Monday, June 19, 2006

What exactly was the Reformation?

Why did Luther challenge the church? And why did his challenge succeed philosophically and politically? I mean, the Puritans' motives are somewhat easier to siphon out. But even if you limit the Reformation just to Luther, who can say why it happened or what it was?

Was it about "freedom to study the Bible and take its authority first?" (a la "know the truth, and the truth shall set you free"). Well, yes; and no. Luther wanted everyone to read the scriptures, certainly. But the spirit of the Reformation is in its essence revolution and not anarchy. Luther didn't want the removal of ecclessiastical authority, he wanted its replacement. Luther, again, opposed many doctrines (see: the deutero-canon) that had been decided by church councils a thousand years before. In many ways, Luther wanted to replace the Pope, arbitrarily deciding the truth about Christianity.

Was the Reformation primarily an attack on corruption and self-serving church primacy? Well, kind of ... ? Initially, he did not want to change the hierarchy of the church. As he became angrier and angrier, he increasingly directed his invective against Popes, Cardinals, authorities, etc. and fought the concept that Salvation was not available outside of the Pope's blessing (quite in contrast to the policies of the Puritans, who executed members of rival denomenations, such as the Quakers). But was the Reformation really about exclusivity or corruption? Probably not. The Catholic church no longer claims exclusivity, but that has hardly served to end the feud. Recent scandals aside, the Catholic church is hardly more corrupt than any Protestant branch, but I haven't yet heard of any Protestant denomenation seeking to be re-introduced into the Catholic fold.

Another dynamic that I've heard mentioned in my various readings is that of the conflict between the more ancient, more scholarly and less populist orders and the rising trend of the "Mendicants". In some ways, Luther is both a manifestation of and reaction to the Mendicant orders. To plumb the murky depths of this issue, I would need to hold my breath for too long. Therefore, suffice to say that while conflict between the orders and their philosophies might have played a part, it could not have been the central issue, as it rarely played out upon strict sectarian lines.

What about political expression? There is certainly some truth to the statement that the Reformation rose out of Northern Europe's desire for independence. The Lutheran church is certainly a German church. The Reformation could not have succeeded except as a power play between two equal opponents (see John Huss), and those princes who defended him would probably not have done so if they had not increasingly resented Roman influence on their nascent sense of national identity. There is also something very nationalistic about the translation of a German Bible. But at most, this could only constitute the enabling factor, the historical component of a philosophical movement. I don't think anyone approaching the Reformation as a Christian would argue with that.

Probably the main factor that a hard-core Calvinist / Puritan / Reformed / Evangelical / Conservative /etc. theologian is going to point to is the concept of justification by faith through grace. Certainly an interesting point. I think this post is long enough already, so I won't go into a lengthy discussion of this issue -- but I will finish with a story related to it.

What Luther considered the crowning achievment of his theological career was a series of literary discourses he engaged in with the still-Catholic scholar Desiderius Erasmus on the determination of the will. Luther himself, in these discourses, claimed that the sum total of the Reformation and all that he had done boiled down not to papal authority or anything else, but to this: he believed that man had no free will.

A) Is that Biblical?
B) How Biblical?
C) Is that important?
D) Is that what Christ taught?
E) Is that what Christ prioritized?

P.S. Don't hate me. If it wasn't for my incendiary posts, there wouldn't have been any action on this blog for a month and a half. And besides, this is important stuff for us to think about; it has a lot of implications for the church today. Well, kind of.


Sungkhum said...

Was everything in the Reformation perfect? No.

But what of the five solas of the Reformation?

Sola Scriptura: The Erosion of Authority

Solus Christus: The Erosion of Christ-Centered Faith

Sola Gratia: The Erosion of The Gospel

Sola Fide: The Erosion of The Chief Article

Soli Deo Gloria: The Erosion of God-Centered Worship

(taken from

Are those wrong things to combat? And what would you do if when you presented those five solas to your church they kicked you out (ok, maybe not a good example)?

As far as free will. What was Martin Luther's definition of free-will?

Before we start this - let's get the terms laid out :)

"If thou art willing' is a verb in the subjunctive mood, which asserts nothing...a conditional statement which asserts nothing indicatively." "if thou art willing", "if thou hear", "if thou do" declare, not man's ability, but his duty. The commandments are not given inappropriately or pointlessly; but in order that through them the proud, blind man may learn the plague of his impotence, should he try to do as he is commanded. How is it that as soon as you get hold of a single imperative verb you infer an indicative meaning, as though the moment a thing is commanded it is done, or can be done? Does it follow from: 'turn ye' that therefore you can turn? Does it follow from "'Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart' (Deut 6.5) that therefore you can love with all your heart? What do arguments of this kind prove, but the 'free-will' does not need the grace of God, but can do all things by its own power. By the law is the knowledge of sin' [Rom 3:20], so the word of grace comes only to those who are distressed by a sense of sin and tempted to despair. Imperative or hypothetical passages, or wishes of Jesus, by which is signified, not what we can do, or do do...but what we ought to do, and what is required of us, so that our impotence may be made known to us and the knowledge of sin may be given to us. As to why some are touched by the law and others not, so that some receive and others scorn the offer of grace...this is the hidden will of God, Who, according to His own counsel, ordains such persons as He wills to receive and partake of the mercy preached and offered ... If man has lost his freedom, and is forced to serve sin, and cannot will good, what conclusion can more justly be drawn concerning him, than that he sins and wills evil necessarily? ...If any man doth ascribe of salvation, even the very least, to the free will of man, he knoweth nothing of grace, and he hath not learnt Jesus Christ aright." " - From Bondage of the Will by Martin Luther

"I believe that by my own reason and strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, Enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in truth faith."
- From Luther's Small Catechism

Ben said...

Exactly my point, Nathan. The Reformation, while carrying a lot of great benefits (and not a few horrible drawbacks) was (as far as Luther was concerned) at its core a philosophical issue.

Outside of the context of Ivory-Tower philosophy, the concept that people don't have any free will is as ridiculous as the concept that we have no way of knowing whether we are a brain in a vat (a la the Matrix). Sure, it's possible, but it's preposterous.

I don't think Luther was right, either, when he said that a command does not imply free will. Especially considering the great body of commands Paul gives in his letters, after the new covenant was put in force. If the very man who said the law served to point to our sin then turns around and says to the Thessalonians, "Admonish the unruly," is he merely endeavoring to show them their failing? Indeed, what kind of cruel trick would it be to turn every single command in the Bible to do good into a mocking derision of man's inability to choose the right? Like many ivory-tower doctrinal issues, it can easily be proved, but is never quite soluble with the whole of scripture. More to follow.