Reading Group

The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  One of the ways that I hope to accomplish this goal is by reading great works of Christian literature in a public way (that is, on the blog), and by inviting you to read them along with me, via the comments!  Then, my notes and our comments will remain as “reading guides” for future blog visitors.

You can get to the various works that we have read via these links:

I look forward to this shared reading experiment, friends!  The books we read will be great and diverse, and they will walk us through Christian history as the year progresses.  May God bless us as learn more about our Lord, the kingdom, and one another.

Image credit: https://arena.yourlondonlibrary.net/web/bexley

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 2)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  We are finishing up Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will in today’s post.  In the first post I introduced the text, described the person to whom the text was addressed, discussed a couple of issues related to the various translations of the text, and made some introductory comments on a variety of topics.  Today’s post will be more focused: in addition to making some miscellaneous comments, I’ll be looking at the overall message of the treatise, especially considering its theological ideas and the implications of Luther’s own position and the one that he is attacking.  Let’s dig in!

What Luther is Trying to Say

So, as I discussed in the first post, this text is quite long.  The length of the treatise, along with the amount of polemic embedded in it, can make it hard to really get to the meat of what Luther’s trying to say.  But, in a nutshell, it seems to be this: humanity’s “Fall” has so damaged us, that we basically have no such thing as free will at all anymore — unless you mean freedom to do evil.  Luther had begun to articulate this position in prior years, especially in his conflicts with the Popes, and it seems to grow from his sense of the importance of justification by grace alone.  For the believer, though, Luther says, “if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion,” and we are thus able to do good.

Now, Erasmus had offered a moderate view in his initial response to Luther’s preaching.  He certainly acknowledged the problem of the “Fall,” but he said that it merely weakened our wills.  In other words, the problem of sin is that it makes it more difficult to do the things that God has commanded of us — not impossible, just more difficult.  But Luther rejects that position as essentially “wimpy” — as though Erasmus wasn’t willing to go “all the way” to a full rejection of free choice in any matter related to salvation.  Luther does occasionally allow for some amount of free will — but only insofar as it enables us to do the evil that is implanted in us by the “Fall” (see, for example, section 25).   If you want a MUCH more thorough explanation of both men’s arguments, you can check out this resource; it’s got a lot of great detail on both Luther’s and Erasmus’s texts.

Why Luther is Making This Argument

There are several reasons that Luther is making this set of claims.  Some are theological presuppositions that he holds, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But there’s a more pressing, historical reason: the medieval church had held a cooperative view of salvation for centuries.  Through a variety of means, the church had taught that God and humans work together for our salvation — God does God’s part (e.g., sending Jesus, giving us the church, etc.), and we do our part (being baptized, living good lives, etc.).  The most famous example is in the situation regarding indulgences that Luther had rejected so strongly.  And he was right about the danger therein: while millions of Christians today still hold a view like this, we can sometimes believe that we can “earn” their salvation in some way.  Luther was strongly aware of this danger, and he wanted to do away with it completely by making us depend entirely on God’s work in Christ for our salvation.

But beyond Luther’s own life experience, he also held some theological ideas really strongly — ideas that (in his mind) meant that humans couldn’t possess any amount of free choice toward their own salvation.  These included the following:

  • Scripture is abundantly clear in its pronouncements, and it doesn’t need any fancy interpretive strategies to understand it (see especially sections 3, 35-36, 38).  (Since Luther thinks that Scripture agrees with him, then Erasmus is [in Luther’s mind] kind of foolish for not being on board, too.)
  • God is unbelievably powerful and has an immutable will (see, for example, secs. 8-9 on God’s will, and sec. 93 on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge).  Obviously, Luther is reading Scripture here, but he is also thinking of that “merit industry” that characterized medieval Christianity in the West.  If we can earn merit, then that might take away from God’s power to save.  If we want to emphasize God’s power, then it behooves us to reject any claims of power for ourselves.
  • As a result, God’s actions are efficacious — they get something done.  If we believe that God is working in the world, then that accounts for the good that the saved do, and it accounts for the evil that the unbelievers do.  (This is an interesting argument, found in section 84: when God acts, something happens, and if unbelievers are only predisposed toward evil, then God’s motive action will result in evil-doing… but it’s because of the unbeliever’s prior disposition, not because God is at fault.)
  • God chooses the church — we don’t choose ourselves.  One of God’s sovereign actions is to choose the saved.  Obviously (Luther would say), we don’t choose to be part of God’s family — that’s a gracious gift of God — and so it also must be true that we can’t resist God’s choice, weak as we are.  The result of this belief that is the members of the “true church” — the “elect” — are only known to God (sec. 34), and so we can’t try to earn our way in.
  • As the corollary of God’s magnificence and might, human beings are pretty weak and foolish.  We see this in sec. 38, where he argues that the reason so many intelligent people have misunderstood the Scriptures is that, because of sin, our hearts are darkened.  Also, in sec. 52, Luther follows Paul in rejecting the arguments of “human reason.”  We need to depend on what he sees as the clear pronouncements of Scripture, rather than leaning on our own weak wisdom.

What Luther is Rejecting

Holbein-erasmusDeep stuff, huh?  Let’s come at this from one more angle, and hopefully we’ll have a good sense of the overall picture.  One last way to think of this problem is to ask what Luther is rejecting in Erasmus’s ideas, and why.  As I see it, there are a couple of reasons that Luther himself keeps coming back to — Luther thinks Erasmus’s ideas aren’t found in Scripture, and he is working from a very “black-and-white” sense of the world, which leaves no room for ambiguity.  But what we find in the work much more often are what Luther sees as the problematic implications of Erasmus’s argument.  Here are just a few of them:

  • If we have free choice toward our own salvation, then that means we should do works that direction… which suggests that God’s grace isn’t enough for that salvation (section 7).
  • If we aren’t aware or certain of what God is doing for us and our salvation, then we miss opportunities to give God the glory and praise that God deserves (secs. 7, 12, 28), and we could suffer the anxiety of a guilty conscience, uncertain of our salvation (sec. 164).
  • If we have such a high opinion of ourselves, then we can think that God doesn’t care about our actions, thus encouraging us toward greater sin (sec. 23) — maybe even thinking that God is basically asleep while we sin (sec. 81)!
  • If we think our works help save us, then we are usurping the proper role of grace and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (sec. 44, where he invokes the Pelagian heresy as a parallel).
  • If we aren’t deeply aware of our own sin, then Scripture loses its power as a beautiful source of comforting words (sec. 62).
  • And perhaps most troublingly: if we think that we are “good,” then we might be tempted to think that we don’t need Jesus as savior — or that maybe only a part of us needs Jesus as savior — then we essentially render Jesus weak, superfluous, or even unnecessary.

Some Reflections

This post is already pretty long, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few evaluative comments.  First, when I read this text, I find myself attracted by the deep devotion to Scripture that Luther clearly possesses; that’s a feature of the movement of which I’m a part, too, and so I applaud that emphasis.  Second, I fully agree with his desire for us to lean fully on Jesus as our Savior; it’s way too easy for us to look to other things to save us, when Jesus is really the only one with power to save.  And finally, I need to hear his call to humility; if I depend on my own works (even just subconsciously), I can become proud and end up depending on myself.

That said, I have some quibbles with Brother Luther — a number of which have to do with his comments and ideas about Scripture.  First, while he does hold a very high view of Scripture (woo!), and while he does think it’s clearly understandable (errr…), he also has a very “flat” view of it — that is, he seems to think that all Scripture is essentially the same, and he doesn’t account for genre very well.  For example, he treat texts from the Psalms, Genesis, and Paul in essentially the same way: looking at what the writers said, without asking why they said those things.  Second, I think Luther is simply wrong that — at least on this topic — Scripture speaks with one voice.  Erasmus tried to make that point, and Luther brushed it aside, but I think that was because the latter had already decided his conclusion and was forcing the Scriptures to back it up.  For example, in section 46 and following, Luther considers a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15.  In my mind, this text is an excellent example of a passage that absolutely does tell us we have free will, and it must be considered alongside texts in Romans 9-11 that suggest otherwise.  But Luther brushes it aside, twisting the passage to make it say what it doesn’t say.  What’s frustrating is that that’s exactly what he accuses Erasmus of doing — in his whole section about “tropes” (secs. 77 and following).  Pot?  Meet the kettle.

If you haven’t guessed from the previous comments, I’m not convinced by Luther’s arguments.  Now, I grew up an Arminian, and I remain one today — but for more reasons than just preserving my heritage.  I believe we have free choice because of what I see in Scripture — the calls to repentance, the narratives of conversion, the commands to act in certain ways (even from Paul!), etc.  But I also believe because of my life experience.  Sure, some parts of our lives seem pre-determined (by “fate,” chance, our circumstances, social conditioning, etc.), but in so many other areas, we actually have choices.  I don’t think that’s a part of the “Fall” — I think it’s how God wants the world to be… because that’s how God’s world and salvation are arranged.  And unlike Luther, I think that’s good news, because it lets us choose to be in a relationship with God, rather than God forcing Godself on us.  Maybe that’s my American love of freedom talking, but I’d like to think it’s a theological position, informed by Scripture, theology, and experience

So (if you’re still reading by this point), feel free to do a couple of things.  First, if you want to go deeper on this text, check out this article, which contains reflection on the Bondage of the Will and also meditations on contemporary Christianity.  Second, weigh in!  What arguments have been most important for you in thinking about the difficult problem of free will and determinism?  I’ll look forward to your comments!

Image credits: www.cph.org (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), yovisto.blogspot.com (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and insideadog.com.au (for the Frozen meme)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 1)

Greetings!  I’m so glad you’re here today, checking out another of the CHEF’s reading guides.  This time around we’ll be considering Martin Luther’s famous text The Bondage of the Will, in two posts.  I’ve already dealt with his 1520 treatise Freedom of a Christian in two other posts; the first one introduced us to Luther and that text, and the second one went into more depth and provided some supplemental resources.  Now it’s time to consider his 1525 work on free will and determinism.  Let’s dive in!

luther celebrating mass

Introduction to the Text

In terms of its content, this text is really fantastic in a lot of ways.  There’s TONS of meditation on Scripture, a lot of discussion about the nature of God and humanity, and some good thinking about the church.  You might have guessed those topics already if you know something about Luther’s common points of emphasis.  That said, I think there is also a primary theme here that is not obvious from the title of the text or from common perceptions of Luther.  Incidentally, this was also the case with Freedom of a Christian, which is certainly about freedom; however, a theme that is just as important there is the faith in Christ that gives rise to that freedom.  Here, the text capably considers our will’s bondage to sin, but I would argue that another primary theme is the sovereignty of God (cue applause from our Calvinist brothers and sisters). This theme is why I chose the image above from the excellent Luther movie, starring Joseph Fiennes (pictured) in the title role: we always want to keep in mind that, in this text, Luther wants us to have our eyes pointed “up to heaven,” so that we can find the God of our salvation.

The reason we need to keep this theme in mind is that other aspects of the text can be pretty depressing, because in it Luther engages in a lot of polemic, especially ad hominem attacks against his conversation partner, Desiderius Erasmus.  (In fact, if we took out all the polemical materials, the work would be a lot shorter.)  You see, the year before Luther wrote his text, Erasmus (incidentally, one of the smartest dudes of the whole Reformation period) had written a text called the Freedom of the Will.  There Erasmus had responded to some of Luther’s views, saying that the problem of free will is a seriously knotty one, and that there have been a whole range of views.  However, he says, based on Scripture, it seems that humans do enjoy at least some element of free choice, especially in turning away from sin and sinful things.  You’ll notice what many commentators have noted — that Erasmus accepted Luther’s standard desire to discuss the matter on biblical terms alone.  However, Luther was apparently shocked by Erasmus’s conclusions, as we’ll see.

The translation I am reading is a brand-new one by Volker Leppin, based on the one by Philip S. Watson in Luther’s Works, vol. 33.  This new translation appears in Fortress’s Annotated Luther series, as a single fascicle and as part of the second volume of that series.  I must here say that, unfortunately, this publication is only of an abridged version of the text.  Besides the shame of not having the entire text at our disposal in that one book, it is also unfortunate because Fortress does not indicate anywhere in their marketing materials that the volume is lacking a significant portion of the text.  The only place one learns of it is in a brief note at the end of the book’s introduction, where no rationale whatsoever is given for the editorial choice.

EDIT: Since the original writing of this post, I have had good conversations about this problem both online and at a conference with Will Bergkamp, Fortress’s publisher.  He graciously accepted the criticism while also sharing that he trusted the judgment of the series and volume editors — that the abridged version adequately represents the whole while remaining brief enough to match the other volumes in the series.  Hopefully, they will update their marketing materials to reflect that fact.  Regardless, if you want the entire text, perhaps this translation by Packer and Johnston would be better.  Alternatively, you can get this book by Rupp and Watson that has both Erasmus’s and Luther’s texts published together.  Or, in the meantime, you can do like I’m doing — fill out what you can get ahold of with this much older, online translation.  (Incidentally, I’ll be using the section numbers that are found there to indicate places in the text.)

Notes, Especially on the First Part of the Text

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not a Reformation specialist.  As a result, the things I notice in this text may seem a bit more random.  So, I’ll present them in the form of bulleted mini-paragraphs.  Feel free to add to them in the comments!

  • First, I notice that, as long as this text is, it seems rather well-organized.  That’s partly related to the conventions of the time, but it’s also because Luther is responding to a prior text by Erasmus.  In other words, a good part of Luther’s organizing schema is provided by Erasmus — answering (usually attempting to refute) him point by point, considering the same biblical texts, etc.  You can find a brief outline of the text at the bottom of this link, or a much more extensive one at this link.
  • Second, as I mentioned above, there is a lot of polemic in this text.  Some of it is directed at Erasmus himself — or maybe rather his text — which Luther calls by the term “Diatribe.”  Other critiques are directed at the “Sophists,” by which Luther seems to mean traditional Catholic theologians following the model of Scholastic theology.  If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, that feature of the text may put you off.  But I will say that Luther seems to really relish the argument, in that it forces him to put forward his best thinking.  Erasmus’s brilliance pushes Luther to really think through his views.
  • Another interesting feature of the text — not present nearly so much in Freedom of a Christian — is Luther’s repeated use of classical images and analogies.  The Fortress edition’s annotations point out a number of these, which is great for us non-classicists out there.  But just to give you one example, and a sense of the scope of things: in the introduction to the text, we already have references to Greek athletics prizes, Scylla and Charybdis, and Proteus. The translator says in his introduction that here we are seeing Luther trying to show off his humanist education by pointing to classical sources.  In other words, we might say that Luther wants to show that he can “hang” with Erasmus intellectually.  I don’t know if people thought he succeeded.
  • Not surprisingly, given what we know of Luther’s theology (and theological method), the text is completely suffused with Scripture.  While we see a Pauline focus (especially Romans and Galatians, which he knows so well) that is typical for Luther, we also see him interact with texts all across the canon — many of which were passages that Erasmus had discussed, which forced Luther to interpret them.  Many evangelicals today would consider this text a good model of trying to let the Bible serve as the predominant source for our theological discussions.
  • On a related topic: when I read the text, I get the sense that we are dealing with a couple of different theological “personalities,” if I might say it that way.  First, you have Luther, who clearly wants to base everything on Scripture.  Then you have Erasmus, who in sections 2-3 seems like he’s much more unwilling to simply give up church tradition; he’s wrestling with his rationality, Scripture, and the church Fathers (see this video primer on the “Wesley Quadrilateral” for the model of decision-making I’m referring to).  Further, Luther seems to want clear answers to a pretty deep question, while Erasmus is more willing to be “agnostic” about the topic in question — to not know for sure.  Luther reports Erasmus as believing that not all things in Scripture are clear.  While Luther rejects this premise, it seems that Erasmus embraces it.  In my opinion, these two differences made it really difficult for these guys to come to agreement.
    • Something I was surprised to find in the text is a whole series of what we sometimes call “false binaries.”  I was surprised to find them, because Luther is famous for rejecting the false binary of a human being as either a sinner or as someone justified — he said that we can both at the same time.  But, in the Bondage of the Will, we repeatedly encounter black-and-white views of a whole variety of things!  For example, in sec. 36, we hear that the question under discussion is either clear and Christian, or it is obscure and non-Christian.  WHAT?!?  In sec. 62, he diametrically opposes those who support free will and those who “insist on grace and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, as the text nears its rhetorical climax, the false binaries pile up on one another: secs. 120 (what is virtuous before humans is utterly worthless before God), 133 (supporting free will and supporting God’s mercy and justice), 147 (everything we do is either righteousness or sin — “righteousness if faith is present, sin if faith is absent”), and 163 (following the Johannine literature, there are two kingdoms in this world — one of God, one of Satan).  I gotta say: I don’t buy any of these false binaries, but Luther sure uses them a LOT!  There’s a lot that I admire in this text (as I’ll discuss next post), but this aspect is not one of them.

I think I’ll stop here.  The second post will be devoted primarily to the arguments of the text, so if you’re just getting started reading, I hope that this one gets you going.  In the meantime, something to consider: What is a Christian belief you hold that is mainly based on Scripture?  What’s one you hold that’s primary based on your experiences in life?

Image credits: badcatholicmovies.blogspot.com (the image — edited by the blogger — from the Joseph Fiennes Luther movie), fortresspress.com (for the book cover), and teachingthem.com (for the excellent icon representing conflict)

Suggested next click: Bondage of the Will, Part 2

Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 2)

Martin Luther 1526Welcome back to the CHEF and to Martin Luther!  Today’s post is the second one dedicated to his important treatise The Freedom of a Christian, which we’re pairing with his Bondage of the Will.  In the first post, I said a few words about Luther, late medieval Christianity, and the first portion of the text.  These comments include the dedicatory letter to Pope Leo X, the (perhaps) surprising importance that Luther finds for faith in leading to freedom, and his thought-provoking metaphor of marriage.  In this second post, I’ll discuss the latter part of the text, as well as give you a few resources that may help you understand and go deeper on the treatise.  Let’s dig in!

More on Faith and the “Inner Person”

We left off in the first post with the description of Luther’s “bridegroom” metaphor, which he uses to describe the union that Christians have with Christ.  He goes on, discussing the benefits of faith and moving on to another biblical image — that we are priests of God in Christ (see, e.g., 1 Peter 2).  Christ, of course, is our high priest (see Hebrews 4), but we are also priests and kings in Christ.  Our kingdom and area of authority is not over worldly matters, as Luther makes clear; rather, we are possessors of a spiritual power.  That royal power gives us the freedom that kings enjoy, and our priestly status allows us to stand directly before God.  It is not that we may puff ourselves up, but rather that we can join the apostles in being “servants” and “ministers” of God’s people.

Two items bear some reflection here.  First, this idea is closely related to one of Luther’s most famous gifts to the church: the principle of the “priesthood of all believers.”  That idea is sometimes misunderstood, as though Luther thought all people should be able to interpret Scripture for themselves without the community, or that each person can be his/her own priest.  Rather, it means that all Christians are able to exercise priestly functions for one another — especially things like hearing confessions from other believers, praying for them, and assuring them of their forgiveness.  This is a good reminder, in our day of increasing professionalization of the clergy: we ALL have the ability and authority to intercede for one another before God’s throne.

The second item of interest is that Luther says that the “visible and corporeal office of priests” prefigures for us the spiritual priesthood that we enjoy.  The idea of something being a “type” or “precursor” is familiar in Christian theology; for centuries, we have said that various Old Testament people/events/objects are prefigurations of Christ — like the snake lifted up in the desert (Numbers 21), or the near-sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22).  But here, it sounds as though he’s saying that the present priests are a pointer to our own priesthood.  I’ve not read any discussion on this matter (my own problem), but it’s pretty interesting to me.  Imagine Luther telling the Pope that the papal office is really for the instruction of the Christian cobbler or milkmaid — not just for instruction in doctrine, but also so that the cobbler and milkmaid know that they share the Pope’s spiritual power!

The Outer Person — Loving One’s Neighbor

There’s a lot of wonderful stuff in the second half of the treatise, but the overarching theme that connects it all is how Luther thinks our freedom should work itself out in our lives.  And yes, I did use the word “work,” because it’s a big part of this section — the place of “works” in a Christian life led by faith.  Luther notes right at the beginning of this section that we are not purely spiritual beings, and while we are in our earthly bodies, it is necessary that we teach those bodies to “obey and be conformed to the inner person and faith, “so that they may not “rebel against or impede the inner person.”  In other words, as he says, the function of works is for the discipline of the body — not in order that one may be justified by them before God.  Rather, our souls have “been cleansed through faith,” and so we do our works “in compliance to God out of spontaneous love.”

Most of this is what you’d expect, even if you know only a little about Luther and/or Protestantism.  But you may have been surprised to see that Luther does have a place for works.  Many evangelicals nowadays put such emphasis on our salvation by grace, that they can’t articulate a place for good actions in our lives.  But Luther does, and as he goes on to say, we should remember Adam in the Garden: he was “righteous, upright, and without sin,” and yet God still gave him the job of caring for the Garden!  His work wasn’t there to “obtain righteousness,”  but rather to be done out of pure freedom.  Good works don’t make us good; rather, they show that God has made us good, as he says a bit later.  As he will also say, we are not good by our own merits, but God has showered us with such overwhelming love, that we can not help but live in his ways freely and joyfully.

Later, he takes up the importance of works done for the sake of the neighbor — not just good things done for oneself.  Luther touches on the topics you’d expect — service, imitating Christ, and treating others according to their needs and not our own.  Given these topics, it’s also not surprising that Luther quotes Paul a lot — he uses passages from Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians.  Here’s a good quote for you: “Since each and every person thus thrives through their own faith — so that all other works and the sum total of life flows out from that very faith — by these works each may serve and benefit the neighbor with willing benevolence.”

But here Luther introduces another example of faith and works — but may not one that you’d expect — the Virgin Mary!  Luther doesn’t invoke the common (and compelling) Catholic description of Mary as the disciple par excellence.  Rather, he talks about the narrative in Luke 2 about her “purification according to the Law of Moses.”  Luther says that she wasn’t bound by that law and didn’t need purification (presumably, he’s thinking of her conceiving Christ apart from sexual activity), but “nevertheless, she subjected herself to the law out of free and voluntary love, doing just as other women did, so that she did not offend or disdain them.”  As he notes, of course, she wasn’t “justified by this work” but rather “did it freely and spontaneously.”  I did not expect this analogy (but I probably should have), but it certainly makes sense to me and is thought-provoking.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to this text, but I need to sign off here.  I’ll be back next week with Luther’s Bondage of the Will!  But first…

Appendix: Other Tools

As you have read The Freedom of a Christian, you may have found yourself wanting some more information about this or that element of the text.  There are a number of commentators online that you can find, but I’ve collected a couple of resources for you.  First, if you want a brief (and humorous!) summary of the text, with contemporary reflection, you can check out this blogger’s post.  If you want something a little “meatier” — a more extended summary and outline — then you can consult this resource.  Finally, if you just want a simple outline of the text, especially since the Fortress edition I’m using and also the online texts I’ve found tend to not give chapter or section numbers, I’ve included one below.  I’ve built it from the study notes in the translation I’ve got, and you can look in the margins there if you want more detail:

1. The Letter to Pope Leo X (including an introduction, Luther’s defense of his own actions, the cause and progression of his case, and some closing advice for the Pope)

2. Introduction to the Treatise (including his main themes)

3. Part I: The Spiritual, New, and Inner Person (including the challenge of the law and righteousness, the importance of faith, and the spiritual priesthood)

4. Part II: The Outer Person (especially concerning works and the love of one’s neighbor)

5. An Appendix on Libertines and Legalists — people who espouse too much freedom and not enough freedom, respectively

Image credits for this post: www.nltimes.nl (for the 1526 portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder; edited by the blogger), saintbedestudio.blogspot.com/ (for the image of Pope Benedict XVI), and beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/ (for the anonymous painting of the Mother and Child)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Luther: Freedom of a Christian (Part 1)

Today we come to one of the most famous figures in all of church history: Martin Luther, sometimes called the “Father of the Protestant Reformation.”  For this month’s reading group, in addition to Luther’s Bondage of the Will, we are looking at his 1520 work The Freedom of a Christian, from which comes Luther’s famous line “The Christian is a completely free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  You can read the text online at this link; I am reading this recent publication from Fortress Press.  After a brief introduction to Luther, let’s get into the text!

A Few Words about Luther

There’s no way to adequately introduce Martin Luther in just a few sentences, but let me link to his Wikipedia page and offer a few comments of my own.  He was born in Germany in 1483 and was, therefore, what we would call “Roman Catholic,” in many of the stereotypical senses of that phrase.  The Catholicism he grew up in was very complex with LOTS of different elements that contributed to his later Reformation.  By his time there were a number of monastic orders, including the Augustinians of which he would become a part, and these had important roles at the various universities of Europe; in other words, monks and professors were important parts of late medieval European society.  There was an increasingly rigorous, official teaching office in the Catholic church (including the famous “Inquisition”), but there were also individuals and groups who were “doing their own thing” in terms of teaching Scripture and spirituality.  Finally, there were individuals committed to the great traditions of the church, but there were also folks who were comfortable critiquing those medieval traditions, including the Pope himself.  Some of the people who laid the foundations for Luther’s reforms include folks like Peter Waldo, Girolamo Savonarola, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus.

But, of course, he is best known for his seeking to reform the Catholic church of his day, which ultimately led to what we now call the “Protestant Reformation.”  Overall, in terms of his influence, Luther is my own top 5 “Most Famous Theologians of Church History” along with Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and John Wesley.  Among the many things that Luther bequeathed to the broader church are the emphasis on justification by grace (following Paul in Romans and Galatians), the importance of worship and Bibles in the vernacular (the everyday languages people speak), a sense of Christianity as BOTH a communal AND an individual operation, and a reminder of the importance of congregational participation in all aspects of church life.  If you’re interested in learning more, you might check out the psychologist Erik Erikson’s famous study Young Man Luther, or Roland Bainton’s brief and accessible biography Here I Stand.

The Freedom of a Christian

The primary text starts with a letter to the pope of that time, Leo X, in which we learn that Luther essentially dedicated the treatise to Pope Leo.  This is not a terribly surprising move, in that writers have been writing little prefaces for centuries!  For example, the biblical books of Luke and Acts both indicate that the author is intending to write to someone named Theophilus; this was a normal practice in the Greco-Roman world when someone wanted to thank the benefactor of a literary project.  In this case, though, Leo was not the one bankrolling Luther’s writing; rather, he was an important part of Luther’s audience.  As the German says toward the beginning of his letter, he has been specifically accused of attacking Pope Leo’s person, and Luther wants to defend himself from the accusations.  Given the conflicts that Luther and the Pope did encounter, it’s a little surprising that Luther would take such a conciliatory tone; however, the kind of politeness and courtesy that we see in the letter was pretty common at that time — plus it would have been REALLY foolish for Luther to “poke the bear,” so to speak.  (That said, he sure isn’t afraid of saying some extremely harsh things against other members of the Church’s leadership.)

Once he gets into the treatise as a whole, it is a bit surprising to me that he spends so much time talking about faith.  I thought this text was about freedom?!?  But early on, Luther gives us the answer: “In looking at the inner person first, we grasp how someone may become righteous, free, and truly Christian” — and the answer is the Word of God, the good news about Jesus.  And, of course, this message is one that requires trust and belief.  Put another way, Luther seems to think that faith is the key to freedom.  The reason that’s important is because the church of his day and/or its leaders had increasingly taught the importance of various rituals and ceremonies as a part of one’s salvation — the most odious of these, in Luther’s mind, were indulgences — and Luther goes on to say that these things “do not help the soul.”  It’s not the outward actions of these kinds that give freedom — it’s an inward faith in God and in Christ’s redemption!

Luther goes on to discuss some themes that have become fairly familiar to those of us who are Protestants: that faith alone justifies (following Paul), that “works” do not make us righteous before God (quoting John 6:29), that the law makes demands and yet we are inherently unable to fulfill it, and that God alone is able to fulfill God’s own command.  Next comes a discussion of the benefits and powers of faith, and Luther gives us a concise recap of the point made in the previous paragraph:

“[T]his is the Christian freedom referred to above, namely, our faith, which does not cause us to be lazy and lead evil lives but instead makes the law and works unnecessary for the righteousness and salvation of the Christian.”

Luther continues, noting that faith brings honor to the one in whom people trust — that is, God — because it holds that being to be worthy of trust.  A third benefit of faith is the union with Christ that it effects, much like that of a bride and bridegroom.  As a non-Luther-specialist, I was a little surprised to read this mystical-sounding language — I tend to think of Luther as a great debater and logician and theologian (in the modern sense of the word) more than as a mystic.  But, just as no one can know the depth of the riches of God’s wisdom and knowledge (Romans 11 — a text Luther quotes multiple times in the Bondage of the Will), so he says that no one can fully comprehend the riches of the glorious gift of our marriage to Christ!

That said, the wedding metaphor is appropriate for Luther, it seems to me, for multiple reasons (and those don’t include his own marriage to Katharina von Bora, which had not yet happened!).  First, even if the image is most famously found in Revelation, it is also Pauline (see 2 Corinthians and Ephesians), and we know Luther’s fondness for Paul.  Second, and more importantly, it actually does fit into Luther’s thinking about salvation because of the exchange of goods that spouses make with one another.  One of Luther’s fundamental tenets is that we are righteous before God because of Christ’s righteousness that we are freely given — not because of our own.  And that free gift is just like the gifts that spouses give to one another.  Christ is like a bridegroom, giving all that is his to his beloved bride.  Good news, right?

Let’s stop here.  I’ll come back next week with the second post on The Freedom of a Christian, before we turn to Bondage of the Will for a couple of posts.  Join in the conversation, if you like, and I’ll do my best to answer your comments and questions.  And in the meantime, let me give you a pair of questions for reflection: What is the biggest obstacle for you in trusting God these days?  And what do you think you could do about that?

Image credits: www.fortresspress.com for the image of the book, commons.wikimedia.org for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther, and www.redhenlab.org for the mosaic of Jesus and the church in the S. Maria in Trastevere church

Suggested next click: Freedom of a Christian, Part 2

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 3)

As we get to the middle of the (college) summer, it’s time for our last post on the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, before we move on in July to two important works from Martin Luther — The Freedom of a Christian and The Bondage of the Will.  So far I have made some introductory comments and discussed Book I, and then I’ve dedicated a second post to Books II and III.  The focus for this post will be Bede’s Books IV and V, with some comments related to the work as a whole.  You’ll hopefully learn more about how and why Bede has been such an important figure in English church history!

Important Elements in Books IV and V

  1. Caedmon and Cuthbert.  These last two books contain virtually all the information we have on two important British figures: the English poet Caedmon (whose “call” gave the famous Christian music group their name) and the monk and bishop St. Cuthbert.  Caedmon’s story is told in IV.24, and it includes the only extant poem that we have from Caedmon — a song in praise of God the Creator.  Interestingly, Bede notes that Caedmon’s singular gift seems to have been his ability to “translate” passages of Scripture into English verse, once they were explained to him; note that he did not sing in Latin, and that he did not have his own education.  But he seems to have written LOTS of songs, even if only our one survives.  Cuthbert’s story is related in IV.27-29, with stories of miracles occurring via his relics in IV.30-32.  He is another of Bede’s model bishops, as Wright notes, joining the ranks of Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan, and Chad.  Like these others, Cuthbert leads not only by word but also by deed, and he is deeply humble.  Toward the end of his life, Cuthbert foresees his own death and tells others of its imminent occurrence; this gift of foresight recurs in Bede’s narrative, typically as an indication of the holiness or innocence of its recipient.  All in all, Cuthbert is a model of Christian virtue, as Bede also makes clear in a separate text — his poetic Life of Cuthbert (which you can read at this link).
  2. lindisfarne gospelsThe Importance of Scripture.  Something that has been true of Books I-III, but that I’ve mostly saved until now, is the immense importance of Scripture to Bede.  Something that modern readers are sometimes surprised by in reading ancient authors is their intense interest in and command of Scripture.  That’s true of Bede as well.  In some places, it’s quite simple, in that his characters quote Scripture (e.g., Bishop Chad’s quoting of Psalm 18 in IV.3).  Then, there are places where Bede uses Scripture to help his readers understand what is happening in the narrative, like Ecclesiastes 3 to explain Chad’s impending death in IV.3, or 2 Corinthians 12 to explain Ethelburga’s sickness in IV.9.  There are places in his text where he sees what’s happening in England as a continuation of biblical history (for example, IV.25, where the sinful members of a monastery do not follow the contrite example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, and thus are destroyed by fire, or the very end of the text in V.23, where Britain is one of the islands that give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, from Psalm 97).  At other times, he places words of Scripture into the mouths of his characters, as in his narrative of Cuthbert in IV.28, where Cuthbert remembers the commands of Jesus.  At still other places, he compares his subjects to biblical characters, as in his comparison at V.8 of Archbishop Theodore to the godly men of the past, following Sirach 44.  The big point is this: when one steps back and looks at the work as a whole, one sees that it is suffused with Scripture.
  3. Bede the Historian.  We have seen throughout the text that Bede is a careful historian, and that care manifests itself in a variety of ways.  That feature continues in this last part of the text, with Bede’s general intention to tell the story of the English church in chronological order, while also illuminating some important personalities.  He shares first-hand (e.g., IV.32) and second-hand accounts (e.g., IV.3) of various events, almost always naming his sources (like Abbot Berthun, who is the source of miracles described in V.2-4).  He also notes written records that he has consulted, as in IV.7 about various miracles.  In IV.5, he preserves the decisions of the Council of Hertford (AD/CE 673), and he preserves a conciliar letter from the Synod of Hatfield (AD/CE 680) in IV.17.  While Bede often focuses on “great men,” he also reveals a certain sense of obligation regarding other good stories, as in the case of of IV.16, where he tells of two young princes who convert to Christianity just before being executed.  Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to reprint material from still other sources, like gravestone epitaphs in V.8 and V.19, or books about the Holy Land in V.16-17.  Finally, he ends his text with a “how are things with Christianity in England now?” in V.23 and a chronological summary of the whole book in V.24.  He’s careful and helpful!
  4. Christian Controversies.  As we saw in the second post on Bede, he is very interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman traditions, especially on the date of Easter and the proper monastic haircut.  And there continue to be places where Bede shows interest in various differences between Christian groups.  For example, when Theodore (of Greek heritage) comes to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope sends along an abbot to support him, but also to make sure that “he did not introduce into the Church which he was to rule any Greek customs which conflicted with the teachings of the true Faith” (IV.1).  Then, toward the end of the text, in V.19, Bede tells the story of bishop Wilfrid, who apparently represented the English churches at a synod in Rome that was part of the Monothelite controversy.  Finally, in V.21, Bede reproduces a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid to the king of the Picts in what is now Scotland; that letter contains lengthy reflections on the Celtic-Roman questions about Easter and the tonsure — a nice recap of Bede’s own position on those matters!  As we see throughout the text, Bede is a historian, but he is a historian with commitments about how things should be done, and he is not afraid to make those clear.
  5. Platonic View of Death.  A feature of the text that caught me off-guard — in that I had noticed it in the first three books — was Bede’s repeated descriptions of death as a type of liberation from the body.  In IV.3, a plague means that “death freed many members of the reverend bishop’s church from the burden of the flesh.”  Later in that section, the bishop himself dies, which Bede describes as that “his holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body.”  In IV.9, we hear of one nun who is “set free from the body” and of another named Tortgyth who is “delivered from the burden of the body.”  Then, in IV.14, an epidemic strikes the island of Britain, and while many people are saved from it, one young boy is “set free by death.”  By the time of Bede, traditional Christian teaching had connected Neoplatonic ideas about the body and soul (let me know if you have a better link) with some of the things that Paul says in his letters, such that the body was viewed as a hindrance to the proper spiritual activity of the soul; this view is perhaps most famously expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III), where the lead character speaks of death as shuffling off “this mortal coil.”  Certainly, Bede’s views are also influenced by his monastic background, since we know that medieval monks often saw the body as the soul’s opponent, one which must be purified (or even punished) by penance.

Well, it’s time to wrap up Bede.  We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and hopefully you’ve come to understand him and his text more fully.  The shame of it all is that we haven’t even been able to touch of everything of interest: we’ve totally left aside the story of Willibrord (the great missionary to the Frisians, described in V.10-11) and Bede’s comments here and there about church music in England.  I haven’t said much about Bede’s many comments (some subtle, some overt) about monastic life at the time, or the many miracle stories he includes throughout the text.  Further, I haven’t even discussed how Bede TOTALLY OMITS ST. PATRICK!  (You can read more about that at this link.)  For these and other omissions, I can only apologize for the brevity of this format, point you to Wright’s book, and encourage you to keep researching on your own!  In the meantime, a set of questions to conclude:

If you were to tell the story of Christianity in your denomination and part of the world, how would you do so?  What would you emphasize?  What would you leave out?  What parts of Scripture would you connect with?

Image credits: www.pinterest.com (the illumination of Bede), www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/lindisfarne.html (the detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels), and www.umich.edu/~ece/student_projects/anatomy/anatomists.html (for the image from Vesalius of death contemplating death)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 2)

bede windowWelcome back to the CHEF and to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!  In the first post I talked about some background info and about Book I of the work, which gets us up to ca. 600 AD/CE.  In this post I’ll have some things to say about Books II and III, and then in the last one I’ll discuss books IV and V.

First, though, the big picture.

  • Chronology: while Book I consists of several centuries of history, Books II and III are focused on only about 60 years — from ca. 605 to about 665.
  • Geography: Books II and III discuss events that happened all over what we now think of as England, but it also includes stories and personalities connected with places like Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and even Rome!  In other words, medieval England included a lot more “coming and going” than we might think of for the early Middle Ages.
  • The big points: 1) slowly, and in fits and starts, the various tribes that make up the “English people” are becoming Christian; and 2) the Christianity in England is becoming more and more influenced by “Roman Catholicism” as the native Celtic traditions are replaced by Continental ones.

Major Elements in Books II and III

  1. As noted above, a primary part of this middle part of Bede’s History is the slow move of the various Anglo-Saxon tribes toward Christianity.  The Danes and the Normans are not yet in view; rather, one reads a great deal about the West Saxons, the East Saxons, the Mercians, the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, etc.  These are all Germanic groups and are Bede’s primary focus; the Britons and Irish are mentioned but are the groups he finds to be imperfect in their Christian beliefs (see below).  In fact, if you’re like me, you find it hard to keep straight the different kingdoms and kings — names like Oswin and Oswald, Ethelwald and Ethelbert, and Edwin and Egbert are WAY too similar to make it easy for casual readers.  Happily, the Internet can help us here.  You can find lists of the kings of the various kingdoms at this link (although a comparative chart would be very helpful, and I haven’t found one yet).  Also this link gives you more information about the different kingdoms at this time, and the decent-enough map to the left can hopefully help you visually.
  2. But it’s not just about the places; for Bede, it’s about their conversion.  At the beginning of the 600s, Britain was a largely “pagan” place, but by the end of Book III, most of the English kingdoms have become Christian.  In one sense, this development occurs rather quickly, in that someone born around 600 (and living to 665) would have seen his surroundings change drastically.  On the other hand, it is important to note that Bede doesn’t present a smooth transition.  Sometimes one king converts, only for his son(s) to revert to paganism (see, e.g., King Ethelbert of Kent in II.5); at other times, a preacher comes to convert the king, but it takes him a long time to decide what to do (as with Edwin of Northumbria in II.13).  This picture helps nuance one of the aspects of early medieval Christianity that is sometimes troubling: the conversion of whole people groups upon the conversion of a king.  While these are not forced conversions (as discussed in this link), as modern people, we worry about the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved — whether they REALLY knew what they were doing.  But as we see here, it was an unsurprisingly complex phenomenon.
  3. Speaking of early medieval Christianity, there are a number of aspects of this portion of the text that are very “medieval,” that is, that fit our stereotypes of “the Middle Ages.”  We see things like daily Mass becoming normal (as in II.9), the “sign of the cross” becoming a cipher for Christianity and Christ (as in II.10 and III.2), “the Pope” becoming the standard name of the bishop of Rome (II.11), the use of saints’ relics or their derivatives for the purposes of healing or protection (III.2, 9-13, etc.), and a picture of continually developing church hierarchy (II. 17, where we see archbishops having some amount of authority over “just regular” bishops).  Personally, it had never really occurred to me to question our traditional delineation of the “Middle Ages” as a discrete thing, but Bede’s history shows me that there really is value in our thinking this way — that there were aspects of medieval Christianity that are just plain different from what came before and what would come after.
  4. A central event in Books II and III is the so-called “Synod of Whitby,” of which Bede is a major source (III.25).  MUCH more has been written elsewhere (for example, here and here), and so I’ll just offer a few comments.  First, this conflict gets set up from the very beginning of Book II, with Bede’s panegyric on Gregory I.  The fact that he praises a Roman bishop so highly shows us where his sympathies lie (notwithstanding Gregory’s role in evangelizing the English people).  Second, Bede makes it very clear (in several places, like II.4 and III.4) that the Britons, while they have admirable spiritual leaders, are not “doing Easter” right, specifically in the timing of their observance.  This may seem like a trivial problem, but for Bede, it represents their being out-of-step with the rest of the Christian world, especially with its center in Rome.  Third, we get a sense that there is a top-down urgency to this situation (much like Constantine’s motivations in calling the first Council of Nicaea in 325): King Oswiu of Northumbria followed the Celtic traditions, while his wife Eanfled (from Kent) followed the Roman ones.  As a result, as Bede says, there could be a time when the king was feasting and the queen was fasting!  Fourth, Bede does acknowledge that other issues were a part of the synod, like the so-called “tonsure” — the image below shows a drawing of the Roman practice on the left, with what might have been the Celtic practice on the right (we’re not exactly sure — but he doesn’t make a big deal about these “other matters.”  Finally, it’s interesting to me how the conversation ends.  Both sides have “tradition” on their side, and both claim apostolic origins for their practices.  However, when it becomes clear that the Celtic argument is largely based on the holiness of their saints, but that the Roman one is based on the authority of Peter, the king chooses Peter.  I might disagree with him historically, preferring the preservation of cultural diversity, but it’s hard for me to disagree with him personally.  Notice, by the way, that this is another chapter in the long and convoluted history of Britain and the continent of Europe (see the Anglican Reformation in the 1500s, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016, etc.).

celtic vs roman tonsure

Other Elements of Note in Books II and III

  1. I have read that Bede is the author that really popularized the “AD” dating system (anno Domini = “in the year of the Lord”).  I don’t have independent attestation of that fact, but I’m content to accept it.  We certainly see him using it all over the place, e.g., in II.1 about Pope Gregory.
  2. In his description of Gregory’s life (II.1), we see Bede (a monk) clearly contrast his ideal of monasticism as a pure, unsullied way of existing that seems to be clearly better than a life in the dirty, secular world.  This view makes sense, but it’s also problematic (as later thinkers would help us understand), chiefly in light of Jesus’ incarnation.  Our Lord came into a dirty world — and he took it on himself in the form of a breakable human body!
  3. Bede occasionally uses the word “catholic” in ways that mean “universal.”  He usually does this when talking about heretics or misguided Christians (here, in II.2, regarding the Britons).  However, the translation I’m using usually prints the word as capitalized “Catholic,” which has the presumably unintended connotation of “Roman Catholic,” which is not what Bede means.  He means something like, “Why do you think you’re so special?  EVERYBODY ELSE does it this other way!”
  4. Bede includes interesting and thought-provoking remarks about being a historian.  In III.2 he talks about how all the chroniclers basically decided to wipe a really terrible year (one marauding, invading king, and other apostate ones) off the record, by assigning it to the reign of “their successor King Oswald,” a good and pious ruler!  Then, in III.17, in discussing the death of the great and pious Saint Aidan, Bede says that he can’t “commend or approve his inadequate knowledge of the proper observance of Easter.”  However, he says that “as a truthful historian” he’s told the truth about Aidan’s life, and that he must commend all the virtues of the great saint’s life and actions, concluding by saying, “I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan.”  A good model for us of how to deal with those with whom we disagree!

That’s it for Books II and III of Bede.  Next time we’ll finish up with Books IV and V.  See you there!  In the meantime, be thinking: What is an issue in Christianity on which you disagree with someone who is a really good follower of Jesus?  How might you focus more on your unity with that person than on your disagreements?

Image credits: www.thebatchelorcollection.co.uk/ (the Bede stained-glass window), www.vulkaner.no/f/odin-england.htm (the map of Anglo-Saxon Britain), and a student’s account at www.studyblue.com (the image of monastic tonsures, apparently captured from a book that I can’t find; if you know what the original source is, please let me know!)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 3

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 1)

Welcome to early medieval England! This is the first of three posts dedicated to the English church historian Bede and his text called Ecclesiastical History of the English People.  The translation that I am reading is the one originally published in 1955 as part of the Penguin Classics series, with a new introduction by D. H. Farmer in 1990.  This version includes more information about Bede’s life in its introduction, in addition to a lot of really interesting notes.  If you want a free, online version of the text (early 20th-century), check out this one at Paul Halsall’s excellent Medieval Sourcebook site.  Also, for more information on the text itself, you may want to get a hold of J. Robert Wright’s A Companion to Bede: A Reader’s Commentary on The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; this book is a helpful companion as you wend your way through a book that is more than 1,000 years old!

Introduction

Bede was a monk and priest who lived in the 600s and 700s, mainly in the area known as Northumberland (that is, north of the river Humber, with varying northern borders). He seems to have lived most or all of his life in a very small geographical area, but thanks to his historical sources, he had access to information from other places in England (like Kent, to the south of London) and even on the European mainland (as far away as Rome).  If you want to know more about Bede, you can check out this encyclopedia link.

Now, the title of the book may suggest to us that he’s writing about the history of the church in England, but when we hear “English people,” we need to think in terms of the “Anglo-Saxons” who came to the island of Britain over the course of centuries after the Roman period. In other words, he is not talking about the history of the church among the Britons or other Gaelic peoples – that is, not the ones we would think of as living in places we now know as Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. And when he does talk about these people, it is not in complimentary terms. As a point of comparison, one may consult Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, which was written 400 years later and from a Welsh perspective, and which uses Bede as a source. Bede celebrates Anglo-Saxon Christianity, centered in Canterbury, as a huge blessing for the English people; however, Geoffrey emphasizes that it was a mission to the apostate Anglo-Saxons, saying that the Britons had retained their traditional Christianity.  Furthermore, he takes great pains to argue that Augustine and his bishops had no spiritual authority over the Welsh!

Back to Bede.  His history is divided into five sections, traditionally called “books.” In this post I will comment upon Book I, and in the next two posts, I’ll talk about Books II and III, and then on Books IV and V. Book I sets the scene by describing British geography, and it gives important background by telling about the Roman influence in Britain, starting with Julius Caesar and other early Roman emperors, and continuing by describing the first British king to be made a Christian (ca. 156 AD/CE). The first book continues all the way until the arrival of Augustine of Canterbury from Rome, and Ethelfrid of Northumbria’s subduing of the Britons and Irish (603 AD/CE).

Before we dig into the meat of the book, we should note that Bede starts with a preface that dedicates the text to Bede’s king (and perhaps patron?), and here we see a point that reminds us of the end of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation: that the point of the text is that people will live more upright lives. Bede isn’t writing history for its own sake; rather, as he says, “if history records good things of good [people], the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good; or if it records evil of wicked [people], the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what [is known] to be good and pleasing to God.”

Other Notes on Book I

  1. Bede devotes chapter 7 of Book I to the tale of St. Alban‘s martyrdom.  While Bede’s tale is not the first version of this story, it is the most detailed.  The story is a compelling tale of self-sacrifice on the part of a new Christian.  In fact, St. Alban was so new to the faith that he had not yet even been baptized.  However, Bede notes that “although he had not received the purification of baptism, there was no doubt that he was cleansed by the shedding of his own blood, and rendered fit to enter the kingdom of heaven.”  This idea is sometimes called the “baptism of blood” and is associated with the early Christian martyrs.  (See also ch. 18, where the relics of St. Alban are used to help effect a healing.)
  2. Chapter 14 describes fifth-century England like something out of the biblical books of Judges or Kings — when their enemies’ attacks had subsided, the people gave themselves to luxury and crime, malice and dishonesty  (See also ch. 15, where he makes explicit connection with the Chaldeans’ destruction of Jerusalem).  As Bede says, “Giving themselves up to drunkenness, hatred, quarrels, and violence, they threw off the easy yoke of Christ.”  After this apostasy, they suffered a terrible plague and then (even worse!) invited the Saxons to come from Germany to help them.  Bede seems to want to speak like a prophet: that even a people blessed by God can fall away from their faith, and this example should serve as a warning to all.
  3. That said, it is also possible for a people to return to God.  Chapter 17 describes two Gaulish (French) bishops who came to the island, preaching the true faith of Christ (that is, not the Pelagian heresy that had been infecting the nation).  The description of preaching in both churches and outdoors in streets and fields reminds me of the 18th- and 19th-century revivals in Britain, under great preachers like John Wesley and Charles Spurgeon.
  4. When Christianity finally took root among the Anglo-Saxons under Augustine’s leadership, it was partly because their queen (a Frankish woman named Bertha, described in ch. 25) came from a family that had been Christian for three generations.  She was apparently married to King Ethelbert of Kent for political reasons, but she was the great-granddaughter of Clovis, founder of the Frankish Merovingian dynasty.  This story is a good reminder of the importance of transmitting the Christian faith within families; one never knows where one’s descendants will end up!
  5. gregory to augustineFinally, Bede preserves several letters from Pope Gregory I (“the Great”).  Scholars feel confident about the authenticity of most of these, and they contain several interesting features.  For example, in letter 1 to Augustine, Gregory notes that clerical celibacy is an ideal, but he does not place it as a requirement on local clergy; in fact, it took many more centuries for priests’ celibacy to become standard and expected.  In letter 2 we find a famous quote of Gregory’s: that we should help young Christians grow in the faith by using good ideas from lots of different church traditions; as he says, “things should not be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.”  And finally, in a subsequent letter to the Abbot Mellitus, Gregory gives the sensible and famous advice that “target populations” should be eased into the Christian faith by understanding their own religion and connecting elements of Christianity with it.  Gregory is careful to avoid syncretism; rather, he teaches something quite like what modern missiologists would call the enculturation of the Gospel.

That’s it for Book I of Bede; in the next post, we’ll go on to Books II and III.  In the meantime, be thinking: what can you do to help spread or shore up the Christian faith in your family or location?

Image credits: www.penguin.co.uk (the cover of their edition of the book), www.dailymail.co.uk (the headshot of Bede), and en.radiovaticana.va (the mosaic of Gregory and Augustine)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 2

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 2)

In my prior post about Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I wrote about the first two sections of the work, according to the outline I provided there.  In today’s post I’ll discuss the last three major sections — a couple of noteworthy items from each section.

Regarding Christ’s Death and Resurrection

a8a76d2521e47fc0b4f7e516f2a525d5In the prior post I noted how Athanasius argues for Christ’s uniqueness as God-become-human.  In chs. 20-32, we see more of the same.  He starts out with what sounds like a preacher’s refrain: “It was not for another” to bring us to incorruptibility, to recreate us in God’s image, to make mortals to be immortal, and to teach us the truth about God.  Then, in ch. 22, he says that Jesus was, in a way, uniquely qualified to conquer death, since he was actually “the Life” (cf. John 14:6) and did not have death in him.  (Again, this does raise questions about how fully Jesus had become human, right?)

A second interesting feature of this section is when Athanasius takes up some questions that folks may have — and these seem to be honest questions from seekers, not necessarily objections from opponents (as he’ll do in the next two sections — although see ch. 25).  So, if someone asks why Jesus couldn’t just have died in a private place rather than in the public, ignominious crucifixion, Athanasius says that people would have said he just died from the “normal” weakness of human flesh (ch. 21).  Should he have fled from the Jews in order to preserve his immortal body?  No — because he had to publicly demonstrate his conquering death so all would know that it had been conquered (ch. 22).  Wasn’t there just any other way than the shameful cross?  No — he had to take a curse upon him to redeem us from the curse that came in the garden (ch. 25).  Why did he wait until the third day to be resurrected?  Because if it had been immediate, people would have said he hadn’t really died, and if it had been a month later, people would have forgotten some of the things that he had said (ch. 26).  Some good questions, right?

In a similar vein, one of the things I really appreciate about this text is that it’s pretty realistic about human nature.  Besides the questions that he asks in this section — legit questions! — we also get more imagined results to some of the “what ifs” of the Gospels?  We especially see this in ch. 23, where he says things like…

  • If Jesus had just hidden his dead body away and then reappeared, saying he’d been raised from the dead, then no one would have believed him, AND they would have trusted him even less when he talked about the resurrection!
  • If the disciples hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then there’s no way they would have been as bold to say that he had been raised from the dead.
  • If the Jewish leaders hadn’t actually seen Jesus die, then it would have been even easier for them to explain his supposed resurrection away.

Concerning Objections from “the Jews”

Where section 3 has some pretty direct relevance for me in my context — we have a number of people in my part of the world who question the Christian narrative, the stories of Scripture, and especially the centrality of Jesus in life — section 4 is not as much so.  The reason is that this part concerns objections that (real or imagined) Jews of Athanasius’ time made against the Christian claims concerning Jesus.  So, if you (the reader) do live in a place where there are a number of Jews, and if you happen to be involved in conversations about religion, then Athanasius’s text might be helpful.

The most noteworthy part of this section (starting at ch. 33), in my mind, is that we have two different kinds of testimonies that are made.  First, we get some repetition of the texts that are in the New Testament, in places like Matthew’s Gospel or the book of Acts.  Examples of this type especially come from the book of Isaiah, including Isa. 7:14 about a virgin conceiving a child (Matthew 1), the famous “Servant Song” in Isa. 52-53 (Acts 8), and Isa. 65:1-2 about God’s reaching out to a “disobedient and rebellious people” (Romans 10).

However, there are also other passages that don’t appear in the New Testament, like Deuteronomy 28:66, which says, “You will see your life hanging before your eyes, and you will not believe” (reflecting the Septuagint text more than the Hebrew).  In ch. 35 of his text, Athanasius rather naturally connects “life” with Jesus, and the idea of “hanging” with “hanging on the cross, thus making the text a prophecy of Moses against the Jews who would reject Jesus.  In fact, there are a number of these kinds of texts — and the fact that several of them are also quoted in other early Christian writings makes us think that there must have been some common body of texts that writers knew and could draw from for their purposes.  In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Rendel Harris’s Testimonies (also available for free in GoogleBooks), which was dedicated to the question of whether there was even a text that was known, copied, and consulted by the church fathers, but is now lost to history.

Concerning Objections from “the Greeks”

The last portion of the text is concerning with refuting objections that Gentiles (“Greeks”) may make.  For example, Athanasius returns to engagement with Greek philosophers (as he did early on, in ch. 2.  He says in chs. 41-42 that some philosophers teach that the cosmos has a body (see this discussion of Stoic metaphysics) but also that God’s Logos (a generic term for a mediating presence between God and humanity) also pervades the universe.  If the Logos can be in a cosmos with a body, he asks, why can it not be in a human body?  Then, in ch. 43, he refers to Plato’s understanding of the cosmos’s slipping into corruptibility (perhaps from Plutarch’s Moralia) to argue that it is not unreasonable to think that God saw the same in human beings, especially since in both narratives God steps in to fix the problem!

he-the-resurrection-2003Later in this section, starting in ch. 46, he returns to the problem of idolatry that he dealt with in his Against the Heathens.  Here, he argues from common experience: what’s the deal that there are so many different gods, worshiped in so many different places — especially since people tend to say that gods only have authority in local places?  Doesn’t that mean they are weak?  In fact, it means they are weak demons (see the last post) who are deceiving people, and Jesus, the Truth, comes to drive away their deceits.  And as a result, “by means of simple words and by means of humans not wise in speech” (ch. 47), he was able to point folks toward resurrection and immortality!

Toward the end, Athanasius continues his argument from experience and turns it to exhortation for his Christian readers.  First, he notes (to the Greeks) that none of their kings, heroes, or rulers ever did some of the things Jesus did — like making a body for himself from a virgin alone (ch. 49), or converting human beings from all over the world from their idols (ch. 50), or showed and taught that virginity is both good and possible for humans (ch. 51), or united in peace people who legitimately hated each other (ch. 52), or despoiled the worship of the idols and the work of the magicians (ch. 53)?  Implied answer: no one.  And, as he closes, he notes that Christians’ lives can also be exemplary, because it is not enough simply to learn about Jesus — one must live his ways as well.  I will close with Athanasius’s own words from ch. 57:

“…[I]n addition to the study and knowledge of the scriptures, there is needed a good life and a pure soul and the virtue which is according to Christ, so that the mind, guided by it, may be able to attain and comprehend what it desires, as far as it is possible for human nature to learn about the God Word [i.e., Jesus]”

Image credits: because Athanasius’s text comes from and reflects a very different culture, I’ve decided to use art from a different culture — the amazing He Qi from China.  His crucifixion is from www.pinterest.com/pastorpathiggin/beautiful-art/; his Nativity painting is from sacraparental.files.wordpress.com; and his resurrection is from puthudoznika.blogspot.com/.

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Part 1)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  The second short text for the beginning of summer is also by Athanasius of Alexandria — it’s his famous doctrinal text On the Incarnation.  It was written in the early fourth century, probably before the Council of Nicaea in 325, since it does not refer explicitly to the Arian controversy that led up to and followed that council.  That means that it was written before Athanasius was the bishop of Alexandria.  In fact, a former teacher of mine called it the equivalent of a master’s thesis — doing an excellent job of reviewing the problem and offering some theological suggestions!  The title of the work refers to Jesus’s earthly life — his becoming human as a baby, his bodily death on the cross, and his bodily resurrection.  I’ll explain more and offer some thoughts below, but suffice it to say that this text has been important enough that C. S. Lewis actually wrote the preface for a 1944 translation of the work.  In fact, if you need an online copy of Athanasius’s text, you can find it at this link, while you find the version I’m using on Amazon at this link.

Outline of the Text

One thing that is often helpful when beginning a new text is to have a sense of how it’s organized.  We know this intuitively from movies, and it helps us know what’s going to happen.  Romantic comedies typically have a meet-cute, followed by tension, followed by a happy ending.  Action movies often have a slow build, getting more and more exciting, all the way to a gigantic climax (often followed by a brief romantic encounter).  Here I’m following the outline of On the Incarnation provided by John Behr, who wrote the introduction and translation that I’m using.  He says that we can think of it in five major parts:

  • After the introduction, Athanasius takes up a “divine dilemma”: what should God have done in light of humans’ disobedience in the garden? (Chs. 1-10)
  • Then, he takes up a second problem: since our desires for knowledge have shifted from heavenly things to earthly things, how can God rightly get our attention?  (Chs. 11-19)
  • Part 3 is focused on Jesus’s death on a cross — why on a cross and not some other way — and his resurrection in the body, which is witnessed by Christians’ lack of fear in the face of earthly death.  (Chs. 20-32)
  • Then, he considers objections that Jews might raise to this account of the incarnation, based on their own Bible (what Christians call the “Old Testament”).  (Chs. 33-40)
  • Finally, before a brief closing, he considers objections that Gentiles (that is, “Greeks” not yet in Christ) raise based on what they see in the creation and in the effects of Christ’s death.  (Chs. 41-57)

On the Garden and the Incarnation

Athanasius starts by referring to a past work of his, the one called by its Latin name Contra Gentes or (commonly) in English translation as Against the Heathens or Against the Gentiles.  The present text continues what he began there, by shifting from his discussion of idolatry to focusing on Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection in the flesh.  The most interesting problem in  Brick Testament Adam and Evethis section, in my mind, concerns what Athanasius thinks God could or should have done once the first humans disobeyed his commandment in the garden.  Athanasius scolds the first humans a bit by saying that it was absurd to have thought that God wouldn’t actually carry out what he said about death coming as a consequence of eating the fruit.  In fact, though, he defends God’s actions as being both right and proper.  It was right (or “just”) for God to condemn them to death, since God had given a rule, and rule-breaking brings consequences.  But that said, it was proper for God to offer them a way to avoid destruction, since the workmanship of God is necessarily good and should be seen as such.  In other words, God’s actions were right insofar as God is the lawgiver, and they were proper insofar as God is good.

In fact, it is God’s goodness that strikes me as another important theme in this portion of the text.  From the beginning of this account, Athanasius talks about how good God has been to human beings.  In chs. 3-5 he says that, by our created and animal nature, we are essentially corruptible and irrational; however, by God’s free gift, we were made both incorruptible (at the beginning) and rational, both of which allow us to participate in relationship with God.  Second, in ch. 7, we see the beginning of a theme that appears throughout out the book: that God gives second chances.  Athanasius depicts God as a re-newer, a re-creator, a re-storer — in other words, one who is willing to do things again for our sakes.  As he says there, “It was his once more … to bring the corruptible to incorruptibility.”  This is a theme that Cyril of Alexandria, his successor a century later, would also pick up.  Finally, in ch. 9, we begin to get to the heart of the text: because there was no other way for humans’ corruptibility to be undone, God the Word is willing to become human for our sakes.  In an argument somewhat reminiscent of Anselm of Canterbury, in his 12th-century text Why Did God Become Human?, Athanasius says that a body had to die to fulfill the requirements of death, but that only God could actually take the death of everyone at once.

On the Problem of Humanity’s Knowledge

As I noted above, ch. 11 starts a new section devoted to the problem of human beings’ focus on earthly things rather than heavenly ones.  If you’re thinking that this sounds like Romans 1, then you’re right: Athanasius quotes it and refers to it often in this text.  Here we again see a God who is merciful and gracious, in this case accounting for the weaknesses of human beings.  For example, in ch. 12, he describes all the different ways that God has manifested Godself to humans: in ourselves, creation (again, Rom. 1), in the law, in the prophets, etc.  Then, in ch. 15, he notes the ways that the very things we are tempted to worship and adore can speak to us of God: the elements of creation, human beings (Christ-the-incarnate is the greatest of all humans), other supernatural beings (the demons, whom Athanasius sees as the actual beings lying behind the Greek and Roman gods, actually confess Christ in the Gospels), and dead heroes of the past (since Christ overcame death).  Athanasius seems at pains to say that, in truth, we have no reason not to worship God, since all of creation points us to God in Christ.

Second, and I’ll close here for now, On the Incarnation provides a good example of a theological text that speaks to the issues of its own day without anticipating the problems of the future.  In baby jesus walking on waterch. 17, Athanasius describes the amazing act of incarnation: that God-in-Christ used the human body like a tool, “not bound to the body” but rather “wielding it.”  His point is clearly to magnify God’s power and Christ’s uniqueness, but there is an unintended consequence: that it can seem as though Christ’s human body is merely a tool.  The aforementioned Cyril would be horrified at this notion, since it was important in his time to emphasize the inseparable unity between the humanity and divinity of Christ.  But Athanasius also wants to show that Christ’s divinity “sanctified the body,” and that “by being in the body” he was not defiled — in other words, that humanity itself came back in the direction of perfection because of Christ’s work in becoming incarnate.  He doesn’t mean to sound like Christ may not be fully human — one wonders if this is part of what set the table for the later problem of Apollinarianism — but there we are!

Coming up next: the last three portions of the text!

Image credits: http://www.svspress.com/ (for the cover of the book), http://www.bricktestament.com (for the Adam and Eve image, edited by the blogger), and weknowmemes.com/2014/07/jesus-at-bath-time-comic/ (for the baby Jesus cartoon)

Suggested next click: On the Incarnation, Part 2

Athanasius: Life of Anthony (Part 2)

In the first post on Athanasius, I introduced the author a bit and began to talk about his famous work The Life of Anthony.  In today’s post I’ll finish my comments on this text.  (If you’re ahead, go ahead and start on Athanasius’s On the Incarnation — you can find an online translation at this link.

There are many important themes that come up in this text; if you have access to the translation of the Life of Anthony in the Classics of Western Spirituality series, then you can read the excellent introduction there, written by Robert C. Gregg.  If not, then I’ll offer some hopefully thought-provoking observations on the text.

Depicting Anthony

For quite a long time, people read this text in a generally straightforward way — that is, assuming that Athanasius is simply reporting the truth.  Now, with our modern sensibilities regarding literary criticism, we are aware that Athanasius is clearly crafting a portrait of Anthony for some kind of intentional ends.  Obviously, that does call some things into question — what parts can we actually assume are true? — but it also helps us see a little more about Athanasius and Anthony.

Two of the most intriguing aspects of Athanasius’s depiction are his portraits of Anthony as a wise man (not book-learnin’) and as a paragon of orthodoxy.  The former can be seen in places like sections 72-80, where Anthony outwits two “Greek philosophers” who came to test him.  (One is reminded here of the Gospel stories of Jewish leaders coming to put Jesus to a test.)  Athanasius clearly wants us to remember the early Christian leaders, who in places like Acts 4 are described as idiotes (or “uneducated”) people; the point is not to glorify them but rather the God who enables them to speak with such eloquence, just like Anthony does here.  The section closes with the philosophers “marveling at him” (like the leaders in Acts 4) and “acknowledging that they had benefited from him.”

The latter — that Anthony is depicted as unimpeachably orthodox — is a theme that Gregg describes well in his introduction.  You can see it clearly in places like sections 68 and 69, where Anthony as having nothing to do with one group who just happen to be Athanasius’s own theological opponents (the Arians), one group who were a historical problem in Egypt (the Meletians), and those general fourth-century bogeymen, the Manichaeans, urging them all to “change to right belief.”  Athanasius depicts him as welcoming guests (as is typical for him), but once he discerns that they are heretics, he runs them off, “for he held and taught that friendship and association with them led to injury and destruction of the soul.”  Of course, it is possible that Anthony would actually have rejected folks like this in exactly this way, but we can’t know that for sure.  What we can know is that Athanasius, the embattled church politician, is clearly trying to demonstrate that Anthony, the great holy man of Egypt, would have been on his side in the conflicts of the fourth century — not unlike politicians today seeking endorsements from famous pastors.

Classic Monastic Themes

It is not surprising that we also find some standard themes in Athanasius’s depiction of Anthony.  For example, his attitude toward personal property is one that is mirrored throughout the history of Christian monasticism; for centuries monks will struggle will the human tendency toward acquisitiveness.  But Anthony, in section 17 — and Athanasius, through the mouth of the blessed ascetic — says to us,

“Let none among us have even the yearning to possess.  For what benefit is there in possessing these things that we do not take with us?  Why not rather own those things that we are able to take away with us [that is, after death] — such things as prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger, hospitality?  If we possess these, we shall discover them running before, preparing hospitality for us there in the land of the meek.

Second, we see the way that one person’s holiness attracts others to follow.  This aspect of Christianity is first visible in Paul’s writings, where we see him writing to the Philippians, holding up characters like Timothy and Epaphroditus as examples of self-giving love, or even himself as one who is pursuing Christ relentlessly.  In our text, Athanasius describes individuals wanting to imitate Anthony’s asceticism (sec. 14), and it actually becomes difficult for Anthony, since he really wants to pursue God in solitude.  In a later episode (sec. 46), Anthony goes to Alexandria to support those imprisoned in the persecution under Maximin — perhaps even to receive martyrdom himself — but he was spared.  Athanasius interprets this event as from the Lord, who was “protecting him to benefit us and others, so that he might be a teacher to many in the discipline that he had learned from the Scriptures.  For simply by seeing his conduct, many aspired to become imitators of his way of life.”

athletic-stain-glass-window

Third, Athanasius occasionally describes Anthony as an “athlete” — a descriptor that becomes classic in Christian literature about individuals pursuing ascetic lives.  The idea seems to come from 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul describes the spiritual life using an athletic analogy.  But it seems that Christians noticed the parallels between athletic training and Christian asceticism — denying oneself, having a special diet, etc. — and they began to talk about the monks as “spiritual athletes” or “athletes for God” (see section 12 for an example in the Life of Anthony).  Of course, you can probably anticipate the dangers — did that mean that the monks were sometimes excessively idolized, like modern athletes?  (Yes.)  Did that mean that sometimes people thought the monks were the real spiritual superstars, so that the “common people” weren’t that good spiritually?  (Yes.)  Did that cause problems for the church?  (Yes.)

Do Demons Have Bodies?

The last item I want to touch on — and just briefly — is an interesting feature of the text: Athanasius’ extensive reflections on the nature of demons.  Presumably, this topic comes up because of Anthony’s repeated encounters with them, but it also true that the third and fourth centuries witnessed quite a bit of discussion among Christian theologians about the nature of demons, especially their bodies.  (If you’re interested, you might check out this little monograph from my colleague Everett Ferguson.)

Athanasius’s comments on demons are focused in the middle of the text, starting in section 21.  In section 22 he reflects the traditional Christian mythology that demons are essentially fallen angels, and he says that their desire is to interfere with Christians, lest we ascend to the heaven from which they fell.  At the same time, in section 23, he says that “they are nothing” and need not be feared (perhaps echoing Old Testament ideas about idols, as in Isaiah 44).  But, as he goes on to say, they are treacherous and can take on many alluring forms to pull us away from God.  In section 31, he says that they even “pretend to prophesy,” but that this is actually because their bodies are “thinner” and thus allow them to move faster than we do; as a result, they can “prophesy” that someone is coming to see Anthony, when really they just saw him/her coming up the road and sped to the hermit’s cell to inform him.  Ultimately, Athanasius encourages his readers to “fearlessness against them,” because really they are “cowardly, always expectant of the fire that has been prepared for them” (secs. 42-43).

That’s it for Anthony, friends!  Feel free to comment below, and I’ll be back next week with the first of two posts on Athanasius’s classic On the Incarnation.

Image credits: www.christianbook.com and isscd.org

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page