Friday, February 18, 2022

The Power of the Word


Holding to the faith of the first millennium, the Orthodox had simply never adopted the practices that Luther and his followers found so execrable.

The Age of Utopia: Christendom from the Renaissance to the Russian Revolution, by John Strickland

The West had, by this time of the early sixteenth century, moved into a model of separation – a distinct divide between the clergy and the laity, a bifurcated model of society.  It was not only Luther, with the priesthood of all believers, who did, in his way, challenge this idea.  Erasmus would also write: “being a monk does not make one pious.”  This sentiment was not controversial in the traditional Church, according to Strickland.

Both Luther and Erasmus saw little more than superstition and clerical abuse in contemporary Christianity.  However, and as I have written before, their respective approaches were quite different and, in fact, Erasmus was eventually forced to confront Luther.

For Luther, this came to a head with his visit to Rome and his constant torment over his fallen condition and how he understood this in relation to Catholic Church teaching.  His main grievance in his 95 Theses was the sale of indulgences, one of several practices introduced or expanded in the West since the time of the Great Schism.

Which brings me to a sidebar, one I have touched on before but one that is worth revisiting: Luther’s Ninety-Seven Theses.  Yes, that is correct – not a typo.

The 97 Theses are a series of disputations written to invite debate on the topic of scholastic theology and are also referred to as his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology.

These were posted only a month before the more famous list of ninety-five, but, obviously, garnered none of the fame nor caused any of the subsequent ruckus.  On the surface, this is odd, but the oddity offers a glimpse into what was important to the Church:

Scholar Lyndal Roper expresses the opinion of most modern-day scholars that the 97 Theses "are in many ways more radical and shocking than the Ninety-Five Theses" in that the latter took aim at the church policy of selling indulgences and the authority of the pope while the former is an attack on the whole theological system of the Church including the concept of free will.

Per Roper, Luther argued that no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.  Luther’s 97 Theses were a complete attack on what had become by then the foundational underpinnings of Catholic theology.  But challenging the whole theological system of the Church was apparently less troubling than challenging indulgences and the authority of the pope.

The scholastics mentioned by Luther in this document include William of Ockham, Duns Scotus, and Gabriel Biel.  There is no mention of Aquinas.  It is difficult, however, to read too much into this omission, as Aquinas leaned on Aristotle perhaps even more than these later scholastics, who moved away from universals to a nominalist position. 

I recall reading elsewhere that Luther had read little, if any, of Aquinas directly.  For example, Luther thought he was arguing against Aquinas’s view of transubstantiation when, in fact, he was in fundamental agreement with Aquinas and opposed to the later scholastics.  It appears Luther didn’t really confront Aquinas directly or otherwise engage him.

In any case, no controversy followed the posting of the ninety-seven.  

Now, returning to Strickland: Luther had not intended to further fragment Christendom, but the Church’s necessary hold on indulgences and Luther’s rather obstinate personality and fierce polemic style were enough, almost, to force the issue.  Why almost? 

Luther, unlike his predecessors who also went against the Church and were executed for doing so, had a protector in Frederick the Wise of Saxony.  (As an aside, demonstrating the reality of the effective separation of Church and king in effect through much of the Middle Ages in the West.)

Sola Scriptura.  These are fighting words, I know.  Strickland addressed the topic head on, first, by citing the Apostle Paul from 2 Thessalonians:

15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.

Now, to try to minimize the difficulties raised by this verse, I will offer a view that has grown on me: tradition is to be valued unless it is clearly contradicted in Scripture – and it is clear that the one opposing the tradition understands the arguments that justify the tradition in apparent opposition to Scripture. 

Why the latter condition?  Much of Scripture is difficult to interpret and reconcile – and I keep in mind: even to translate is to interpret.  The work of interpretation and translation and reconciliation has gone on for almost two thousand years before any of us were born.  Perhaps these Church Fathers and theologians knew something….

Strickland offers, in addition to the Apostle’s words: Christianity had spread for decades before any of the books or letters of the New Testament were written.  In fact, it was tradition that ultimately determined even the twenty-seven books of the New Testament cannon.  There is no book that told the early Church which books should be included – no “Apostolic table of contents,” as Strickland puts it.

Strickland does not mention it, but we also have this from the Gospel of John, chapter 21:

25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

John did not write these, and we can assume the same for the other Gospel writers.  Yet, are the unwritten teachings of Jesus to therefore be ignored? 

Further, Paul spent many months, even years, with some of the churches he founded (for example, here is a listing of fifty cities which he visited, although some were merely landmarks that he passed in his journeys).  From these, we only have a few short letters – and, in most cases, no letters at all.  We have little from Peter, even less from other apostles, and none from several of these.  Yet they all had time with Jesus, and were told to teach what they had been taught – and we know that they did just this, without the New Testament in hand.

Having said all of this, I wonder how the early Church fathers would consider the form of modern Catholic and Orthodox liturgies and practices.

Strickland then introduces a term: scripturalism.  By this, he doesn’t mean Scripture.  He means to address the idea that all claims to Church authority are to be found in the Bible alone.  Now, to be clear about my view: I very much grew up with such a view, and it is still well ingrained in me.  But my work over the last several years has helped me to see the Christian world in less black-and-white terms.

In any case, Strickland looks at the Protestant concepts of predestination, double predestination, total depravity, faith alone, etc.  He contrasts the worldview these offer with that of the paradisiacal worldview offered by the traditional, Orthodox Church.  Without diving into the theological differences, I understand his point and have seen anecdotal examples supporting this view firsthand. 

Yet, I also know that each side sees a caricature of the other, and, frankly, that caricature is often advanced by advocates of the position.  However, getting into all of this is beyond the purpose of this post and this blog.

Wars would be launched against Constantinople; wars would be launched against various Protestant sects.  Wars would also be fought between Protestants and Catholics.  Strickland, like many, refers to these as wars of religion.  Religion, however, was merely a pretext.  The wars were wars of state building, with princes happy to use religion as the excuse to break free of Rome and consolidate power under a monopoly – one under the control of the prince.


The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the Thirty Years War.  Fixed confessional divisions were established; monopoly authority was firmly placed in the hands of the prince.  Yet, the wars brought a more important division: that of society from God – a retreat from a religious culture was inevitable, given the many millions killed.

The wars of Western religion had the effect of permanently discrediting the very idea of the heavenly transformation of the world.  The path forward, it now appeared, was secularization.

No Christian denomination won; all lost.  But the princes did win – once again pointing to these as wars of state, not wars of religion.  Secularization also furthered this monopolization of authority under the prince.  Strickland really never focusses on this reality.


Strickland notes that the Christian East was not immune to such military endeavors.  Many Byzantine emperors used religious ideals to motivate soldiers to fight non-Christian armies.  These wars, however, were not limited to non-Christian enemies.  Strickland offers the example of the Armenian Paulician heretics.

Some background on this topic:

Paulicianism; "The followers of Paul", was a Medieval Christian sect which originated in Armenia in the 7th century. Followers of the sect were called Paulicians and referred to themselves as Good Christians. Little is known about the Paulician faith and various influences have been suggested, including Gnosticism, Marcionism, Manichaeism and Adoptionism.

The founder of this sect is traditionally held to have been an Armenian named Constantine.  The sect flourished from around 650 util 872, living through intermittent persecutions and deportations by the Byzantines.  Eventually, the Paulicians established a state centered on Tephrike in the Armenian borderlands under Arab protection.  Then came war:

After prolonged warfare, the state of Tephrike was destroyed by the Byzantines in the 870s.

From The Paulician Heresy, by Nina Garsoïan.  After pointing out that the different accounts of this sect – Greek and Armenian – don’t really reconcile very well (it is a history in shadows), the following is offered:

The persecution by Michael I in the early ninth century, however, threw the sect into open rebellion.  …The Paulicians continued to cooperate with the enemies of Byzantium, both internal ones such as Thomas the Slav, and external ones such as the Emir of Melitene.  By the second quarter of the century a threatening Paulician state was established on the eastern frontier of the Empire.

A violent persecution in the eastern provinces…resulted in some hundred thousand deaths and confiscations. 

A war of religion or a war of state?  Returning to Strickland, he answers the question:

… these wars were acts of state pursuing primarily geopolitical rather than ecclesiastical goals.

The same really must be said of the post-Reformation wars in the West.  Unfortunately, at least up to now, Strickland does not say it.

They were not crusades in the conventional understanding of the term as no patriarch or other clerical authority ordered or even formally endorsed them.

I find this point somewhat, but not meaningfully, important.  In the East, all authority was vested in the emperor (as Orthodox Christians support this governance structure).  In the West, authority was divided.  Having said this, it is correct that in the West the Church often called for and supported such actions.  In any case, it remains that the so-called wars of religion were, in fact, wars of state.

What isn’t clear from Strickland’s book is what steps, if any, the Eastern Church leaders took to prevent such actions.  I have a book waiting on my shelf which, when I get to it, hopefully will shed some light on this matter.


  1. So was Luther's 97 Theses against Aquinas' natural law type ideas or something else? It sounds like you are saying he was really associating Aristotle with nominalism.

    2 Thessalonians 2
    "15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter."

    My comments on this verse is that it doesn't justify following just anything named "tradition". This specifically refers to traditions taught by Paul, Silas, and Timothy to the church in Thessalonica. But what traditions specifically is he referring to? If it wasn't written down how do we know? How do we link what the Thessalonians were taught to either the Orthodox or Catholic church without that paper trail? I would even accept an oral history if it explained how the tradition was linked to what the apostle directly taught. But that doesn't apply to virtually all the things I have heard referred to as tradition. Now about John 21

    "25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written."

    I have previously interpreted this to mean miracles because the verb "did" isn't commonly used to talk about speech. But I guess it could refer to some teachings. But again if there are traditions which are based on these unwritten teachings are their oral histories linking them back to Jesus in some way.

    Questions like this make me a scripturalist. I have to have some kind of detailed explanation for me to accept tradition as legitimate. Would there not be a church father who wrote it down or a psalter or a prayer book or a liturgical document? That would make it more believable to me.

    1. RMB, first, below, is every reference to the three Scholastics mentioned by Luther. I don't make any further comment on these, as I cannot say if Luther is presenting these correctly, etc.

      56. It is not true that God can accept man without his justifying grace. This in opposition to Ockham.

      93. There is a kind of subtle evil in the argument that an act is at the same time the fruit and the use of the fruit. In opposition to Ockham, the Cardinal, Gabriel.

      6. It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept. This is said in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

      10. One must concede that the will is not free to strive toward whatever is declared good. This in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

      13. It is absurd to conclude that erring man can love the creature above all things, therefore also God. This in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.

      19. Nor can we apply the reasoning of Scotus concerning the brave citizen who loves his country more than himself.

      20. An act of friendship is done, not according to nature, but according to prevenient grace. This in opposition to Gabriel.

      23. Nor is it true that an act of concupiscence can be set aright by the virtue of hope. This in opposition to Gabriel.

      54. For an act to be meritorious, either the presence of grace is sufficient, or its presence means nothing. This in opposition to Gabriel.

      55. The grace of God is never present in such a way that it is inactive, but it is a living, active, and operative spirit; nor can it happen that through the absolute power of God an act of friendship may be present without the presence of the grace of God. This in opposition to Gabriel.

      57. It is dangerous to say that the law commands that an act of obeying the commandment be done in the grace of God. This in opposition to the Cardinal and Gabriel.

      61. It does not follow that the law should be complied with and fulfilled in the grace of God. This in opposition to Gabriel.

      90. The grace of God is given for the purpose of directing the will, lest it err even in loving God. In opposition to Gabriel.

      91. It is not given so that good deeds might be induced more frequently and readily, but because without it no act of love is performed. In opposition to Gabriel.

      92. It cannot be denied that love is superfluous if man is by nature able to do an act of friendship. In opposition to Gabriel.

      Next, his mentions of Aristotle (and one additional one, for light):

      41. Virtually the entire Ethics of Aristotle is the worst enemy of grace. This in opposition to the scholastics.

      42. It is an error to maintain that Aristotle's statement concerning happiness does not contradict Catholic doctrine. This in opposition to the doctrine on morals.

      43. It is an error to say that no man can become a theologian without Aristotle. This in opposition to common opinion.

      44. Indeed, no one can become a theologian unless he becomes one without Aristotle.

      50. Briefly, the whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness is to light. This in opposition to the scholastics.

      51. It is very doubtful whether the Latins comprehended the correct meaning of Aristotle.

      52. It would have been better for the church if Porphyry with his universals had not been born for the use of theologians.

      53. Even the more useful definitions of Aristotle seem to beg the question.

    2. Second, I understand your point re tradition. I have made mine above, and won't repeat this here. The good news: there are different ways for Christians who view this aspect differently to find a home.

    3. Yes, in this way diversity is a strength because it gives people options on how to express their faith. I agree with your thought about tradition that does not contradict scripture being open for participation.

  2. But your overall message was that the same problems cropped up in the West and East. Neither represents something incorruptible. If something is corruptible, then those of us who carry it along must find ways of purifying, refreshing, or renewing the movement.

    1. You might appreciate this video of Ralph Martin lamenting the current situation in the Catholic Church, and his acceptance that God is using this time to purify the Church and that a remnant will come out from the other side.

      Of course, in my mind, the "remnant" will be made up of a subset of people from each of the various traditions / denominations.