, which include a prohibition of “graven images.” Defenders of such artwork were able to cite examples of artwork in Scripture—even in the book of Exodus, the same book which contains that prohibition of graven images, but which gives instructions for building the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. They also indicated that artwork is helpful for teaching and for devotional life, insisting that the Biblical prohibition only forbids worshiping images. A Byzantine Emperor named Leo sent soldiers into churches to destroy images, prompting fierce opposition and large demonstrations from Christians defending the place of art in the Church. The compromise reached in the Byzantine Empire was stricter than Roman leaders liked. Ironically, eastern churches are now known for their icons representing Jesus Christ and certain saints and angels.

The two groups of Christians differed on other subjects as well, such as determining the date of Easter each year, the use of leavened or unleavened bread in Holy Communion (the Lord’s Supper), and other details about Christian life and worship. From a historical point of view, though, the biggest difference in opinion regarded the question of whether the Roman Pope is the head of all true Christians on Earth. In the year 1054, the Pope sent a messenger to Constantinople to lay a message on the altar of Hagia Sophia. This document excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and anyone who agreed with the Patriarch in saying that the Pope is not the head of the Church on Earth. Somewhere between the two cities, the Pope’s messenger passed a messenger sent by the Patriarch excommunicating the Pope and anyone else who says that the Pope is the head of the Church on Earth. From this year until the present, every Christian on Earth has been excommunicated by one of those two documents (and some groups of Christians would be considered outside the Church according to both documents).

Christians who agreed with the Patriarch in Constantinople called themselves “orthodox.” This Greek word means “thinking correctly.” No doubt every Christian calls himself or herself orthodox; each of us believes that he or she has the correct faith. The Christians who agreed with the Pope called themselves “catholic.” This Latin word reflects the unity of the Church and also signifies that it exists everywhere. Again, every Christian would consider himself a member of the true catholic Church. While human organizations among Christians on Earth continue to use these labels, every believer in Jesus Christ in heaven and on earth is a member of the one true Church, which (by definition) is both orthodox and catholic.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s worldly authority over the city of Rome and other parts of Italy involved the Pope in battles with assorted other heads of state in Europe. Italy increasingly became a battleground for armies from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Spain, and other European powers. Finally, to escape the turmoil, Pope Clement V moved himself and his Church government to Avignon. That city today is in France, although in 1305 (when Clement became Pope) it was part of the country ruled from Naples. For seventy years, the Pope and cardinals governed the Church from Avignon. All these popes and most of the cardinals came from France, spoke French, and were politically allied with the government of France.

After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, a group of Italian cardinals slipped back into Rome and elected Urban VI as Pope. The French cardinals, still in Avignon, proceeded to elect Clement VII. Now there were two popes, and Christians in Europe had to decide which of them was their head. Bishops and archbishops took sides; secular government took sides. Both popes died and were replaced with new popes by their respective groups of cardinals. Finally, in 1409, a church meeting in Pisa fired both popes and elected a new pope, named Alexander V. Unfortunately, neither of the other popes believed that he was fired, and now Christians had to choose from among three earthly heads.

Five years later, another church meeting was held in the city of Constance. Before electing a new pope, the leaders of the council persuaded all three current popes to resign. Two did so quickly—one even before the council began—hoping that their willingness to cooperate would buy them votes. The third held out for a while but eventually also resigned. All three were sent into retirement, and the Council of Constance elected Martin V to serve the Church as pope.

For a while, some Christians hoped that the power of popes would be reduced by these years of chaos and struggle. They hoped that Church Councils could provide leadership for Christians and could reunite Christians living on Earth. Instead, popes from this time onward insisted that only the Pope can convene church councils and that the Pope can instruct those councils how to vote and can overrule their decisions. Meanwhile, other Christian movements were brewing, movements that would produce further chaos and would provide even greater challenges to the popes in Rome. J.

Church and State in Medieval Times

An important theme in medieval European history was a struggle to define the relationship between the power of the Church and the power of human governments. The Cluny Reform represents one attempt by Church leaders to disentangle Church work and Church workers from worldly governments and their concerns. Yet, as long as Church leaders accepted gifts of land from donors, their leadership remained enmeshed in the feudal structure of Europe, which was political and sociological as well as economic.

A document called the Donation of Constantine supposedly gave the Pope, the head pastor in Rome, political control over not only the city of Rome but also many more properties in central Italy. Later research demonstrated that the Donation was not written in the time of Constantine but instead around the time of Charlemagne. Still, its existence and enforcement of its terms meant that Church leadership, beginning with the Pope, could not be separated from worldly power, not even by high-minded movements such as the Cluny Reform. The most significant form this struggle produced has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy.

“Investiture” means the giving of a job within the Church—a pastor or preacher in a local congregation, a bishop or overseer of several congregations, an archbishop overseeing a region with many congregations, or the Pope himself, who came to view himself as the overseer of all Christianity on earth, the Vicar of Christ representing his earthly authority over the Church. In feudal Europe, though, kings and emperors wanted to participate in the task of choosing Church leaders, particularly at the administrative level of bishops and archbishops. In a sinless world, Church leaders and worldly politicians would cooperate to find the best leaders for every open position in the Church hierarchy. Because both Church leaders and worldly politicians were imperfect sinners, they sometimes battled for control, each seeking appointments within the Church for his own benefit. Church leaders and worldly politicians all had relatives and friends to whom they owed favors, and the jobs of bishop and archbishop were highly-sought privileges. Church leaders wanted newly-named bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the Church; worldly politicians wanted bishops and archbishops to be loyal to the local authorities and to the people they served in their positions.

Sometimes worldly politicians would attempt to procure Church positions for men who were highly unqualified for leadership in the Church—men more interested in their own wealth and power than in service to Christ and His people, men who had not renounced sinful habits and ungodly living, men who had not even been educated in the Bible or the teachings of the Church. On the other hand, Church leaders sometimes imposed preachers and bishops upon their congregations who had no knowledge of the local customs or language, who had no interest in the part of Europe to which they were assigned, and who—on occasion—did not even bother to move to the location where they were assigned to serve, but merely told the congregation where to send the people’s offerings. Both sides in the Investiture Controversy could point to abuses made by the other side and could claim right motives for their own positions. As a result, the controversy raged for centuries.

The most famous episode of the Investiture Controversy involved a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry and a Pope named Gregory. When important Church positions opened within the borders of the Empire, Henry had men of his choice invested into those offices. Gregory objected, accused Henry of sinning against the Church and its Lord, and excommunicated Henry—indicating that Henry was no longer a Christian. Not being a Christian, Henry could not be Holy Roman Emperor, and Gregory actually chose a man to replace him. Of course Gregory had no authority to put that man in charge of the Empire, but Gregory’s proclamation led to civil war in the Empire which could only be ended by resolving the controversy. Henry visited a castle in northern Italy where Gregory was staying. According to tradition, the Emperor stood barefoot outside the castle for two days, waiting for the Pope to grant him an audience. (The actual two-day wait was probably spent mostly indoors, with occasional trips to the castle door to see if the Pope was ready yet to meet.) Eventually the leaders met and worked out a compromise that pleased them both, although it set no precedent for quarrels over Investiture at other times and in other places.

Another significant episode involved King John of England and Pope Innocent III. John is mostly known from the Robin Hood stories, although the real Robin Hood probably lived long after the time that John ruled. But John, like Emperor Henry before him, had a man of his own choice invested as Archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent demurred, preferring Stephen Langston for the office. Stephen was a talented scholar, who not only wrote profound commentaries on the Bible and penned a Pentecost hymn still sung often today, but who also is responsible for dividing the books of the Bible into chapters. Innocent not only excommunicated John; he also declared England to be under the Interdict until John capitulated and allowed Stephen to be invested. “Interdict” meant that the Church workers were out on strike. No church services. No weddings or funerals. No promise of forgiveness for sinners. The people of England panicked, and King John surrendered to the Pope; Stephen Langston became Archbishop of Canterbury.

King John was so weakened politically by this event that, not long afterward, he was forced by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta, or the Great Charter of England. Church life was free from political interference. Human rights were recognized in England. Taxes were limited and needed to be approved in advance by the nobles. While the Magna Carta was by no means the first effort to limit government in medieval Europe—Germanic customs had placed limits upon kings and emperors all along, providing a structure of government more in line with the Roman Republic than with the Empire of the Caesars—it was an important step toward the later recognition of human rights and of the need to limit government power in the lives of its citizens, including the principle of balancing power among the branches of government to provide such limits. J.

Early Christianity, part two

One of the first challenges of the early Church came from the combination of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ Jesus. The question arose: how many Jewish rituals and customs did Gentiles have to adopt to become Christians? Since the Jews were obeying commandments from God, were Gentiles required to obey the same commandments?” Or did the work of Jesus cancel some or all of the commandments God had made through Moses and the prophets? A meeting of Church leaders (described in Acts 15) resulted in a compromise that asked Gentile Christians to respect a few dietary restrictions, as well as sexual morality. Paul, using his authority as an apostle, later canceled all dietary restrictions, affirming what Jesus already had taught.

The question was not one of distinguishing different types of commandments from God, calling some ceremonial and others moral. Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, rescuing his people from all demands of the Law as well as from all punishments for breaking God’s Law. He fulfilled the Law for Jews and for Gentiles, granting freedom in the place of commandments. But Christians are not free to do whatever their sinful hearts desire. They are free, instead, to be the people God intended in creation. Therefore, Christians love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbors—they do not worship false gods and do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Christians imitate Christ, the sinless man. But where God’s Law pointed to Christ’s work by its ceremonies (circumcision, animal sacrifices, food restrictions based upon those sacrifices, and holy days), Christian freedom allows Christians to work together forming Christian ceremonies. Loving one another, Christians sacrifice their freedom to one another for their common benefit.

The second challenge came from Hellenistic Gentiles trying to blend the teachings of Jesus—and of Moses and the prophets—with Greek philosophy. Stoics saw reality as spiritual, with the physical world considered unimportant. Epicureans saw reality as physical, with all things dying and disintegrating—even the human mind or soul. Neither group had room for the Resurrection. Over time, some Hellenistic Christians developed new religions called Gnostic—a few of them used the label Gnostic, claiming to have special knowledge from God, but many similar groups are gathered under the same label by contemporary historians. Using the names of Jesus and his apostles, Gnostics taught a Hellenistic form of Christianity that viewed Jesus as a spiritual messenger from another realm, one who came to release sparks of divinity from the physical world and grant them true spiritual freedom. The cross of Christ was emptied of its power—one Gnostic writer pictures the body of Jesus nailed to the cross, while the spirit of Christ hovers overhead, mocking his enemies for thinking they could hurt him. Sin became a question of attachment to the material world; redemption became a matter of becoming truly and fully spirit. Gnostics tried to replace the New Testament writings with many other books (often attributed to Old Testament and New Testament figures) that denied the goodness of God’s creation, the redemptive power of the cross, and the resurrection of Christ and of his followers. These Gnostic writings are easily distinguished from the true apostolic books of the New Testament.

One powerful movement sometimes included among the Gnostics is Manichaeism. Its founder, Mani, blended Christian teachings with Zoroastrian beliefs from Persia as well as some Buddhist beliefs from India. Mani said that only one God exists, but Mani’s one God is opposed by an evil enemy who is his equal in power. The world is their battleground, and the war is fought within each person. Those who choose God’s path—a path of holy living, love for others, and care for the world—find salvation, but those who choose his enemy’s path—a path of selfishness and destruction—fall into eternal fire. Some modern Christian writings resemble Manichaeism more than they do the New Testament. Writings that picture Satan as king of hell, capable of successfully opposing God’s will in the world, are Manichean. Writings that suggest that human choices can determine the outcome of the war between God and Satan are Manichean. Writings that say that faith is a choice made by human individuals apart from the will of God are Manichean.

Along with these challenges to the Christian message came other struggles to understand the nature of God and especially the nature of Christ Jesus. Hearing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, some people thought that Christians worship three gods. Others thought that the three names reflect a single divine Person doing different things at different times. Some thought that Jesus of Nazareth was adopted by God the Father, making him superhuman. Others (influenced by Hellenistic theology and by Gnostic leaders) thought that Jesus was a divine spirit who only pretended to be human. By the time of Constantine, a preacher from Egypt (named Arius) convinced many Christians that only God the Father is eternal and all-powerful; Arius said that the Son of God was created by the Father and is inferior to the Father. Constantine called Christian leaders together to resolve questions about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. More than three hundred Christians gathered in Nicaea because of the Emperor’s request. They prayed together, studied the Bible together, and reached agreement. From their Bible study, they concluded that Jesus—the Son of God—is equal to the Father. They wrote a document, or Creed, which affirmed that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten—not made—Being of one substance with the Father.” Only three participants at this meeting disagreed with the Nicene Creed. This statement of faith became the measure of genuine Christian belief. It was called “orthodox” (meaning “right-thinking”) and “catholic” (meaning “united and existing everywhere”).

Later Church meetings further defined the orthodox and catholic Christian faith. All these meetings were based on sincere Bible study, seeking ways of expressing the truth about God and his messages. The Holy Spirit was understood to be God, equal to the Father and to the Son, a Person as the Father and the Son are Persons, yet united as one God, not three gods. Jesus was understood to be completely divine and completely human, so that anything said of the Son of God can also be said of the Son of Mary, and everything said of the Son of Mary can also be said of the Son of God. God was born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger. God was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and tempted to sin (although he never sinned). God was nailed to a cross and killed. Yet the Son of Mary is almighty. He is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything. He has the power to judge sinners and to forgive sins. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated, because only one Christ exists.

A European preacher named Pelagius offered a version of Christianity tainted with Manichaean and Gnostic beliefs. He suggested that every person maintains a spark of goodness that can please God with good works, can come to God, and can be accepted by God. Orthodox and catholic Christians insisted that (as the Bible says) all persons are dead in sin until God makes us alive by the power of his Word. We cannot find God, but Jesus our Shepherd finds us. We have no goodness in us until the redeeming power of God removes our sins and reconciles us to God. The early Church resisted these teachings, but they would return in later forms of Christianity. J.

The beauty of diverse styles of Christian worship

This spring I’ve been giving a series of lectures on World Religions. A week ago, I spoke about Christianity. This morning before class a woman took me aside to share her experiences within the Christian faith. She had been Lutheran, but a few years ago she switched to an Anglican congregation, which she says is very similar. (I agree.) She also attends a non-denominational church once a month with a friend (and she goes to that congregation’s weekly Bible class as well). She commented that she had attended the Easter Saturday service at the non-denominational church, but it hadn’t felt right. She then began to list for me the things missing from the service, such as a reading from one of the Gospels, and the Lord’s Prayer. But, she said, the preacher’s homily was good and quoted a lot of Bible verses.

The main thing for her, she said, was looking around and seeing lots of young adults at the non-denominational service. She figured that if the church was drawing them in and they were learning about Jesus, she wasn’t going to complain about the music (unfamiliar to her) or the parts of the service that were missing. I agreed with her that it’s good that Christian worship is diverse, that there are different ways of worshiping that appeal to different people. (I think that was the point that she was making, reflecting my discussion last week about enormous diversity within Christian thought and practice.) But I also mentioned that not all young people are drawn to the sort of worship offered in the non-denominational churches. Some young people enjoy the historic liturgy. They crave the traditions that grew in the Church over the centuries, the forms of worship that have united rather than dividing the saints of the Church across lines of age and economic status and culture. When those traditions are followed without being explained, they can be dry and boring, and therefore distracting. Where the meaning of the traditions is taught and shared, many Christians find great meaning and joy in the divine service as it has been followed for many generations.

Twenty years ago I might have said more to this woman about the richness of Christian traditional liturgy. In this case, I was quick to say that diversity is good, that the Church as a whole is blessed when Christians in a city can choose among different forms of worship, whether traditional, contemporary, or blended. I sincerely hope that the traditional liturgy never disappears; but I am glad that Christians who do not find liturgy meaningful can worship in a style that suits their personality and draws them closer to the Lord.

When I was in school, we students often discussed the different levels of formality in worship styles. One of my friends referred to those levels as “very formal, somewhat more casual, and massive casualty.” In a formal setting, worshipers sit on pews; in a somewhat more casual setting, they sit on folding chairs; and in massive casualty they sit in bean bag chairs. In a formal setting, the pastor wears a long white robe (called an alb) or perhaps a long black robe under a shorter white robe (called, respectively, a cassock and a surplice); in a somewhat more casual setting, the pastor wears a business suit; and in massive casualty the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt. In a formal setting, the singing of the congregation is accompanied by a pipe organ; in a more casual setting, the singing is accompanied by a small rock band; in massive casualty, singing is accompanied by either a mariachi band or an accordion—and, of course, in some congregations the singing is accompanied by no instruments at all.

So long as the message of Jesus is taught and his forgiveness is shared, the style of worship is less important than the content of the message in the preaching, the singing, and the other elements of the service. New styles that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; new styles that distract people from his message are bad. Traditions that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; traditions that distract people from his message are bad. The Church exists for Christ, to be both his Body and his Bride. Distractions of any kind should give way to those things that serve his purpose. And, in different gatherings of Christians, those things that serve is purpose may be different indeed. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #1: Did Jesus exist in history?

When we speak or write about Jesus, Christians frequently are confronted by statements intended to disprove Christianity. Often these statements come from sincere unbelievers, although sometimes they are deliberate distortions of the truth. While we are unlikely to convert anyone to Christianity by reason alone—faith is a gift of God that dwells in the heart, not a set of propositions that dwell in the head—it is helpful to have an answer to those who question what we believe. It is particularly helpful for believers to be assured that many of the challenges to our faith come from misunderstandings and distortions. Therefore, this week I plan to address seven objections to Christianity that could be described as conspiracy theories about the Church and its teachings.

Today’s conspiracy theory is the challenge that Jesus of Nazareth never existed—that he is an invention of the Church. Few people actually believe that Jesus never existed, and almost none of the people who make that claim are professional historians. But rather than argue from the basis of majority opinion, it helps to have additional proof of the historical existence of Jesus.

The few who say that Jesus never existed support their belief by saying that there is no written account of Jesus from the first century other than those written by Christians. The idea that the written accounts of Christians cannot be trusted to tell the truth about Jesus is unsound—it would be as if citizens of the United States were disqualified to write biographies of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. The collection of writings by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude is in fact very strong evidence of the existence of the man they describe, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they call the Christ.

A Jewish historian who lived and wrote in the first century knew about Christians and was not a Christian. Flavius Josephus mentions Jesus in his history of Judaism. Some people believe that the surviving copies of Josephus’ work were edited by Christians to include favorable mention of Jesus. Such forgery cannot be disproved, but the demonstration becomes a circular argument: there are no nonChristian references to Jesus from the first century; Josephus wrote in the first century and mentioned Jesus; therefore Josephus’ book must have been altered by Christians. Roman historian Tacitus also makes a passing reference to the Christ worshiped by Christians, and the Mishnah—part of the Jewish Talmud, definitely not a Christian writing—also speaks of Jesus as a historical figure, one it seeks to undermine rather than support, but one that certainly is considered to have existed. Pliny, another Roman historian of the early second century, briefly describes Christians and Christ in a letter to the Emperor Trajan, asking what he should do about them. Trajan’s response was essentially, “Don’t ask; don’t tell”—in other words, don’t go looking for Christians, but if they make their presence known they must be punished for denying the other gods.

The strongest evidence of the existence of Jesus is not written evidence per se but is instead the very existence of the Church. True, the Romans were fascinated by exotic religions, and Christ could be compared to the Persian god Mithra or the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris in being adopted by the Romans. But there are important differences. First, Christianity emerged out of Judaism, a religion most Romans ignored or mocked because of its firm monotheism. Second, Romans added Mithra and the others to the pantheon of gods without denying any of the other gods, something Christians refused to do. Third, Christ Jesus is firmly tied to historical figures such as Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate, and the high priest Caiaphas, rather than being pictured as part of the distant and shadowy past. Fourth, the details of what happened to Jesus should have been highly embarrassing to Christians—that he was rejected by the religious leaders of his own people and was crucified by the Roman authorities. Likewise, his first followers are far from heroic, as in the legends of most religions. Peter, Paul, and the others are fallible humans who often fall short and are not to be imitated as paragons of virtue.

The willingness of the first generation of Christians to face martyrdom for their teachings is unthinkable if Jesus never existed. The willingness of thousands of people to join his movement in such a short time could have been countered if the authorities were able to demonstrate that no Jesus of Nazareth was ever sentenced to be crucified in Jerusalem. The dramatic change that the teachings about Christ produced in first century people from Spain to India strongly supports a historic Jesus rather than a legend. And the fact that hundreds of millions of people still know him today, while unconvincing to a skeptic, must surely reassure believers that the Jesus they know must be the historic Jesus of Nazareth. J.

Advent thoughts: December 9

“Jesus [said], “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’… But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:19, 21—skim II Chronicles 6:12-40).

King Solomon knew that God cannot be contained in a building. Other religions of the ancient world built temples for their gods, seeking to give their gods a dwelling place so the gods would be accessible to mortals. The true God fills the universe with his presence. No one can hide from God. No tree falls in the forest without God being there to hear it. Wherever we go, God is already there.

God directed Moses to have a tent built so God would have a visible presence among his people. God accepted the temple that Solomon dedicated to him. When the exiles returned from Babylon, God demanded that the temple be rebuilt. God cannot be contained, but he does want to be accessible. He wants his people to know where he can be found.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus Christ is truly God, yet he allowed his Being to be contained within a human body. Like God’s tent in the wilderness, Jesus was God’s presence in the midst of his people. And as first the Babylonians and later the Romans demolished God’s temple in Jerusalem, so Jesus gave up his body on the cross to rescue and redeem his people.

When Jesus ascended after his resurrection, he filled the universe with his presence. His body is not in storage somewhere waiting for the Day of the Lord. The human Jesus and the divine Jesus cannot be separated. Jesus, who is everywhere, is as human as we are. He understands our thoughts. He comprehends our needs. He knows what we experience when we face temptation, when we face danger, and when we face death. Jesus has already done all that.

Although we cannot see Jesus, we know where he promised to be found. “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). The Christian Church is now the temple where Jesus can be found. Wherever Christians gather to hear the Word of the Lord, to baptize according to his command, and to eat and drink the special meal which Jesus gave to his disciples, Jesus is present. He is present to forgive sins. He is present to share his victory over sin and all evil. He is present to guarantee eternal life to all who trust his promises.

Jesus is the only temple we need. No one can come to God the Father except through Jesus. But wherever Jesus is found, the Father and the Holy Spirit are also present. And Jesus has promised to be found when believers gather in his name. He has established his Church, and no evil power can overcome the Church. Thanks be to God! J.