November 17, 2019

Monday with Michael Spencer: Letting Some Air Out of the Reformation Day Balloon

Contemporary caricature of Martin and Katie Luther

Note from CM: Should be an interesting week. We just got back from Italy and I’ve been immersing myself in Franciscan ways. This Sunday, Reformation Sunday, will be my first week back in the pulpit at my ELCA Lutheran congregation for the rest of the fall, winter, and spring until Easter. We have invited Catholic friends to join us. I may be a bit mixed up, but I’ll still say, “Happy Reformation week!”

Monday with Michael Spencer
Letting Some Air Out of the Reformation Day Balloon

It’s fairly obvious that, at least among some Christians, “Reformation Day” is a new holiday to be celebrated with all the enthusiasm we once reserved for actual holidays. (Lutherans: Party on. You’ve earned it.) I’m waiting for the photos of the “Dress Like a Reformer” party at a reformed church near you.

I’ll admit to having donned the Luther costume and done the Reformation Day lecture for the students at our school on a number of occasions, and I don’t regret having done so. Most of what I said was true. Well….some of it.

In the past year, I’ve read a lot about the reformation and even more about Luther. I’m currently finishing off McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea – a popular history of Protestantism that’s right up to speed — and I’m almost done with Richard Marius’s Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, one of the most profitable biographies of Luther I’ve ever read and I read at least one every couple of years.

My reading on Luther and the Reformation has changed my mind about a lot of things. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but here’s the short list.

  • I no longer believe the Reformation, as it’s commonly described by Protestants, is the distinct event we’ve made it out to be.
  • I no longer believe Luther ever intended to slay the Catholic Church and establish the wonder of contemporary Protestantism.
  • I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.
  • I’m especially convinced that a lot of the typical “Luther story” is probably historically inaccurate. Not necessarily untrue, but plenty of mythology in the mix.
  • I am very sure that the humanist and Catholic contribution to the reform of Christianity has been considerably obscured in the creation of a Protestant mythology.
  • I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation.
  • I’m convinced that it didn’t take long for Protestantism to accumulate enough problems of its own to justify another reformation or two.
  • I believe that a lot of Protestants say sola scriptura when they mean solo scriptura or nuda scriptura or something I don’t believe at all.
  • I now believe that tradition is a very good word.
  • I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent. To act as if it was mostly a spiritual revival movement is naive.
  • I believe we ought to grieve the division of Christianity and the continuing division of Protestantism.
  • I no longer believe the theology of the Reformers was the pinnacle of evangelicalism or is the standard by which Biblical truth itself is judged.
  • I can see huge omissions from the work of the reformers, such as a theology of cross-cultural missions and much more.
  • I believe it is embarrassing to turn the Reformers into icons. Calvin on a t-shirt should win an award for irony.
  • I am a Protestant and I always will be, but I no longer take the kind of juvenile pride in Protestantism I did in the past. Much is good, and much has not been good. We have no right to stand superior to any other Christians.
  • I want to understand how Catholic and EO Christians understand Protestantism, and I want to do so with a sense of humility.
  • I don’t believe in ecumenism at any cost, but I can no longer imagine being a Christian without a commitment to ecumenism on some level.
  • There are many sins associated with Protestantism that I need to admit and repent of.

Part of my Reformation Day will be spent contemplating what it means to say “One Lord; One Faith; One Baptism; One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.” Having a party celebrating the division of Christianity doesn’t really strike me as a something I want to do.

• • •

Here is a response to Michael’s at the time it was written, from Matthew Pancake.

Comments

  1. I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.

    As are many things in the Christian origin century story/first Christian centuries. Connecting this with another point in Michael’s list, I do not believe true Christianity was restored or rediscovered in the Reformation, I don’t believe it is possible to restore “true Christianity”, nor is it wise to try to do so; neither is it possible or wise to suppress or delegitimize the existing plurality of understandings of what is authentic Christianity by comparing them with some historical or current model of supposedly “true Christianity” — that is the basic procedure of anti-ecumenism.

    • Yeah all groups about to introduce innovations into the tradition couch it in language of “getting back to the Bible” or “restoring” some idea or practice that has been lost. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong. This is how the tradition updates itself through changing times. What we mustn’t do is fool ourselves into thinking we can ever actually get back.

      • –> “What we mustn’t do is fool ourselves into thinking we can ever actually get back.”

        Or get it right.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Look at Wahabi/Salafi Islam for a type example. They tried to get back to The Days of The Prophet (pbuh) and ended up with the Taliban & ISIS.

        • Nor should we try. We should try to understand Christianity in its earliest day, which is what we have in the New Testament – a snapshot of the issues in the early church as it was trying to find its way out of infancy. But we shouldn’t try to ‘go back’ there. The problems with most of the ‘back to the Bible’ or ‘restoring’ the church to its pure New Testament state attempts are at least two-fold. First, and most obvious, there was no ‘pure’ state in the early church or the New Testament. The New Testament itself is a record of trying to fix problems and address issues as they arise. And some of those don’t seem to have been resolved in the first century. Second, the history of the early church didn’t end with the New Testament. We clearly see the church continuing to wrestle with issues and figure it out long after the canon is ‘closed’ (if it ever really was). The story didn’t end with a perfect church at the end of the first century. It has continued for 2000 years with an ever imperfect church still trying to figure it out, and wrestle with new issues, and unfortunately, re-wrestle with many that should have been resolved centuries ago. It’s a fool’s errand to think we can, or should, ‘restore’ or ‘rediscover’ the perfect church, or perfect doctrine. it just isn’t there to restore or rediscover.

          • It’s a fool’s errand to think we can, or should, ‘restore’ or ‘rediscover’ the perfect church, or perfect doctrine. it just isn’t there to restore or rediscover.

            Yes, but the point I was trying to make is broader than that. As far as I’m concerned, it is just as wrong-headed when some Roman Catholics or some Eastern Orthodox claim that their church has preserved the only “true Christianity”, and compare all other versions of the faith against it as the model of authenticity in doctrine and truth. In my view, that is partly because their origin stories, which are intimately interwoven with their claims to have preserved “true Christianity” and the authentic church, are as steeped in the mythological (using the negative sense of that word in the way that Spencer does in his bullet point) as “many things in the typical Reformation story”.

            • I agree. It’s three sides of the same coin. Either ‘we’ have preserved the original truth (which has obviously evolved since the primitive days of the early church) or ‘we’ have ‘rediscovered/restored’ it.

  2. Read Matt Pancake’s response. It was interesting nothing which points he agreed with Michael on, and which he didn’t. Especially his almost anaphylactic reaction to the idea that continued division within the Church is something to be lamented. He then went on to caricature both the Catholic and mainline churches in such a manner that shows he’s never really interacted with anyone from either (much as I would have, say, 10 years ago). This, I think, is the real weakness of having a too-detailed confession – the specificity becomes yet another reason for division.

    • One way Pancake shows his ignorance of mainline Christian denominations is by saying that most of them do not uphold belief in the “Bodily Resurrection” of Jesus. Utter nonsense.

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        It is a bit bizarre. It is the most liberal *Protestant* churches, and they alone, that deny the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and / or miracles or their continuation. Neither the Catholic nor EO Church do any such thing. Denial of these things by some Christians is a *product* of the Reformation.
        Pancake does come across as a bit both ignorant and arrogant in a fair bit of his response, even if that was not his intention.

        • Since we’re talking *confessions*, which mainline churches flatly deny those doctrines in them? Are there pastors and teachers in them who deny those things? Certainly. But if you think the RCC and the EOC are immune to that problem, you’re mistaken. See the current kerfuffle over whether the sitting Pope said some wuasi-heretical things in private about the deity of Christ.

          • Iain Lovejoy says

            There’s no way of keeping track of every Protestant church’s confession statement, if they have one, as thee are so very many of them (and I say this as Protestant myself). Certainly none of the mainstream churches deny these things as doctrine, although some aren’t that bothered if their members or even clergy do. My point was simply that it very much *isn’t* a mainstream Christian thing, and definitely absolutely not a Catholic / EO thing as Pancake seemed somehow to think.

            • It is the most liberal *Protestant* churches, and they alone, that deny the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus and / or miracles or their continuation.”

              “Certainly none of the mainstream churches deny these things as doctrine”

              Which is it? 😉

              • Iain Lovejoy says

                How are these contradictory, unless you are treating “mainstream” as meaning “most liberal” rather than (as I meant) “biggest and most commonly heard of”. The universalist Unitarians would be an example of Christian(ish) liberal church that I have heard of, and I am sort of presuming there are other such extreme liberal churches that are less well known. Broadly speaking I am taking “Protestant” as “non- Catholic churches from the western tradition” rather than any theological definition.

    • If he’s Missouri Synod Lutheran, I’d be surprised if he didn’t have somewhat regular interactions with mainline Lutherans, at least, if not other mainliners.

      • Interacts with =/= understands. 😉

      • Everything about his piece screams LCMS, and looking him up, this is confirmed. I would be surprised if he *does* interact with ELCA Lutherans. Fifty years ago, LCMS talked with other Lutheran bodies. Then they had their purge, with the hardliners taking over. Since then, “doesn’t play well with others” has become a defining characteristic of the church. The process of withdrawal didn’t happen over night, but it was well established by the time this piece was written. Recall the LCMS official who got into trouble for participating in a post-9/11 interfaith prayer service.

        The process is not, on the ground, entirely complete. You can find LCMS pastors catching a cup of coffee with ELCA pastors. But it is strictly informal, and on the low-down. I doubt that this guy partakes in surreptitious fellowship. He doesn’t strike me as the sort.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I doubt that this guy partakes in surreptitious fellowship. He doesn’t strike me as the sort.

          More as a True Believer?

    • It is always educational to view these internecine Christian squabbles from an outsider’s perspective. One of my best friends in the whole world is a pious Hindu. Try as I might I have never been able to explain the concept of religious exclusivity to her. Oh she understands the idea but it seems strange and alien to her. Hinduism is traditionally very inclusive. All that really makes you “orthodox” is that you accept the authority of the Vedas in some sense. After that, well all bets are off. You get a range of thought that from a Western perspective looks like the crassest form of idol worship all the way to what looks indistinguishable from atheism. And all points in between.

      No one should interpret what I’m saying as a “defense” of Hinduism. It has its own problems. But sometimes a stranger can pick up immediately on qualities about ourselves that we have spent a lifetime managing to ignore.

      • “But sometimes a stranger can pick up immediately on qualities about ourselves that we have spent a lifetime managing to ignore.”
        Excellent point. To bring it closer to home see ‘marriage’. Opposite religion, opposite sex, opposite politics…whatever it takes.

    • I read Pancake’s response too and what struck me was the ‘finality’ of the question. In my time with Reformed folks I found this attitude a lot as well. Specifically in his first response to ‘anonymous’ (in the comments), he says:

      “…And how do you know what Luther taught was true?” (What anonymous said)

      “Begin with Galatians, go to Project Wittenburg and look at Luther’s commentary on Galatians. Ask yourself, “is he really very far from the mark?” I believe you’ll notice that Luther is on the money.” (Pancake’s response)

      The problem with this is the same as for those fundamentalists seeking the original ‘pure’ church, just moved up 1500 years. Like Piper, in his book ‘The Future of Justification’ (addressing N. T. Wright), he sees Reformation-era theology and interpretation as final and infallible. They got it right so why bother with all this questioning? Kind of like the KJV-only folks – this is the final, definitive translation.

      Have we learned nothing about the Bible, the biblical world, biblical languages, culture, and sociology since 1517? Have we not learned how bound up with our own culture, traditions, and experiences our interpretations and theology are? I find it ironic that he points anonymous to Luther’s commentary on Galatians. That commentary, in particular, shows how culture-bound Luther’s interpretations are – he makes a one-to-one equation between the Judaizers of Paul’s day and the ‘papists’ of his own. Most serious New Testament scholars today no doubt view Luther’s commentary as a quaint historical relic. Luther certainly was a sharp guy, and courageous, but he is not the last word on the subject.

  3. Much to be agreed with here. But I think division, while lamentable, was also inevitable, and not altogether a bad thing. The more freely information flows, the more people think for themselves. The more people think for themselves, the more disagreement is bound to arise. About the only way to keep it down is to suppress the flow of information and use the threat of force. The one thing that stands out to me as a lesson still for today, is that had it not been for corrupt behavior from the leaders, Luther may never have hung those 95 thesis on the door. I think in general our behavior loses more people than our theology.

    • flatrocker says

      > I think in general our behavior loses more people than our theology.

      Wholeheartedly agree.

      People leave because of what was done to them. People show up and stay because of what was done for them. The theology is by and large a secondary motivation.

      • And despite what theological dogmatists would like to believe, right theology is no guarantee of right behavior.

        • Agree. And this is when I look in the mirror and notice I have a plank in my eye. But most “right theology” folks don’t tend to throw themselves under the bus often enough.

      • –> “People leave because of what was done to them. People show up and stay because of what was done for them. The theology is by and large a secondary motivation.”

        I would largely agree. Except I know two people who’ve left because of theology… because ours wasn’t fundamental enough for them. LOL. Sometimes you just can’t win…

        • Well, the best thing you can do for them is to pray that they get what they are looking for. Perhaps the shock of what they find will help wake them up. At least, that’s what worked in my case. 😉

    • > I think in general our behavior loses more people than our theology.

      +1000. And some of the worst general behavior is cramming one’s theology down another person’s throat.

  4. Re: “… the humanist and Catholic contribution to the reform of Christianity…” – After all, wasn’t Erasmus one of Luther’s mentors? And Erasmus was both Catholic and a humanist.

    • Not mentor in any direct sense. I don’t believe they ever met. But Erasmus was the towering intellectual giant of his day. The early reformers all knew his work, and initially hoped to draw him into their cause.

      • Erasmus, in the end, valued irenicism and practical theology over doctrinal purity. The circumstances weren’t on his side.

  5. St. Francis of Assisi was himself a ‘reformer’ long before the Reformation. So I think it seems appropriate that many of those who find their Church home in the Protestant realm feel close to this humble saint, who loved nature, and who loved animals (and to all accounts they loved him), and who found a ‘simpler’ way to be a faithful Christian by the grace of God who changed his perspective:

    ““When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure;
    but then God Himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them.
    When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me
    became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”

    (an excerpt from the testimony of St. Francis of Assisi)

  6. senecagriggs says

    There are about 45,000 churches afilliating with the SBC. The number of pastors in those church that would deny the physical and death and resurrection of Jesus?

    Zero

    • Oh, I think you would be shocked. Certainly its not a very large percentage, but I would wager it’s still above zero.

      • There also is the observation that mainlines have too high a tolerance for heresy, while Evangelicals have too high a tolerance for hypocrisy. So while you can find mainline pastors making statements far removed from anything like orthodoxy, it is at least as easy to find Evangelical pastors performing actions far removed from orthopraxy.

      • –> “…but I would wager it’s still above zero.”

        Yeah, I’m pretty sure every denomination out there has closet “something else” pastors.

    • how many of those pastors would agree that Jesus is God?

      how many Southern Baptists know that the Holy Spirit is God?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Seneca forgets the folk religion where the Christian afterlife is disembodied Souls in Fluffy Cloud Heaven or Burning Hell without any mention of bodily Resurrection. (Both IMonk and CM have done postings on this.)

      Found in the pews of churches across the board, INCLUDING SBC.

    • senecagriggs says

      If , as a pastor, you verbally deny the physical death and resurrection of Jesus, then either your church will find another pastor or your church will part ways with the SBC.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I believe the Reformation was very secular, political and, eventually, quite violent.

    Almost a century of Reformation Wars, including massacres and atrocities. Much like the “Reformation Wars” Islam is going through right now trying to handle Future Shock.

  8. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    This Sunday, Reformation Sunday, will be my first week back in the pulpit at my ELCA Lutheran congregation for the rest of the fall, winter, and spring until Easter. We have invited Catholic friends to join us. I may be a bit mixed up, but I’ll still say, “Happy Reformation week!”

    Has anyone noticed that there’s been next-to-no panic party about “The Devil’s Holiday” (Halloween) for the past couple years? Back in the Eighties, radio talk-show host Rich Buhler claimed he could tell it was October when all the Anti-Halloween Satanic Panic spilled over onto his phone-in lines.

    • Panics are like fads. They come and go. There’s only so much outrage to go around.

    • Most conservative churches seem to have finally made peace with it. They have ‘Fall Festivals’ or ‘Trunk or Treat’. Most still won’t call it a ‘Halloween party’ though. And many do it ‘around’ Halloween so the kids can still go do the door-to-door thing on Halloween (at least to doors they know, a good idea).

      • Isn’t that what the early Irish chu ch father’s did with the pagan Samhein fall festival?

  9. The thesis of Richard Marius’ book, “Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death” is that Luther’s obsessive fear of death was the prime motivator for his actions that led to the Reformation. I’m an agnostic on that thesis but it was an excellent book anyway. Marius grew up in the small East Tennessee town of Lenoir City. Thunder Road ran through it. Marius’ Dad was a Greek person who arrived in the area in the early 20th century and was unique at the time for that homogeneous area. Richard was a genius who had an ear for language and dialect. No doubt his singular origin and upbringing aided and influenced that. Through his Southern Baptist Mom he was intimate with religion. He died the same year his book was published.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The thesis of Richard Marius’ book, “Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death” is that Luther’s obsessive fear of death was the prime motivator for his actions that led to the Reformation.

      Sounds very plausible.