Monday, September 20, 2021

Heavenly Immanence


“What if it’s not true?”

Martin Luther, as he reached the top of the Holy Stairs (Scala sancti)

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

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.


  1. “When Christ is absent, then the evil world and the devil’s kingdom are present.”

    As antitheses Christ and the Devil cannnot coexist save in a compromise (bargain).

    "[Strickland] offers an extensive quote from Calvin to demonstrate this – in essence, we are born with the curse of sinfulness."

    Calvin must bargain with the Devil due to absence of Christ.

    Consider the categorical opposites:

    1) When the Devil is absent, then Christ’s kingdom is present.

    2) in essence, we are born with the blessing of innocence

    Now, let the bargain begin...

  2. This series has been a very even-handed and up-building overview. Thanks for developing it.

    1. Thank you, John. I have found much value in it, and my visit to the Antiochan Church has added to this. While I find Strickland occasionally pulling for the home team or against the visitors (don't we all), he does offer a view on Christian history that is outside my previous understanding.

      I am getting close to wrapping up this volume, and it doesn't look like the next in the series has been released yet.

  3. Most interesting point to me was the comment that Luther was protesting things since the schism. I didn't know it had such a long lasting affect on church history other than the obvious.

    1. I also found this valuable. Obviously, Luther / Protestants would disagree with Orthodox on many finer points, but that doesn't diminish Strickland's point.

  4. An overview of the Orthodox approach to original sin:

    1. Thanks for the link. Worth the reading.

      Below are some of my reactions:

      I) Romans 1 has more than what the author quotes.

      Romans 1

      18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who [d]suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is [e]manifest [f]in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and [g]Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like [h]corruptible man and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.

      II) About Christ's death not also being a judicial thing.

      2 Corinthians 5
      21 For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

      III) Did the brazen snake save anyone or was it the acting in faith and beholding the thing that was raised on a pole? Do this and you will live. Do not and you will die.

      John 3

      14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in Him should [c]not perish but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.

      18 He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.

      IIII) Death just an evil force? Quoting Romans 5 and at the same time no reference to Genesis 2? Who gave a rule/law? Who judged the breaking of that rule/law? Who executed the judgement in Genesis 3? Disobedience/sin was a possibility in Genesis 2 but it was not till the next chapter that it was actualized. To whom was the law directed? Was Eve around when the lawgiver made His pronouncement? Pretty judicial to me - "in dying you shall die"

      Genesis 2

      15 Then the Lord God took [d]the man and put him in the garden of Eden to [e]tend and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you[f] shall surely die.