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.

Advent thoughts: December 8

“Moreover, the Lord declares to you [David] that the Lord will make you a house…. I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (II Samuel 7:11-13—read II Samuel 7:1-17).

David wanted to build a Temple in Jerusalem. He wanted to provide a house for the Lord. Since the days of Moses, the house of the Lord had been a tent, a temporary structure that could be dismantled and moved from one place to another. While the Israelites were in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, the dwelling of God had been in their midst, one special tent among many other tents. After they crossed the Jordan River and began to displace the Canaanites, the Israelites continued to gather at the Lord’s tent for sacrifices and religious festivals. Now that David had made Jerusalem the capital city of the tribes of Israel and had built himself a palace, he wanted to provide a fitting structure for the worship of the Lord.

God declined this gift. He did not want King David to build him a house. Instead, God said that he would build David a house. One of his descendants would rule an eternal kingdom. The name of David would be remembered forever because of his greater descendant.

David appears to have assumed that his son Solomon was the promised offspring. But God said that the Son of David would receive his kingdom after David died; when Solomon began to rule as king, David was still alive. God said that he would discipline the Son of David when he was found to be guilty of sin; but when Solomon sinned God did not discipline him as he deserved—he tore away the kingdom from Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. God said that the Son of David would rule an eternal kingdom; Solomon ruled for forty years and then died, and the kingdom he once ruled was eventually overthrown by the Babylonians.

“I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son,” God said of the Son of David. Therefore, the Son of God took on human flesh and was born in Bethlehem, the city of David, so he could inherit the throne of David. David had long since been dead and buried when Jesus claimed his kingdom. Although Jesus never sinned, he took on the guilt of the entire world and, bearing that sin, he was disciplined with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men. Solomon built a Temple in Jerusalem, but Jesus built a house out of living stones—the Holy Christian Church, which is his body and, therefore, is his Temple.

The Son of God is David’s son and also David’s Lord. He has received all authority in heaven and on earth. He rules an eternal kingdom, and he grants royal citizenship in that kingdom to all who trust in him. Thanks be to God! J.

Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

“Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).

“…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

The Old Testament and the New Testament both tell God’s people to sing. God created us, and he knows all about us. He knows that music shapes our thinking in a way that words alone cannot do. Children learn the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Dementia victims whose memory is so badly damaged that they cannot carry on a conversation can still remember the songs they learned in their youth. Because music aids in memory and even in comprehension, God has told us to sing when we worship.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians sang. Often they sang words from the Bible. Over time other Christian hymns were composed, such as the classic Te Deum laudumus (We praise you, O God). Historians cannot reproduce the tunes that early Christians used. We know something about how the music sounded because Greek mathematicians wrote about musical intervals and modes. Our major and minor keys would sound strange and foreign to people of the Roman Empire, and their music would sound strange and foreign to us.

During Roman times, a series of songs—mostly from the Bible—coalesced into what is known as the Divine Service or the Mass. Great composers of later times often wrote new tunes to accompany the Mass. The Mass consists of five songs, the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy—Mark 10:47), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God on high—Luke 2:14), the Credo (I believe), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy—Isaiah 6:3, combined with Matthew 21:9) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God—John 1:29). Further comments about each of these will be made in the appropriate places.

Some of the earliest Christian music that can be reproduced today consists of chants arranged by Gregory the Great. These Gregorian chants are sung in the modes of the earlier Greek mathematicians and may approach the sound of the earliest Christians.

Over time Christian singing shifted from the congregation to choirs of professional singers, and most people in the church simply listened to the music. As part of the Reformation, Martin Luther restored congregational singing. He used the style of music that has become known as the German chorale. This music was called bar music, not because it came from the tavern, but because vertical lines (bars) separated the phrases of the singing. The flow of long notes and short notes is almost conversational in the chorales. They avoid an even rhythm, leading some historians to speculate that hymn writers in the sixteenth century did not want people to be able to sway to the music or do anything else that suggested dancing.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran organist and choir director (as well as a professional composer and musician often hired by government officials). Along with his contemporaries, he refined church music, preferring only four beats to the bar over the longer phrases of the chorale (hence, “four-four time”). Bach and others of his generation also popularized the major keys which are familiar to Christians today. Bach’s tunes have a mathematical precision, even if they differed from the music theories of the ancient Greeks. The Methodist movement introduced another variation, making church music more emotional and more personal. Of course the twentieth century introduced many new things to Christian singing, such as guitars, drums, microphones and amplifiers, and projection screens to display the words of the hymns.

No doubt every innovation in worship has disappointed some Christians. Gregory’s chants and Luther’s chorales may have been as controversial and upsetting as rock music in the church can be controversial and upsetting for some people. God accepts and encourages diversity among his people. He is worshiped in many languages and many cultures, none of them being wrong and none of them being better than another. This does not mean, however, that in Christian worship, anything goes. Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs belong to the worship service; therefore, they should enhance worship and not inhibit worship.

A congregation’s collection of hymns should resemble the book of Psalms. Not all the Psalms are praise Psalms. Some Psalms cry out to God for help. Other Psalms confess sins and seek forgiveness. Some Psalms teach the history of God’s people. Like every other book of the Bible, the Psalms are about Jesus. They recognize him not only as the One by whom and for whom all things were made; they recognize him also as the righteous man who never sinned, as the atoning sacrifice for sinners, and as the victor over sin, evil, and death. So also the hymns and songs of the Church today should encompass all these themes. Not every hymn should have every theme, of course, but the collection of hymns—and even the choice of hymns for a single service—should in some way contain all these themes.

A service consisting of nothing but praise songs is like a meal consisting of nothing but ice cream and cake. The thought may seem attractive at first, but the problems with that diet become obvious over time. To eat no meat, no vegetables, and no grain would be to deprive oneself of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To sing only praise would not enable the members of the congregation to deal with the problems in their lives, the enemies they face, the danger of their own sins, and the work Jesus has accomplished to rescue them from sin and evil.

Every service has a theme, set by the Bible readings chosen for the service and the sermon which explains one or more of those readings. The hymns chosen for the service should match the theme of the readings and sermon. Moreover, the traditional Church has several seasons, and different hymns are fit for different seasons. Hymns for Christmas and Easter are more joyful; hymns for Advent and Lent are more somber. Clearly, the hymns for each service cannot be chosen by asking all the members which songs they like the best. Hymns should be chosen by someone sensitive to the moods of the Church year and aware of what the preacher intends to emphasize. If the preacher is not in charge of selecting hymns, the preacher and music director need to communicate and cooperate for the best possible service each week.

Choirs, praise teams, and other music leaders should help the congregation to sing. When they become performers and the congregation becomes an audience, the worship is crippled. Talented and trained musicians can help the congregation to sing. They can introduce new hymns and teach them to the congregation. They can add more difficult music to the service to support the hymn-singing of the congregation and to honor God. Like preachers, church musicians face the temptation of placing themselves at the center of the worship. They need frequently to remind themselves that Christ is being worshiped, that they are honoring him with their talents and abilities, and that the congregation gathered in his name, not in their names.

This chapter has taken longer than expected to write. I appreciate any thoughtful and helpful responses. J.

Sanctification

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the truth faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.”

Salvageable adds: The second article of the Creed distinguishes Christians from nonChristians; the third article distinguishes some Christians from others. From the Bible Luther learned that not all people will be saved; only those who believe God’s promises, fulfilled in Christ, will be saved. Luther also learned that God does not want to condemn anyone and that the sacrifice of Jesus is sufficient to atone for every sinner who ever lived or who ever will live. But Luther found other verses in the Bible that say that people cannot come to Christ unless God draws them to himself. Jesus is a Shepherd going into the wilderness to find lost sheep; he is not waiting for the sheep to find him. Therefore, Luther credits God the Holy Spirit with giving him faith and with keeping that faith alive in him.

Luther’s gifts of the Holy Spirit are not those listed in I Corinthians 12, nor are they the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5. Instead, the fruits that enlighten God’s people include the Word of God, that which was preached and written by apostles and prophets as guided by the Holy Spirit. The Word of God grants faith and helps that faith to mature. Other gifts of the Holy Spirit that enlighten Christians are the Holy Christian Church, where forgiveness is proclaimed, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion.

Jesus died on the cross to purchase forgiveness for all sinners. The Holy Spirit brings forgiveness to sinners through those gifts. The Church which gathers around that forgiveness is kept together by those gifts. When God looks at his people, he does not see them gathered in many separate buildings, each with different labels on the front doors. God sees one Church, united by his Son and his Spirit, some waiting in Paradise for the resurrection of the dead and some still alive on earth.

When Jesus is seen in glory on the Day of the Lord, all the angels of heaven will be with him, along with all the saints. The bodies of everyone who ever lived will be raised and gathered for judgment. This judgment will be a verdict announced by Jesus, welcoming the saints into his kingdom but sending unbelievers to join the devil in his prison. The saints in Paradise today are not yet enjoying their final reward. Though they are away from the body, in the presence of God, a better world is still coming. The resurrection of the body is the beginning of life everlasting. Christians have that life today, but not in its fullness. On that Day we will truly be in heaven, as all the glory of heaven comes to renew this earth. J.