Reformation, part five

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. The night he was born, angels sang about “peace on earth.” Yet Jesus himself warned that he came to bring, not peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). The Reformation of the Church triggered violence and warfare in Europe. Fighting between different versions of the Christian faith threatened to destroy the Church; it also seriously undermined the message of the Church, the Good News about Jesus Christ.

Some violence that was already happening attempted to seize hold of the Reformation. Since the Black Death, peasants in Europe had sensed their greater economic power; since fewer of them survived to do the work, the workers were more valuable. They made demands of lords and kings and nobility. Some demands were granted, but some were refused. Sometimes the two sides negotiated; sometimes they fought. Luther’s Reformation gave the peasants an ideological weapon. Pointing to abuses in the Church and connecting them to abuses in secular politics, they called more loudly for change or for revolt. Because Luther’s interests were purely spiritual, he could see the truth of both sides in the conflict. He urged worldly rulers to listen to the peasants and to correct injustices. He also insisted that revolution was ungodly. Luther advised the peasants to state their case but to accept resistance and hardship as part of life in a sinful world. While urging leaders to hear the peasants’ complaints, he also urged them to forbid revolution, to meet violence with violence. When peasants rioted, the riots were handled with violence from the government. Luther acknowledged that the nobility had gone too far in its response. Both sides were disappointed in Luther, sometimes even feeling betrayed by the Reformer. They could not perceive that he was dealing with ideas that matter more than political and economic justice at the present time.

Emperor Charles was slow to respond to the Reformation. His land was threatened by the Ottoman Empire; he was also at war with France. Eventually, Charles followed through with his words spoken at Worms; he called military power to overthrow the Reformation by invading lands where the Roman Church had been removed and Lutheran ideas prevailed. His troops even reached Wittenberg after Luther had died. Some of the Emperor’s soldiers wanted to remove Luther’s body from the grave and punish the remains of the heretic, but Charles said that he was fighting the living, not the dead. Luther’s grave remained undisturbed. Eventually, fighting in the Holy Roman Empire was ended through a compromise agreement. The head of state in each part of the Empire could declare the religion of that part, choosing between Roman Catholic or Lutheran. People who disagreed with the choice of their ruler had permission to move. While this settlement satisfied no one, it managed to provide an uncomfortable time of peace and stability.

Meanwhile, France descended into turmoil. Most of the French Protestants were Calvinist, although they bore the label Huguenot. Sometimes the French government tried to shut down the Huguenot movement; other times it was willing to tolerate the Huguenots. At times, it appeared that the Huguenots might gain the upper hand and seize control of the French government. Street riots, massacres, and assassinations were common. Three grandsons of King Francis held the throne, one after another, but the family line was failing. At one point, three men named Henry battled for the throne, each with a powerful army personally loyal to himself. In the end, Henry of Navarre—the Huguenot candidate—accepted a compromise which permitted him to seize the throne, provided he embraced the Roman Catholic faith. “The crown of France is worth a mass,” he is reported to have said. But his rise to power, which began the Bourbon line of kings in France, included an edict of toleration for the Huguenots and all Protestants in France, an edict that held more than a century before it was repudiated by Henry’s grandson, King Louis XIV.

Spain was less troubled by Protestant resistance to power, in part because of the (unexpected) power of the Inquisition, which added Protestants to the list of undesirables in Spain, a list that already included Jews, Muslims, and heretics. The son of Emperor Charles, King Philip, resolved to battle the Reformation in the Netherlands (under Spanish rule, but home to many Protestants) and in the British Isles. The famous Spanish Armada arrived intact at the Netherlands but faltered on its way to England. In large part, the failure of the Armada happened because of unfavorable weather, although clever English strategy also played a part. The Spanish Armada ranks with the Persian army that failed to conquer Greece and the Chinese invasion under Kublai Khan that failed to conquer Japan. Each of these failures was seen by the opposition as a national point of pride, an indication that they were on the side of what is right and true, and the beginning of growth toward greater achievement in the world.

King Henry declared the Church of England independent of the Pope in Rome. His son Edward affirmed the Reformation in England, but when Edward died, Mary tried to move England back toward Rome. Instead, she was replaced by her sister Elizabeth, who stabilized the Church of England while tolerating more diversity than many European governments. Mary’s son James became King of Scotland, but only on the condition that he remain Protestant. He also became the heir of Elizabeth; when she died, King James became the first monarch of the United Kingdom. James also authorized the English translation of the Bible which bears his name. Charles, son of James, appeared less likely to hold the course. An opposition group called Puritans managed through elections to gain control of Parliament; under Oliver Cromwell, they arrested, condemned, and executed King Charles and declared a Republic. The Puritan Revolution outlived Cromwell, but only by a few years. A moderating group won the next set of elections, placing Charles II (the son of King Charles) on the throne. The Puritans proceeded to pay more attention to their colony in Massachusetts rather than trying to regain control of the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, the unstable peace of the Holy Roman Empire eventually disintegrated into violence, a time known as the Thirty Years War. This aptly-named violence can be compared to the American Civil War of the 1860s—both were fought over ideas, both divided communities and families, both led to devastating death and injury and widespread destruction of property. But the Thirty Years War extended several times as long as the American War Between the States. It appeared at one point that the Roman Catholic forces would prevail and Lutheranism would be stamped out of the Empire. But when times were darkest for the Reformation, King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden brought his army onto the battlefield. An alliance of German-speaking Lutherans, the Lutheran Swedes, and the Roman Catholic forces from France (under King Louis XIII and his advisor, Cardinal Richelieu, fought the Emperor’s forces to a standstill. In 1648, a treaty was negotiated at Westphalia. It was much like the agreement from a century earlier, acknowledging the right of each local ruler to choose the religion of that land. The biggest difference was that Calvinism was now on the menu along with Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism.

With that agreement, the time of Reformation came to an end. Europe, weary of religious conflict and wars, was ready to enter the modern era. J.

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.

No other gods

God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Salvageable adds: Should Christians fear God? Not just Luther, but the Bible itself calls all people to fear God. But the fear of a Christian for God is not the kind of fear that causes us to want to run away and hide from God. Sinners without faith in Christ will respond to the appearance of Jesus on the Day of the Lord in that way, for they will see a righteous Judge and not a loving Savior.

Our fear is different. First, it is respect for God, wanting to do what he commands because he is always right. Second, it is awe for God, realizing that he is far greater than even we have comprehended. Third, it is placing God first in our lives. When we fear God more than anything else, no threat or danger will push us into sin. Because we fear God more, we stand up to those enemies that would separate us from God, and we overcome because of Christ’s victory.

Obviously we should also love God above all things. In the Large Catechism, Luther points out that if we loved God sincerely and continuously, we would not break any of the rest of his commandments either. Whenever we sin, we love something else more than we love God. In that case, something else becomes our god—whether it is a husband or wife, parent or child, job or hobby, political cause or moral crusade, money or property, sports team or entertainer, or any other idol. Most of all, we sin because we love ourselves more than we love God.

Christians say that they trust God, but sometimes we trust something else more than we trust God. Moralists trust their own good deeds and their obedience to the commandments. They fail to trust Jesus to be their Savior. Rationalists trust their own thinking more than the Word of God. Emotionalists trust their own feelings more than the Word of God. Egoists of both kinds ignore the parts of the Bible they do not like or somehow change them to match their own thoughts and feelings.

Every day we catch ourselves fearing something more than we fear God, or loving something more than we love God, or trusting something more than we trust God. Whenever this happens, we repent—admitting to God that we have done wrong and asking for his forgiveness. We ask, knowing that his forgiveness is given to us because of the perfect life of Christ and because of his sacrifice on the cross. Relying on his righteousness and his redemption, we find power to fear and trust and love God even more. J.

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.

 

 

Historic Perspective

Jesus Christ established the Holy Christian Church by his preaching, his ministry, and his authority. He selected apostles and sent them to proclaim his message of repentance and redemption through his sacrifice and his resurrection. Jesus promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. After Jesus died and rose again, he sent the Holy Spirit to his Church, and his apostles began preaching in Jerusalem and Judea. Their mission expanded to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Traveling through the Roman Empire, the apostles founded congregations faithful to Jesus Christ and his message. Congregations were established even outside the Roman Empire in Ethiopia, India, and other places.

As the apostles wrote the books that were gathered as the New Testament, they countered distortions of their message. One distortion was that of the legalists or judaizers, who tried to include laws and regulations in the Church’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Another distortion was that of the Gnostics, who tried to blend Greek philosophy with the message of the Church. Platonists and Stoics thought that the ideal world consisted of mind or spirit. They saw the physical world as tainted and evil. Gnostics declared that the world had been made by an inferior god, but that sparks of divinity had fallen into the world, becoming people. They changed the message of Jesus and the apostles, denying that Jesus had taken on a human body, that he had suffered and died on a cross to redeem sinners, and that he rose again and promises resurrection to all his people. The apostles and later Christian writers rejected these false teachings.

For three hundred years, Christianity and various Gnostic movements coexisted with many other religions in the Roman Empire. The Romans were always happy to add another god, but they did not wish any god to claim exclusive power and authority. Christians were often ignored, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes persecuted for their rejection of other gods. When Constantine came to power, he made Christianity legal and respectable, even declaring himself to be a Christian. Church buildings were constructed and Christians preached openly. Constantine discovered, though, that two competing versions of Christianity were being proclaimed. One said that Jesus, as the Son of God, is eternal and almighty, equal to the Father in every way. The other said that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by the Father and is not almighty and not equal to the Father. Constantine called for a council of Christian leaders to settle this dispute. They met, prayed, studied the Bible, discussed what it says, and issued a document which declares that Jesus is “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds were made, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Being of one substance with the Father….” Anyone who claimed to be a Christian and denied these statements was labeled a heretic.

This council set a precedent for the Christian Church. Over the following centuries, additional councils gathered to consider other disputes within the Church, most of which concerned the two natures of Christ (the relationship of his divinity and his humanity). After prayer, Bible study, and discussion, Truth was distinguished from heresy, and statements were written to provide Christians a clearer understanding of Truth. In these councils, church leaders generally were treated as equals, but the greatest respect was given to the church leaders from five cities: Jerusalem, Antioch in Syria, Alexandria in Egypt, Rome, and Constantinople.

Three hundred years after Constantine, a great challenge to Christianity arose in Arabia. Muhammad (according to Muslim tradition) was puzzled by the many versions of religion represented in the city of Mecca, including various groups of Christians who called one another heretics. Instead of studying the Bible for himself, he turned to prayer and meditation. One day a being of light appeared to Muhammad. Claiming to be the angel Gabriel, he promised Muhammad messages from God. For the rest of his life, Muhammad received and shared those messages, which are gathered together as the Quran. Like the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, the Quran says that there is only one God, who is the Creator of all that exists. This God sends prophets to the world, telling people how to live their lives and threatening judgment and punishment on those who break his rules. The commandments of the Quran are much like those found in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. Even some historical accounts from those books are reported also in the Quran. Jesus, though, is labeled a prophet and no more than a prophet. The Quran declares that God has no Son. It requires every person to be his or her own savior rather than looking to Jesus as Savior.

This new religion emerged from Arabia with military power, conquering lands from India to Spain, including the cities of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Christians and Jews were tolerated in Muslim Lands as “peoples of the book,” but they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were ineligible for government jobs. Many Christians converted to Islam. Meanwhile, Christianity survived in Europe, in the Byzantine Empire, and in pockets elsewhere in Africa and Asia, even as far away as China, as well as a minority in the Muslim empire.

The two remaining centers of Christianity, Rome and Constantinople, grew increasingly suspicious of each other. They debated whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, or from the Father alone. They differed in determining when to celebrate Christmas and Easter. They differed over the place of religious artwork, or icons, in the Church. Most significantly, though, they debated about authority. The patriarch in Constantinople remained subject to the Byzantine emperor, but the pope in Rome even crowned emperors. Their debates peaked in 1054, when the pope declared that anyone who denies that the pope is the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic, while the patriarch declared that anyone who calls the pope the Vicar of Christ and the head of the church on earth is a heretic. Those who agreed with the pope called themselves Catholic Christians, while those who agreed with the patriarch called themselves Orthodox Christians, labels which remain to this day.

Over the centuries, the Church endured times of corruption and scandal and times of reformation. In the 1200s, heresies were battled (such as the Albigensian, or Cathari, movement, which claimed that believers could stop sinning in this world and no longer needed the Church and its sacraments), while successful reforms were led by Dominic and Francis, among others. These reformers created new orders in the Church which established universities in the major cities of Europe. After a century of political turmoil—which at one point included three men claiming to be the true pope—the Church became less flexible, condemning as heretics such reformers as Jan Huss and Martin Luther.

The reformation that faced this hostility led to a fracturing of the Church. Later waves of reform created further divisions. By the twentieth century, hundreds of denominations had been created. They were labeled in various ways: some for individual reformers (Lutheran, Mennonite, Wesleyan), some for unique teachings or practices (Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal), and some for their forms of organization (Congregational, Episcopal, Presbyterian). Many carried labels which rightly belong to all true Christians (Church of God, Church of Christ, Christian Church, Apostolic, Evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic). Often those that are not called Catholic or Orthodox are lumped together as Protestant in spite of their many differences. Meanwhile, many of the heresies rejected by the early Church’s councils were revived. Russellites (now called Jehovah’s Witnesses) teach that Jesus, as the Son of God, is created, neither eternal nor almighty. Many Protestant groups teach new versions of Nestorianism and Pelagianism. Legalism is rampart among Christians. Newly rediscovered Gnostic writings are described as if they have equal weight to the apostolic writings of the New Testament.

Overlaying this history of the Church is the history of change regarding communication. Sets of scrolls used two thousand years ago were replaced by the codex, a set of flat sheets attached along one edge (commonly referred to as a book). Handwritten texts were superseded by printed texts when the Chinese technology of the printing press was adapted for European literature. Wood-pulp paper replaced cotton-rag paper, making books and other publications far less expensive. Electronic communication through computers and the internet, along with electronic books, are but the latest wave in the variety of ways that God’s Word is shared (as well as various interpretations of that Word).

Throughout the history of the Church, Christian leaders have spoken strongly against heresies. Paul wrote harsh words about the legalists. Martin Luther was highly critical of the pope and those who supported him. Written communication in any form is hindered by the lack of facial expression, body language, and tone of voice which assists in spoken communication. This is especially true in the present age of electronic communication. As a result, sometimes discussions of doctrine deteriorate into mutual rejection and insults.

All of this is simply context to my upcoming post about how we speak to one another—and to the rest of the world—about God’s Truth. J.