Luther

Reformation Myths, Part 1

Reformation Myths, Part 1

Reformation Sunday is coming! With the popularity of new movements, the Reformed faith has become a familiar furniture in the evangelical house. Still, Reformed theology can be very divisive. Our calling as Christians is to strive towards like-mindedness with the non-Reformed, but this does not mean that we ought to strive towards like-mindlessness. The call to unity is a call for us to dialogue with other Trinitarians with an open Bible and a humble spirit. a. To begin this conversation we need to clear away misunderstandings; to clear away the myths concerning the Reformation. It is my humble opinion that the greatest expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy in the world today is found in the Reformed faith. Explaining precisely what this great tradition desired to do will help us ground ourselves in the Reformation’s conviction that the Scriptures are our highest authority in life.

Critics have developed many myths about the 16th century Reformation. Ironically, the critics would not have the privilege and liberty to express their criticisms if it had not been for the Reformation. They persist nevertheless. We will examine four of these myths; two now and the others in the days ahead.

The first myth is that the Reformers did not care about the outward unity of the Church.

In Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17, He commands that we be one just as He and the Father are one. But the more astute may say, “But wait a minute: the Reformation did not unite the Church, it actually fractured it greatly.” In some sense it did. However, what one may fail to understand is that Christian unity cannot be rooted in corruption. A corrupt and immoral Church cannot continue to bless the nations. You see, the issue here is not just unity, the issue is uniting around the right things. The Reformers understood this. They understood that unless false doctrine and corruption were dealt with you would have a weak, paralyzed Church incapable of being the salt and light of the earth. The Reformers were so concerned about not dividing the Church that when Rome charged the Reformers with the sin of schism (the sin of division), Calvin called for a Church-wide council, so that both sides could be examined. He wanted another ecumenical council to debate these important issues; perhaps they could come to an agreement and not divide. In fact, Luther—the father of the Reformation—said to Philip Melanchthon before he died that his greatest fear would be that “many harsh and terrible sects will arise, God help us!” The Reformers feared the idea of a divided Church. They wanted to unify the Church but their vision never came to pass. Our hope is that the vision begun in the Reformation will continue in the decades and centuries to come. Still, the Reformation understood that unity is not based on the appointment of an arch-bishop or a pope. Installing an ecclesiastical figure does not bring unity unless purity and true doctrine are at its base. The Reformation was intended to be a reformation of the Church since the Reformers understood that without the Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

The second myth is that the Reformers wanted each individual Christian to read the Bible on his own and interpret the Bible on his own. 

Some define this as the priesthood of all believers; that every man was his own priest and interpreter. But this is not what the Reformers meant by the priesthood of all believers. The Reformers did not want individual Christians taking their Bibles home and acting as if they were an authority in and of themselves, and that therefore they needed no one to guide them. On the contrary, the priesthood of the believers for the Reformers meant that all believers had common access to the heavenly throne of grace; that we could act as priests to one another. The Reformers did not mean that instead of having one pope, every Christian would be his own pope! Rather, they wanted the Bible put in the hands of the people so that it could be studied in the context of a community. The Reformers never intended for the people to try to understand the word of God apart from the guidance and teaching ministry of the Church. After all, the Reformers were biblical people and they knew Paul’s words that the Church needs pastors and teachers to equip the saints. This is why they wrote confessions and catechisms for adults and children.

The Reformation did not mean biblical anarchism. In fact, Luther feared that some would disregard the Church once they had their own Bible. Luther feared lack of submission to those in positions of authority in the Church. To those who did not seek the guidance of the Church, Luther had this to say: “If we read the Bible in our own way, we will just go to hell in our own way.” Martin Luther believed as Paul did that God gave ministers and elders to equip the Church in all truth. So, this idea that the Reformers believed that it was every man for himself and that people could come to their own conclusions without the accountability of the Church is a great myth. Theology apart from the Church is anarchism. The Reformers rejected this idea.

  1. Thanks to my friend, Rich Lusk, for elaborating on these  (back)
The Ballad of Martin Luther

The Ballad of Martin Luther

My friend, Marc Hays, is quite gifted. Here’s the brilliantly told narrative of the Reformation in music:

 

Al Mohler and the Centrality of the Worship

Al Mohler and the Centrality of the Worship

In a recent article, Al Mohler castigates modern worship. He observes that if evangelicals would agree with the idea that worship is central to the Christian life (a big IF), then the next question is, “What is central to Christian worship?” Mohler observes that the worship wars have led to different conclusions. Some elevate music as the center part of worship. Others advocate an evangelistic-shaped service to draw outsiders to the Gospel. More liturgical churches look at the sacraments as central to worship.

Mohler argues rightly that “many evangelical churches seem intensely concerned to replicate studio-quality musical presentations.” He criticizes the enormous amount of time and money involved in presenting a high quality musical experience on Sunday morning. This builds a society where Christians “shop for churches that offer the worship style and experience that fits their expectation.” The consumerist churches create ecclesiastical consumerist parishioners.

I second and third this criticism; always have and always will. However, Mohler misses a significant portion of the conversation on biblical worship. Mohler, attempting to rescue a Reformed view of worship, writes that “the Reformers were convinced that the heart of true biblical worship was the preaching of the word of God.” But is Mohler accurate in his assessment? Wright, who according to many is very un-Reformed, a observed that “Christian worship is a response of the whole human being and the whole human community to God’s grace and love for the world.” It is the whole human being that worship is re-orienting; not just his intellect, but the whole person. Worship then needs to be centered not only on words, but also in the Christian response to the word. God’s words brought the world into existence, but those words created something; that something was not abstract, but tangible and taste-worthy. b.

When Mohler centralizes the Word preached, he misses what came from those words. Indeed he misses the story of God who created and watched us eat from His creation.

Word and Sacrament are central in worship. Indeed the whole worship service is composed of these two aspects. The Word (includes confession and singing) prepares us to consume bread and wine. c The same Luther who spoke highly of the preached Word observed in his small catechism:

Our preaching should… be such that of their own accord and without our command, people will desire the sacrament and, as it were, press us pastors to administer it to them… For Christ did not say, “Omit this” or “despise this,” but “This do, as often as you drink it,” etc.

There was a certain urgency in Luther’s mind about not separating Word and Sacrament. Luther not only argued for weekly communion, but he saw that the Word was incomplete without the sacrament. He argued that when the Word is proclaimed, the Supper must follow. d

According to Mohler, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper each have a place in worship, but the preaching of the Word ought to be supreme. The position of the Reformers was not the one advocated by Mohler. The Reformation–anabaptist excluded–argued that though the Word plays a monumental role in the worship service (Heb. 4:12) it must not be separated from the Sacrament. e The argument the Reformers made, in my estimation, was not for the supremacy of the Word preached, but the inseparability of the Word preached from the Word eaten. What God hath joined together let no man put asunder!

  1. I dispute that statement  (back)
  2. As an advocate of Covenant Renewal Worship, I argue that the entire service is central, though the service can be summarized in Word and Sacrament  (back)
  3. Incidentally, this is one reason for why Word must come before the Sacraments  (back)
  4. Calvin argued that to avoid the Lord’s Supper is a form of devilish theology  (back)
  5. The Supper was, for Calvin, mutual:  Christ “is made completely one with us and we with him.”  (back)
Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Lent, Ligon Duncan, and Legalism

Collin Hansen wrote an article for the Gospel Coalition entitled Should You Cancel Good Friday? which has brought to the attention of many a conversation they have never had before. What is Lent? Why celebrate it?

As a committed Protestant, I am committed to the Church Calendar, not because I want to be a slave to it, but because I am aware of its inevitability. We all follow some calendar. The question is which calendar? I ask that question because Protestantism is grounded in a Trinitarian view of the world. In its best expression it does not isolate ideas; it brings ideas together to form a coherent system.

I suggest that Lent is highly Trinitarian. As the Trinity is a communion of love, so Lent provides a means to express that love to one another in the community. Where sins are confronted and battled, there you find a vigorous Trinitarian community and vision. Lent is service to the community by giving us a season of determined battle against sin for the sake of our neighbors.

It offers a vision of history that undergirds the biblical history and that reflects the normal routines, liturgies, and rituals of human beings. Lent is a form of restructuring our lives. All Christians need a re-structuring of order in their own lives. All Christians need to re-balance and re-form areas where there is disproportionate indifference. We all undergo a Psalmic journey of lamentation and feasting. Lent draws us into this journey.

In essence, Lent reveals the God who suffers in the Person of Jesus Christ. God’s image-bearers are formed from the dust of a fallen Adam to the glorification of the risen Final Adam. To disconnect Lent from the Church Calendar is to disparage history.

It is true we live in the age of an ascended Lord, but this same Lord guides a Church that is still broken, suffering, and healing from brokenness and suffering again and again. The removal of Lent is to proclaim an over-realized eschatology.

It is true that Lent can be abused, and history teaches us that it has. But it is also true, as Luther so memorably stated, “the abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.” So if Lent can be proven to be profitable, then is there a legitimate way to benefit from it without falling into some its former abuses. Protestant Christians are not bound by Romish structures of food or rituals. We use wisdom in forming healthy habits for a Church and individuals while not binding the Church or the individual to a particular habit.

Lent and Wilderness

Lent teaches us that Satan’s gifts are easy to master. They come with first grade instruction manuals. They are made to be mastered quickly and enjoyed rapidly (fornication, drugs, alcohol; various temptations). God’s gifts are a little harder to master. They require self-control and patience. They anticipate spiritual growth; they demand a kingly attitude to grasp kingly wisdom. God’s instructions mean you have to seek others in the community to understand them properly. You have to exercise and express a theology of patience built into a theology of blessings.

In the wilderness, a garden stripped of colors, fruit, and water, Jesus faced the devil again in a re-match. He knew well that temptation had a triumphant history of subtly winning arguments. Jesus wasted no time and rebuked temptation. just like He would do with the demons and the demonic-like religious teachers of the day.

We are not to sit in temptation’s classroom. God already said we are to flee it; to rebuke it with the only source of authority that is permanent and stamped with divine truth.

The Church finds herself in a wilderness scenario. She is stripped of her former glory. But she is destined to journey from glory to glory like her Lord and Master. As in Luke four, we need to sit in Yahweh’s school house. We need to be instructed by the two-edged sword that muzzles the Tempter and tells him to not come back again. He is not welcome and neither are his offers.

Lent offers us a 40 day class on temptations and the glories and rewards of resisting it.

But Why 40 Days?

Lent follows the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. His fasting for 40 days speaks to the evil and the hardness of heart of the Israelites who succumbed to the Serpent’s whispers. So as the Church walks with Jesus from wilderness to Golgotha she re-lives the messianic journey. The 40 days are symbolic for that wilderness testing, and as a result it is chronologically set before the Great Paschal Feast, commonly referred to as Easter.

Should Lent be Observed?

Ligon Duncan and others in the Southern Presbyterian tradition argue that Lent has a history based on merit. Lent was a way to earn something. The Reformation fixed this soteriological error, and therefore Lent is no longer to be observed.

Duncan and others also go on to say that celebrating Easter and Christmas offer no such harm (he also believes that a National Holiday like Thanksgiving is also a uniquely American holiday to be celebrated). There is no doubt Easter and Christmas, and even Thanksgiving–to a lesser degree–offer wonderful benefits. But the question and the opening presupposition is that Lent is not biblical therefore it should not be practiced in the Church. If that is the case, then the question is not whether one day (or Season) is more beneficial than the other, but rather is it explicitly stated in the Bible or not? If the “explicit reference” argument is used, then Duncan will have to conclude that this is faulty reasoning.

I concur with Vance Freeman that “each of his (Duncan’s) reasons for not observing Lent are undercut by the observance of Christmas and Easter.” Mr. Freeman also concludes:

The biggest threat to Christianity today is not the church in Rome, or that Americans are prone to elevate traditional Christian rituals, like Lent, over discipleship. The biggest threat to the church is that our rituals are increasingly only secular ones. We are Americans before we are Christians. Super Bowl Sunday not only competes with the Lord’s Day, it dominants it. And when we relegate the Christian life to a mere facet of our American lives we fall into Moral Therapeutic Deism.

The formation of godly habits is the issue at hand. In other words, is there an adequate time of the year where the Church should have an explicit focus on the cross of Jesus and how that cross must shape our understanding of sin? Is there room for setting aside a season for a cruciform hermeneutic? I believe there is.

As Peter Leithart so ably summarizes:

Lent is a season for taking stock and cleaning house, a time of self-examination, confession and repentance.  But we need to remind ourselves constantly what true repentance looks like.  “Giving up” something for Lent is fine, but you keep Lent best by making war on all the evil habits and sinful desires that prevent you from running the race with patience.

If this is true, then Lent serves an enormously important role in the life of the Christian. Naturally, to quote Luther’s first thesis, “the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.” A faithful understanding of the Lord’s Service provides that for us weekly. However, an extended period where our sins are deeply brought to our attention by the preaching of the Word and prayer (and fasting) are regularly considered, practiced and meditated upon can provide great benefits for all Christians on each Lord’s Day and throughout the week.

The legalism concern is legitimate. We are all tempted to fall into this trap, but it does not have to be so. If we view Lent as a time to additionally focus our attention on mortifying our sins and killing those habits that so easily entangle us, we can then consider the cross in light of the resurrection, not apart from it. If we do so, Lent will become legalism’s greatest enemy and repentance’s best friend.

Luther’s Interpretation of I Timothy 2:4

There is a great history of Reformed interpretation of I Timothy 2:4. In this one verse the question of human will, the extent of the atonement, and the desire of God for the salvation of man comes to play. Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, and others offer sufficient hints to conclude that there was little agreement on this text. Erasmus argued that salvation had been offered and that it was up to man to respond. Calvin–following Augustine–understood that God’s desire is to save men from all classes of people (kings and such). Luther translates verse four in this manner:

God our Savior who wills that all people should be helped, and come to the knowledge of truth.

Luther did not see this text as a reference to salvation (as in soteriology), but rather to the health, or well-being of an individual. He understood this text to refer to God’s divine provision for all his creatures, “whether man or beast, and whether believer or unbeliever.”*

*Universal Salvation (I Timothy 2:4) according to the Lutheran Reformers by Lowell C. Green

Hebrews and Authorship

A couple of years ago I tried to offer a case for a Pauline authorship of Hebrews. I think I was somewhat successful. I will be preaching through Hebrews 1 on Christmas Day, which drew my attention once more to some research on Hebrews. In an introductory article for the Review and Expositor’s, Gerald L. Borchert offers an irenic look at the debate over authorship. He posits various theories. He speaks of the historical position of the Reformers: of Luther’s hatred of the theology of Hebrews in 6:4ff. and the idea of “the impossibility of repentance.” This, led Luther to relegate Hebrews (along with James and others) to a lesser authoritative section of the canon. Interestingly the Eastern Church “viewed the book as distinctly Pauline.” It was not only until after the Reformation that the Council of Trent “declared Paul’s authorship of Hebrews fixed.” Though I argue for Pauline authorship, Luther’s “Apollos theory” is relatively appealing since “Apollos’ reported eloquence suits the magnificent style in Hebrews.” Yet, there is little support before the Reformation for this theory. In the end, we could all take Origen’s conclusion as legitimate when he said: “Who wrote Hebrews, God knows for sure.” I’d like to think God made it clear.