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.

Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.

Confession and Absolution

The Bible says: “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).

Luther explains: “What is confession? Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution—that is, forgiveness—from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven. What sins should we confess? Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer, but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts. Which are these? Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments.
Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

Salvageable adds: Martin Luther is famous for protesting the system of Penance that the Church had developed over the centuries as part of Confession and Absolution. Some Christians and historians mistakenly believe that Luther was opposed to Confession as well, but that is not the case. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Lutherans affirmed that they would continue the historic practice of private Confession and Absolution. Only the thought that Penance is needed to finish Confession and Absolution was rejected.

When other Christians visit a Lutheran congregation, they are sometimes surprised by the Confession and Absolution at the beginning of the service. The worshipers pray to God, confessing their sins and throwing themselves upon His mercy. The pastor then responds, “In the place and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This Absolution shows the Office of the Keys at work in the congregation. When sugar or salt is dissolved in water, the sugar or salt is still there, as anyone can tell by tasting the water. When sins are absolved, they are gone. They are nailed to the cross with Christ, killed with Christ, and buried with Christ. They do not rise with Christ. They have been washed away by Holy Baptism, which is why the Absolution concludes with the same Name of God that is used in baptism. The practice of Confession and Absolution is an expression of repentance. It is repeated often, because we sin often and need God’s forgiveness often.

For many twenty-first century Lutherans, this group experience of Confession and Absolution is the only form they know. Private Confession and Absolution remains an option, even though it is not required. A Christian may look a pastor in the face, confess to that pastor a sin that is troubling one’s heart, and hear a clear and unconditional guarantee of forgiveness. This gift of the Church is even protected by secular law; the confession heard by a pastor, priest, or minister is completely confidential. When we need a personal assurance that the sins troubling our hearts are forgiven, the pastor or priest or minister or other fellow Christian is there to hear our confession and to announce our absolution.

The Church’s neglect of Confession and Absolution has led to its reintroduction in other walks of life. Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs that fight addition include a fifth step in which the recovering addict admits all his or her sins and wrongdoings to another person. Many people visit counselors to relieve their consciences of the burden of sin and guilt that is spoiling their lives. Some people confide in friends, only to have those friends whisper their secrets to others, so that a private confession becomes a matter of gossip. How much better it is when the Office of the Keys can function as Jesus intended, conveying forgiveness to sinners through the powerful Word of God, spoken to them by fellow believers.

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses

The last day of this month marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s historic act, posting 95 theses for debate on the campus of the University of Wittenberg in Saxony. This event is generally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation (aka the Lutheran Reformation or the Protestant Reformation). One of the most interesting facts about this event is that Martin Luther, when he wrote his 95 theses, was not yet “Lutheran.”

Luther’s theses were written in response to an Indulgence being sold in the area (although not in Wittenberg itself). Indulgences were receipts for money given to the Church as an act of Penance. Penance was an idea rooted in early Christianity, from the days when the Roman government was persecuting Christians. During a time of persecution, some Christians would drop out of the Church and act like their pagan neighbors. Faithful Christians risked imprisonment, torture, and even death for denying the many pagan gods and remaining faithful to Jesus Christ. When the time of persecution ended, some of the drop-out Christians would return to the Church expecting forgiveness for their sin of denying Christ. When reminded that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father,” these sinners would remind Church leaders that the Church is about the forgiveness of sins, and that even Peter had denied Christ but had been restored to the Church. As a compromise, Church leaders agreed that the drop-outs could return, but only after they had shown that they were truly sorry for their sin. Their acts of sorrow—almost an initiation back into the Church—were called Penance.

The new teaching of Penance raised a question about what happened to Christians who died before they completed their Penance—were they saved or lost? Church leaders acknowledged that they were forgiven for their sins, but they taught that Penance could be completed after death in a place they called Purgatory. (The Italian poet Dante located Purgatory on a mountain in the south Pacific, directly across the Earth from Italy.) When persecution was no longer a problem for Christians, the ideas of Penance and Purgatory were extended to all sins. A Christian confessed his or her sins, was absolved (promised forgiveness because of Christ’s sacrifice), and then was assigned Penance to complete the process of forgiveness. During the Crusades, fighters who went to battle the Muslim Turks were promised a Plenary Indulgence, meaning they would not have to spend any time in Purgatory. People unable to go to war were promised a similar Indulgence for contributing money to the preparation of a warrior. Following this procedure, Indulgences became a way for the Church to raise money for various projects. The Indulgence which Luther protested was granted by Pope Leo X to raise money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk; he was also a Doctor of Theology who taught in the University of Wittenberg. He was disturbed by the claims of John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, who was selling the Indulgences and exaggerating their importance. Tetzel claimed that the Indulgences he sold could free deceased relatives from Purgatory and that they provided forgiveness for the most vile of sins. At this time, universities had not yet established football and basketball teams, but they competed in debate. Luther hoped to prompt a debate regarding Indulgences and about the general ideas of Penance and forgiveness. He could not have anticipated the enormous results that his 95 theses would produce.

As I wrote above, Martin Luther was not yet “Lutheran” when he wrote his 95 theses. He still accepted without doubt the existence of Purgatory. He acknowledged the authority of the Pope as head of the Christian Church on Earth. Most significantly, Luther still approved of the teaching that penalties must be paid by sinners to complete the process of forgiveness. In the 95 theses, Luther distinguished between penalties assigned by Church leaders, which they could then revoke, and penalties assigned by God, which Church leaders could not revoke. Only later would Luther understand that all penalties for sin were paid by Jesus Christ on the cross and that no penalties remain for those who trust Christ’s promise of forgiveness.

Among the 95 theses, Luther wrote, “Christians are to be taught that the pope does not intend that the buying of indulgences should in any way be compared with works of mercy. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences… Christians are to be taught that if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.” He went on to suggest that, should the Pope wish to remove souls from Purgatory, he should do so out of love and not for the sake of money.

Luther did not intend to create a division in the Church; he wanted instead to unite Christians around the true teachings of the Bible. By 1519, Luther’s writing showed a full understanding of the completeness of God’s forgiveness, made available through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. He was unafraid to challenge any Church authority that placed doubt on God’s forgiveness. In his secular trial in 1521, Luther demanded to be shown from the Bible where he had erred. He would not consent to be instructed by popes and church councils, as he declared that they had contradicted one another and were sometimes mistaken. Luther had a prolific career of writing, teaching, and preaching. He also made mistakes, and no one considers his writings inspired as the apostles and prophets were inspired. Yet Luther’s affirmations of the Bible’s doctrines about forgiveness, spoken in opposition to Church traditions and teachings, started a Reformation movement in the Church that is still profoundly important five hundred years later.

When Lutherans list the important writings about the Bible that define their understanding of Christian doctrine, they do not include Luther’s 95 theses. For that matter, when Luther commented about which of his writings he considered worth saving for future generations to study, he did not include the 95 theses. Instead, Martin Luther and Lutheran leaders after him selected the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, both published in 1529, to be Luther’s most important work. The Small Catechism was written to teach children the key doctrines of the Church. The Large Catechism covers the same doctrines, but does so at a level for adults to read and contemplate.

In the coming weeks, as time permits, I plan to share and comment upon selections from Luther’s Small Catechism. Those words, rather than the 95 theses, are the best way to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation of the Church. J.