Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Why Study Church History?

The Church History In A Nutshell or A History of Nutty Churchmen


Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (soundtrack)

Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (soundtrack) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think I would just like to say a few words on teaching churches Church History. Yesterday, I was given the opportunity to teach the adult Sunday School lesson. By some miracle I managed, with five pages of notes to teach all of Church History in 30 minutes. Of course, I used only 3 sentences or so for about the 1200 years before the Reformation (during the Crusades), but hey, it worked, heh? My starting point was the physical split of Christianity from Judaism in Jerusalem (the destruction of the Temple), with a focus on Tertullian, Justin Martyr, a few Roman emporers, and the canonization of the New Testament. With a general consensus coming together about the NT, debates started to foster over Christology, the Arian Controversy. I found it no coincidence that one of the men responsible for listing all of the NT books (in an Easter letter in 367 A.D.), Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt was involved the struggle to recognize Christ as both fully human and divine. That brought me to the next part of church history I covered, the rise of Emperor Constantine. I believe that Constantine represents a fundamental redefinition of Christianity, Christianity went from a religion of conversion, baptism of blood and water, to accepting the premise that politicians who did Christians favors were essentially Christian, even if they had not been baptized (aka committed to the faith). Athanasius would run into trouble with Constantine’s grandson (himself an Arian/denier of Christ’s divinity) and would be exiled into Rome (enemy territory at the time). Athanasius, according to his On The Incarnation, believed that Jesus was King who became a citizen, even that Sweet Old Baby Jesus in the crib, to save the world. Believing Jesus was King of Creation (divine) meant conflict with the rulers of this age. Athanasius had friends in what we call modern-day Turkey, the Cappodocians. “The Cappodocians”: (Basil of Caesarea [where Eusebius was from], his brother Gregory of Nyssa, their sister Macrina, and Gregory of Nazianus their friend): Basil as well as Gregory of Nyssa are famous for their works on the Trinity. Macrina, Basil and Gregory’s older sister, was known for living a life of holiness and discipline. Gregory of Nazianus, because he believed like Athanasius that Christ Jesus is Lord, was one of the earliest Christian thinkers to write about the evils of slavery, using his sermons on the book of Ecclesiastes. God’s ownership of creation (Jesus’ lordship) meant that no one single human being had the right to own another human being.

I would have gone over the Middle Ages, but for the sake of time, and because I have little interest in it, I could only sum it up this way: Rome fell to the barbarians, I mean Germans. For more than 1200 years of Christianity being united under the Emperors and Bishops of Rome; Less than a century before the Reformation happened, the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, and Russia declared itself the Third Rome, a center for Eastern Christianity [Russian orthodoxy now being protested for its support of Putin]. This history included the history of the Crusades. Many people see the Crusades as Christians attacking other religions, and demonize that part of history as an excuse not to follow Christ. Not necessarily true, Christians went to war with other Christians as well (East versus West), particularly in the 4th Crusade where a pope from Rome called for an invasion of Constantinople.

The Reformation starts w/ a German monk Martin Luther who began teaching on Paul’s Letter to the Romans in 1515, and subsequently 2 years after All Saints Day (October 31, 1517), he posted his 95 Theses (as a result of his studies) in protest of Pope Leo X raising funds for building through promises of rescuing souls from purgatory. There had been Christians [executed by church authorities] before Martin Luther who fought for the right for countries to have the Bible translated in their own language (rather than the Latin Vulgate), but Luther’s Theses set off a firestorm, as he persuaded his colleagues and townspeople across Germany of his arguments. Luther’s writings and sermons meant not only a Reformation outside the Catholic Church, but also inside of it as well.

With changes on the horizon in universities and churches, the Spainards wanted to initiate a new age of discovery. Catholicism in Spain was having a Reformation of its own a couple of decades before Luther’s Theses. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had earned the right, with permission from the Pope, to name men to the church positions. At one point, a friar was forced to take the position as the royal confessor. Christopher Columbus, a citizen of Spain was also a Catholic Christian during this time. The same year Columbus left to discover a path to India (the Americas he found), it was decreed that Jews who lived in Spain had to convert, as well as the Spanish Christians who sympathized with Martin Luther, or be condemned to exile [the Inquisition as we know it now]. The Protestant & Catholic Reformations spread from Germany to Switzerland (John Calvin), and into England and Scotland (John Knox). Because of the new invention of the publishing press, the Bible was translated into native languages, printed, and distributed to the masses. With more Christians being empowered to read the Bible for themselves, they could further develop their relationship with God.

As a result, there were a number of Christians, men like Menno Simons, who began to see Jesus’ words and deeds in the New Testament as divine. If Christ is God, his teachings were from God, and his teaching must take precedent over church authorities and tradition. Menno Simons taught that Christians must be baptized by immersion as a symbol, a public confession of Christ and commitment to the local church. Simons, like Tertullian before him, believed that believers should not engage in warfare or violent revolution, but be left free to be obedient to Christ. Christians who shared Simon’s views on baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper (as a symbol) eventually made their way to England, and eventually, the Thirteen Colonies in America. At this point in history, in the Americas, in Asia and Africa, Christians from Europe laid claim to ownership over the human beings and lands. The issue of owning and enslaving humans eventually meant churches in the United States becoming divided. In the middle of the 19th century, several years before the Civil War, a Baptist missionary agency refused to commission a candidate from Georgia because he owned slaves. How could he be a witness for Christ if he did not affirm Jesus’ Lordship over ALL of creation? That event would lead to the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists were not alone, however, this rift played out in Methodism, Catholicism, and Presbyterianism all the same.

My conclusion:

Whether it was persecution by the Roman Empire, Athanasius’ defending the full divinity and humanity of Jesus, or the Discovery of the New World that involved Christians enslaving others, at the center of church history is the Christian struggle to understand the Lordship of Christ. Church History IS NOT just about learning facts and events from rote memory, OR is about simply learning from history in order not to repeat it (as the cliché goes); instead, it is an invitation to see how God works in unique ways through the centuries, as He calls us to repentance and redeems the world.

Sources: The Story of Christianity: Volumes 1-3 by Justo L. Gonzalez; The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins; Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans by Gayraud S. Wilmore; and, Women In Early Christianity: Translations from Greek Texts edited by Patricia Cox Miller

Online resources: New Testament Gateway/Canon and Early Christian Writings

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Martin Luther: Was He Pretty Confused?

Martin Luther, commemorated on February 18 Eva...

 Or A Lover of Paradox?

Martin Luther is one of my favorite figures in church history, both to praise and to criticize. I think that he and many other saints represent the meaning of being a Christ follower, to be fallen, to learn from our mistakes, to be both submissive recipients of tradition as well as iconoclasts, engaging the culture at large, while remaining as faithful to the Gospel as we know how. Now, I find Luther’s anti-semitism, for example, unacceptable, he let his emotions get the best of him. It okay to be passionate, but self-control is one of the cardinal virtues according to the New Testament. Oh, yeah and that whole salvation came to the Jews first, and um, Jesus was Jewish, and that loving your whole neighbor Golder Rule thing!

Reading through Luther’s Table Talk, he has some pretty strong words for the Church Fathers: “in Popedom the glosses of the Fathers were of higher regard than the bright and clear text of the Bible” or statements like “St. Bernard, Basil, Dominicus, Hieronymus,” “Ambrose, Basil, and Gregory” are all each against the good things that “the Divine word” had to offer. Yet, turn the pages a few pages latter, and Luther reflects on the Bible, using what else, images from Patristic thought, like St. Gregory’s  Holy Scripture as water, “an elephant swimmeth, but a little sheep goeth therein upon his feet.”

And you know how a lot of people like fairytales, folktales, and fables? Well, Martin Luther says just like the Church Fathers’ writings, Plato’s Fables are nothing but lies. But to explain the nature of the Bible? Luther uses a fable he remembers, about a lion serving a feast before swine.

I don’t think Martin Luther was pretty confused (well, maybe on a few things like infant baptism and Judaism), but I do think that if one looks at Luther, and Christian theologians before him, paradox, and neither linear logic or systematic theologies, were the norm for Christian theology. Paradox–because we worship the Supreme Paradox in Christ Jesus every Sunday. Fully human, fully divine, without confusion.

Is paradox a helpful term for theology?


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Faith, Doubt, Scholarship: Why Evangelicals Should Love Paul Tillich

Having Doubt About Doubt With a Healthy Does of Self-Criticism

Maybe it was no coincidence that Michael Patton posted on Roman Catholic scholars being incapable of critical scholarship the same weekend I completed a critical reading of neo-liberal Neo-Orthodox theologian Paul Tillich. Michael did admit that his post was going to be polemical, nor does he consider himself a scholars, and we should keep these in mind as I begin this conversation with a story.

Two years ago, as a Masters of Theology student at a progressive mainline seminary, I struck up a conversation with one of the school’s New Testament students, who, like me is Baptist, but he was admittedly theologically conservative. As someone who enjoys post-colonial and liberationist theologies, I, for one, am not opposed to self-criticism. In fact, on this blog, Chad and I last year had a series where we critiqued ourselves. It was a challenging task to public confess our blindspots. The one thing that I and the conservative student aforementioned could not agree on in our dialogue was the nature of religion. For that student, he believed that theology and biblical studies were driven by human subjectivity; it was experience that remained essential, and dare I say, the conversion experience. I know I am going to get in trouble here, but my reaction was to immediately draw attention to the similarities between my friend’s evangelical approach and the liberal approach, and he confessed that in terms of method, liberals and evangelicals shared common footings.

Today, I submit that Patton’s post does confirm the correctness of my argument. That what we have here is a form of dialectical thought, that faith is when a human being overcomes doubt. Patton indeed contends, “Without doubt, our faith can never really be tested. For to even take a test there must be some suspension of our presumption of perfection.” He continues, “I don’t think Christians should have any fear in testing their faith. We should not fear the doubt that leads to assurance of truth. Not only does God not mind our aspirations to such scholarship, he beckons us to such.” This comment seems fine, on the surface, of course it affirms the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints– who God has chosen to be saved will remain saved, and faithful, yes?

So, if faith is seen as primarily an free and subjective act on the part of the Christian individual, doubt is the opposite use of that freedom. Freedom, in this dialectic (oppositional form of thinking) is freedom FROM something, whether it be freedom from tradition, freedom from the community or freedom from the authorities. In this sense, Patton argues, Roman Catholic scholars ARE NOT free.

Is this notion of freedom correct, however? I would say that not only half of the story, Martin Luther, being the good Catholic that he was, would never affirm this definition of liberty. In fact, in his Freedom of a Christian (on of my favorite works of all time), all Christian freedoms are attached to servitude, to duty. Freedom is living away from sin and for others, as servants. Indeed, God came that He “that He might serve us, and that all the works He should do under that form of a servant, might become ours” On Christian Freedom. This is why in Luther’s 95 Theses, he proposes that the Christian should be taught to give to the poor rather than concern herself with indulgences (Theses 43).

By this understanding of freedom, could one not suggest that Catholic scholars are the freest of us all to be critical? What replaced Rome as the hermeneutical key for Protestants? I would say that here in the United States, it was America as Situation that replaced it, and thus, we have a ruggedly individualistic view of freedom, let alone academic freedom. My academic freedom to study the archaeology of the Red Sea means nothing if there are people in my neighborhood who are drowning in oppression. Scholarship, critical engagement, and doubt should not be centered around the self. This is the problem with conservative evangelical and mainline Protestant academia to begin with.

Faith, as I argued against Tillich, and I do here, against liberals and evangelicals who agree with Patton, is not something that starts with us Gentiles. In fact, in the story of Israel and Jesus, we Gentiles do not know what faith is outside of YHWH’s faithfulness Israel and Christ. Suggestions such as “Embrace your doubts. Doubt your doubts. Test all things. Follow the evidence, not your presuppositions.” sound okay, but is this the point of the writers’ of the Scripture’s own understanding of faith? I believe that the proper dialectic, if you will, is one of faithfulness overcoming faithlessness, and it is within that our Gentile story with our notions of doubt, faith, presuppositions, post-suppositions must submit itself.

As for critical Catholic scholars, I don’t think one has to look further than the emerging theologians from the Women In Theology blog. I have a difficult time taking Patton’s advocacy of doubt and critical scholarship seriously, especially since being aware that he comes from an institution in which students and faculty must not contradict the Statement of Faith. The very same statement in which one of my close friends was excommunicated from the DTS community and a letter mailed to his parents, informing them that their son was no longer saved. Brian LePort is completely right in comparing evangelical confessional scholarship and that of Catholics.

Jeremy (the Catholic, not Mormon–couldn’t resist) and Joel the Methodist has excellent responses as well.

“Now therefore revere [YHWH], and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve [YHWH]. Joshua 24:14, NRSV