“What if it’s not true?”
Martin Luther, as he reached the top of the Holy Stairs (Scala sancti)
Luther was not questioning if Jesus climbed these marble stairs, relocated to the Lateran Palace. He was questioning if climbing these stairs on his knees had accomplished anything.
…by the time he reached the landing, the entire ritual suddenly seemed profoundly hollow.
Could direct communion with God, which had nourished Christian civilization since Pentecost, depend so entirely on such a heavy-handed system of penance?
Luther would spend hours in confession, continuously concerned that he had forgotten to confess some minor sin or another, and that this would raise God’s anger toward him. One confessor said to him, “Man, it is not God who is angry with you. You are angry with God.” Luther confirmed this in his writing: “Love God? I hated him!”
This came to a head with the 95 Theses and what we now know as the Protestant Reformation. Yet, according to Strickland, this was not a reform against 1,500 years of Church history and teaching, but only five hundred – since the time of the Great Schism. Most of the problems Luther was addressing can be traced to the previous several centuries in the West.
Indulgences, traced to the First Crusade in 1095; purgatory, proclaimed after the Second Council of Lyons in 1274; the celibacy of priests, to the eleventh century; the restriction of the Scriptures and Liturgy to Latin, most recently evidence regarding Wycliffe’s translation; finally, papal supremacy, dating to the time of the Schism in 1054.
It is therefore remarkable that so little attention has been given by historians to the “common cause” the reformers naturally had with the Orthodox Church.
Strickland describes the other “protests” as closely related to these: faith alone, Scripture alone, grace alone. All, it seems, a reaction to abuses in the Church as noted above: “only this, and nothing more!” And there continued the leaning on Augustinianism, a strong contrast to the Orthodox grounding.
Luther claimed knowledge of God is not participatory or cooperative but submissive and passive. It is not grounded in an experience of divine glory, but in faith alone. This was in some ways the outcome of his study in nominalism, with its categorical rejection of the optimistic epistemology of Scholastics like Thomas Aquinas.
Which brings me back to a point: Strickland writes often of the errors of scholasticism while at the same time writing favorably regarding Thomas. It seems quite clear that his reaction is to the nominalism of later scholastics, Occam being most famous, and not the universalism of Thomas.
Luther would write that all the world is subject to the devil’s malice, that all are subject to sin and to the devil. All true. But then, a curious statement: “When Christ is absent, then the evil world and the devil’s kingdom are present.” All of the gifts we have are just “the instruments and slavish weapons of the devil’s infernal tyranny.”
I am not sure what to do with this statement. Christ isn’t absent from this world, nor is He absent in the lives of believers. What is the context of Luther’s statement? Is it as Strickland portrays, or is there something left out? I cannot speak to the understandings of Lutherans, but for Protestants generally, I cannot attribute such a statement – that Christ is absent from this world or from the lives of Christians.
Yet Strickland offers that virtually every other Protestant father concurred. This seems like a misunderstanding of Calvinist total depravity, which Strickland points to – the extreme caricature. He offers an extensive quote from Calvin to demonstrate this – in essence, we are born with the curse of sinfulness. Strickland writes “This was an anthropologically pessimistic tour de force.” Pessimistic it might be, and I can see how such a view can effect one’s outlook, but how does one deny it?
As I have come to understand this doctrine, it points to the notion that every part of our being is tainted. With this notion, I can’t argue. Further, that we are unable, on our own, to choose to follow God. Here again, what I know of every major Christian tradition – Catholic, Orthodox, and major Protestant denominations – these all point to God’s grace first.
Yes, I know that the devil is in the details. I think that is literally true. The devil has not had to work very hard to get Christians to fall away from each other over details.
In any case, was the emphasis placed by Luther or Calvin detrimental to a healthy development of a Christian life or Christendom? It is on this question where Strickland, ultimately would answer yes.
Nothing from Strickland…well, a little. He writes of the contrast of the physical building of an Orthodox Church as opposed to the starkness of a Calvinist Church. Which comes to the title of this post….
I have written before: I was raised in a Protestant Church, as an adult spent many years in an Orthodox Church, and after the fiasco of a year ago when my church shut down (as did most churches affiliated with a hierarchical organization), I went back to a Protestant Church which had stayed open.
I was out of town a few months ago. On Sunday, I wanted to attend a church. I knew I would be rolling the dice if I attended a Protestant Church. Frankly, I felt the same about a Catholic Church – plus I have little history here. I felt quite confident about what I would find in an Orthodox Church. So that was my choice.
To understand the rest of this…my Orthodox Church was not very ornate – a very small community, etc. Inside this Antiochan Orthodox Church, where I was a visitor…Christ Pantocrator in the dome; below that the disciples, the authors of the Gospels, New and Old Testament saints, other saints of the Church. Absolutely beautiful. But much more.
Christ, at the head and looking down on His Church. All of His Church – those of us in physical attendance with those of us represented in the walls. It was a picture of the Body of Christ, and I felt it. This feeling isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing. I don’t think I will ever forget the experience.
Luther, who became quite the theological revolutionary (although I know that some will say he was reacting to the revolutionaries…equally true), would have nothing of political revolution. His most direct attack on this was his work, Against the Murderous Thieving Hordes of Peasants (1525). All able-bodied Germans were called on to “smite, slay, and stab” the rebels of the Peasants’ War. In this way, the righteous would be serving God.