Links: The Reformation Period

Luther’s 95 Theses — If you’ve ever wanted to read Luther’s actual theses, here they are (in translation)!  You’ll probably be varyingly interested in these, but I’ve found the following to be quite provocative: 6, 21, 27, 36-37, 52-53, 62, 79, and 92-95.

The Condemnation of Martin Luther — This is the text of the papal bull, called “Exsurge, Domine” (from its first words), in which Pope Leo X expressed the church’s condemnation of Luther. The whole thing is interesting, but you might especially enjoy the last few paragraphs, beginning with the one starting, “As far as Martin himself is concerned….”

The Preaching of John Tetzel — This is a YouTube clip from the 2003 movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes in the title role (please forgive the Dutch subtitles — I hope they aren’t distracting!).  Scroll forward to the 4:40 mark, where you will see about 4:00 of footage depicting what the preaching of Tetzel might have been like.  Notice the emotional pleas Tetzel makes — it is easy to see how his rhetoric would have been effective in selling indulgences!

The Schleitheim Confession — The sometimes-called “Radical Reformers,” who later became the Anabaptists’ text, developed a seminal text in 1527 called the “Schleitheim Confession.”  It reflects well several Anabaptist values.  Most of it is self-explanatory, except for the term “the ban,” which appears now and again.  This refers to a method of church discipline by which sinful members are ostracized from the church until they repent of their sins.  It is like what Paul prescribes in 1 Corinthians 5, and it is the predecessor of the Amish practice of “shunning.”

The Drowning of Dirk Willems — This image comes an etching connected with an important Anabaptist work stretching back to the 16th century, called The Martyrs’ Mirror.  It was a crucial community-building text for the Anabaptists — it sealed their identity as a persecuted, but ultimately triumphant people.  And the story below the image, about a man named Dirk Willems, is the most famous of the stories contained therein.  He saved one of his persecutors but was executed nonetheless.

A Selection from Calvin’s Institutes — Here you have a selection from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a staple text of the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity.  Specifically, this is Book III’s “Chapter 21” on the “eternal election” of God, “by which God has predestined some to salvation, and others to destruction.”  You’ll get a sense of Calvin’s ideas about predestination, as well as his method.  He is quite a thorough thinker, considering both Scriptural foundations for his own arguments, and also the merits of those of his accusers.

Calvin’s Letter to France’s King Francis I — As a preface to the 1536 edition of his Institutes, Calvin wrote a letter to France’s King Francis I.  Here is a link to that letter.  It’s an interesting companion piece to some of Luther’s writings to the leaders of Germany in his heyday.

The Thirty-Nine Articles — The Reformation in England took a unique course, issuing in the doctrinal text called the Thirty-Nine Articles.  They represent Anglican theology as it came to be under Queen Elizabeth I, built on the foundation of Thomas Cranmer in the days of King Henry VIII.  Notice how the first five articles represent classic Christian orthodoxy, article 6 sounds quite Protestant, and articles 11 and 17 take up issues dear to the hearts of Luther and Calvin, respectively.  And yet there are things that are still Catholic, including what sounds like the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in Communion, as stated in article 28 (although transubstantiation is repudiated), as well as the power of the church to establish “rites and ceremonies,” as stated in article 20.  Note also that article 39 seems to interact with Anabaptist teaching on oaths.

Preface to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer — This is the preface to the first edition of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, in its original 15th-century English (you can handle it).  Noteworthy things include: 1) the concern in the first paragraph for people’s continually growing knowledge of God, and that they be inflamed with a love for the Christian religion; 2) the note in the second paragraph that only portions of Scripture were typically being read in church, and that worship was just plain difficult in the medieval church; 3) and the resulting desires that Anglican worship should be easy for people to follow and perform, that it should be done in their own language (fourth paragraph), and that it should be the same all over England (fifth paragraph).

History of the English-Language Bible — If you’re interested in learning more about the history of English-language Bibles, see this site.  It’s very informative!  It even gets up to just a few years ago in its narrative.

More about Ignatius Loyola — Here’s a link to a site with more information about Ignatius Loyola, that important figure in the Catholic Reformation.  The top of the page is a biography of the saint, with discussion of his life and thought below.  Further, there is a link in the left-hand sidebar to his Spiritual Exercises, so important for the Jesuit movement that he founded.  Explore to your heart’s content!

The Beginning of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises — And here’s the beginning of that very text!  He talks a bit about different kinds of sin, when we should talk about sin, etc., but the most interesting part is at the very bottom.  While the majority of the text sounds rather medieval and rather Catholic, the last bit about confession is something that most Christians can easily agree with.

Bartolome de las Casas on the Devastation of the Caribbean Islands — Bartolome (“Bartholomew”) de las Casas was an important figure in the history of Christianity in the New World, first as a priest and later as a champion of the oppressed natives.  This link is his famous Brief Report of the Devastation of the Indies.  For more about him overall, check out this link.

Preface to the Original King James Bible — The King James Bible has been the single most influential English translation of the Bible in history.  Read here the first part of the preface to the first edition — the section to King James.  You can get a sense of the values of the translators.  Given James’s actual actions toward the Dissenters who produced the translation, one wonders if there was some irony in the effusive praise they give him in the text.

Thumbnail image credit (Martin Luther):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the early modern period)

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: (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and (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: (the image — edited by the blogger — from the Joseph Fiennes Luther movie), (for the book cover), and (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: (for the 1526 portrait of Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder; edited by the blogger), (for the image of Pope Benedict XVI), and (for the anonymous painting of the Mother and Child)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

In the News: Christians in the 16th-Century Caribbean

Church history has made the news again!  Yesterday this piece appeared in FoxNews, describing the discovery by British and Puerto Rican archaeologists of Christian cave art on the small Caribbean island of Mona.  Given the long history of Amerindian settlement in the Caribbean, it is not surprising that these archaeologists found native wall paintings in the cave.  But what is interesting for us is that they also found Christian wall art, including crosses and Christian inscriptions, as you can see in the FoxNews story.

caribbean wall artNow, as the story says, this discovery does tell us some things about the history of Christianity in the Caribbean… but it doesn’t really say what it tells us.  However, this piece at goes deeper, also providing some really great pictures and reconstructions, not least the signature of a 1530s leader who seems to have “tagged” the cave with his name.  If you want to learn more, I can’t call upon my own expertise, as I’m not an expert in any particular aspect of this story.  But, in terms of online resources, I’d probably start with issue 35 of Christian History magazine.  If I were shopping on Amazon, I’d probably get a hold of something like this book to help me out.

Image credit:

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News 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: for the image of the book, for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther, and for the mosaic of Jesus and the church in the S. Maria in Trastevere church

Suggested next click: Freedom of a Christian, Part 2

Noll, Ch. 9: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540 CE)

Founding of Jesuits

Chapter 9 complements chapters 7 and 8 in a couple of important ways. First, as Noll says, his Protestant background and commitments lead him to emphasize the Reformation above other events in church history; as a fellow Protestant, I fully agree with that emphasis. As a result, more information and thought on that time period is helpful in understanding it better. Second, and contrastingly, one can’t tell the entire story of the Reformation without including the Catholic(/Counter-) Reformation that went alongside it. Chapter 9 does not focus on the Protestants themselves but rather on their Catholic brothers and sisters who were also recognizing the need for reform in their ranks.

Given the specific focus on the Jesuits, it is fully appropriate that Noll begins the chapter with Ignatius Loyola the group’s renowned founder. Some of you may belong to the group of readers who know almost nothing about the Jesuits or Loyola, but who know about or have experiences with his Spiritual Exercises via an “Ignatian retreat.” For Protestants, the Exercises are probably Ignatius’s most important contribution to church history, in that they have provided a way for many people to deepen their spiritual lives and to connect more closely with the life of Jesus.

Noll also discusses several important parts of this part of our history. He describes the various contributions that the Jesuits made to Christian history, most importantly their work in missions and education. He explains how the Jesuits were not the only new “order” that arose at this time but rather were part of a whole movement of new groups. He discusses the importance of Franciscan ideals for many of these groups (compare the importance of the Benedictine tradition, as discussed in chapter 4). Finally, he discusses the landmark meeting called the “Council of Trent,” at which there were both “conservative” and “progressive” voices (compare the discussion of the Vatican II in chapter 13), but in which the conservative voices ultimately prevailed in massive ways. As a result of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church preserved many of its medieval characteristics all the way into the 20th century!

If you’d like a little more on the Spiritual Exercises, see the beginning of the text at  (Note: you can explore more of the text at this site as well. The attitude toward sin sounds rather “medieval,” which is not surprising, but the prayer of confession is one that most Christians can resonate with.)

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Catholic missions of the 1500’s led to a more ethnically and culturally diverse Christianity. The New Testament emphasizes a need for ethnic and cultural diversity in the church (i.e., Matt. 28:18-20; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 7:9.) To what extent does your own faith community reflect this value of New Testament Christianity? Where could it improve? What could your local faith community learn about ethnic diversity from Catholic missions of the 1500s?
  2. In the 1500’s, the Catholic church combined its interest in correctly defining doctrine with passionate world mission (which far exceeded the efforts of the Protestant churches at the time.) In the tension between Christians’ having correct action and correct belief, which do you tend to see as primary? Why do you think you lean that direction?
  3. The “Chinese Rites” crisis was concerned with whether traditional Chinese cultural practices, which were often grounded in non-Christian religions, could be appropriately practiced by Chinese Christians. Which side of the debate did you find yourself supporting? Why? Are there examples in our world of a “native” belief or practice that is controversial for Christians to hold?
  4. There has been a shift in Protestant historiography from referring to the efforts of the Catholic church in the 1500’s as “the Counter-Reformation” to “the Catholic Reformation.” What value, if any, is there in using terminology which does not offend outsiders?
  5. Noll admires the fervor of Ignatius Loyola, even though in the religious struggles of the Western church at that time, he favors the Protestant cause. How do you make sense of admiring the religious virtues of people from traditions with which you don’t agree?   Do you find a tension there or not?
  6. If the Catholic and the historically Protestant churches can agree that salvation is completely the work of God and that Christians should carry out good works, what reason would you give to explain the still-remaining divisions between these two families of Christianity?

Image credit of Jan Kryštof Handke’s fresco Approving of bylaw of the Society of Jesus (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 10

Noll, Ch. 8: The English Act of Supremacy (1534 CE)

This chapter’s topic is the English Act of Supremacy in 1534, that Parliamentary action by which the English church and Henry VIII “officially” broke away from the Roman patriarchy of the Catholic Church.  As Noll effectively shows at the beginning of the chapter, this action was not in isolation from other things happening during this time. Rather, there was quite a bit of continuity from the “pre-Reformation times” with those that came during and after.

Also, Noll does a good job describing the different ways that Protestantism developed in the 16th century. It is easy for us to think of the Protestant movement as one “thing,” flowing directly from Martin Luther. But as Noll explains and shows, it really did vary quite a bit, depending on where one lived. Those differences are not the direct cause of our modern denominational situation, but they did play a part in it, and the various doctrinal and practical particularities do often still exist in our various churches today.

One other note, specifically for American readers: on p. 170, Noll says that the “general effect on Christendom” came through its effect on England, namely, the emergence of “self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity.” I would argue that there might be a second effect, one that came through England’s effect on the future United States. As many of you know, part of (but not all of) what drove some settlers to what became the English colonies in the “New World” was the promise of religious freedom. It’s hard to miss in that desire for freedom from overbearing superiors an echo of Henry’s push to be free from Rome. Is it possible that some of the seeds for the American Revolution were sown by an English king’s actions nearly 250 years before?

If you’d like to see more of what emerged from the Reformation in England, see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Queen Elizabeth I:  (Note: this text illustrates well the variety within Protestantism that Noll describes at the end of the chapter. For example:

  • articles 1-5 represent classic Christian orthodoxy
  • article 6 sounds quite Protestant, generally speaking
  • articles 11 and 17 take up issues dear to the hearts of Luther and Calvin, respectively
  • article 28 seems to reflect the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in Communion [although transubstantiation is repudiated]
  • article 39 seems to interact with Anabaptist teaching on oaths)

Here are some questions for everyone to discuss (international readers: feel free to adapt these to your native situation):

  1. Imagine the possibility of our President serving as the “Supreme Head of the Church of the United States.”  Aside from political concerns — where you may agree or disagree with the current President about this or that issue — how might that affect church life in America?  What are the possibilities?
  2. Noll notes that “worldly preoccupations” often entangled church leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries; further, the English Act of Supremacy was clearly as much about political as religious freedom.  Where do you see “worldly preoccupations” besetting modern American Christians?  Are we too involved in politics, or not enough?  Why?
  3. The English Act of Supremacy and its effects demonstrate how, when a specific church is “established” by the state, minority religions (and even expressions of the same faith) can be persecuted. Does knowing this history affect the way you think about the idea of a “separation between church and state”? How? Does it matter if one is a part of the dominant religious tradition, or one of those on the fringe?
  4. Late in the chapter, Noll describes conflicts that took place between the various state churches and the Christians called “Anabaptists.” As you read these sections, where did you find your sympathies? Were they with the radical, persecuted Anabaptists? Or with the more traditional, more prominent state churches? How do you think your religious background or present faith commitments shape your viewpoint?
  5. A recurring theme of the chapter is how Reformation Christianity preserved much from the late medieval period, while also striking out in new ways.  Imagine what Christianity in America will be like in 50 years — toward the end of your lifetime.  What will still be in place, in terms of church and spiritual life?  What do you think will/must change?
  6. Optional: Noll’s chapter describes two different types of humor being employed by Christians in this era: first, religious satire by Desiderius Erasmus, and then second, the sadistic “black humor” of those who drowned Anabaptists as a response to their desire for adult baptism. This intersection of religion and humor continues today on websites like (non-Christians poking fun at everyone, including religious people) and (Christians poking fun at themselves). When and how is humor appropriate in discussions of religious matters? When is it not?  (Side note: if you want some reactions to the site, see these two Christianity Today stories from years past:)

Image credits for Joos van Cleve’s portrait of Henry VIII and Henry A. Bacon’s The Landing of the Pilgrims and

Suggested next click: Chapter 9

Noll, Ch. 7: The Diet of Worms (1521 CE)

Compared to chapter 6, chapter 7 probably did not surprise you at all in terms of its appropriateness for the book. Most Western Christians belong to either the Protestant or Catholic families of the Christian faith, and no matter which side one is on, the events of Martin Luther’s reforms have shaped our expressions of that faith irrevocably. Protestants look back to this event (and those surrounding it) as the beginning of pretty much everything. Catholics long saw this event as a great apostasy but more recently understand it as a catalyst for reforms in their own church, some of which took place at that time and some of which only came with the Second Vatican Council (see chapter 13).

Further, this set of events may have been familiar to you via the excellent 2003 film entitled simply Luther. Starring Joseph Fiennes (and featuring Peter Ustinov and Alfred Molina, among others), the film tells the story of Luther’s life up until the acceptance of the Augsburg Confession. The scene of the Diet of Worms is particularly powerful, even if it does (inevitably) take a bit of artistic license. (By the way: the film also presents the most compelling picture of how the sale of indulgences would have worked, and why it would have been attractive to people beyond just the simple possession of forgiveness of sins.)

Noll is right, though, that countless people have looked back at this particular meeting as crucial for Protestantism and modern individuality. The fact that Luther appeals to Scripture rings true to Protestants; that he appeals to reason and his own conscience mirrors the later Enlightenment and the resultant modernity. But Noll is also right to include the response that Luther received (which does not appear in the film, incidentally). The Catholic response was prescient in terms of the sad fragmentation that has marked the Protestant branch of Christianity ever since.

Luther’s 95 Theses might be useful for you; if so, you can find them here:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on this gripping chapter:

  1. Noll notes that, at the Diet of Worms, church leaders responded that Luther’s teachings would remove all certainty from Christianity. Has history borne out this assessment? How have you seen the challenge of uncertainty in matters of faith manifest itself?
  2. Luther promoted violence against Jews (and Anabaptists). How do these actions color your reading of his life and work? Is it possible for a theological writer to have merit despite promoting grievous evils?
  3. When we read about people with whom we disagree, it can often be challenging to sympathize with them. If you are a Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into the viewpoints of the Catholic hierarchy in their reaction to Luther? If you are not Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into Luther’s viewpoint? Or, taken from a different viewpoint: did you at any point find your sympathies “cutting against the grain” of your own religious background?
  4. In America, Protestant theology is largely the “default mode” of Christianity in the broader culture, affecting even non-Protestants. How do you think your cultural as well as religious background colors your reading of this part of church history?
  5. Noll acknowledges how his own commitments as a Protestant shape his reading of this time period of church history. How do you think our religious convictions shape our understanding of church history? Is it necessary for people to acknowledge their religious commitments before assessing church history?

Image credit for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther:

Suggested next click: Chapter 8

In the News: Mary, “Our Lady of Guadalupe”

the_virgin_of_guadalupe_by_theophilia-d34s4k7Every year on December, Catholics all over the world — but especially in the Americas — celebrate the feast of Jesus’s mother Mary as “Our Lady of Guadalupe.”  Many of you, especially those from the American South or from Latin America, will have heard of this celebration and may be very familiar with it.  What you may not know is that the veneration of Mary in that way goes back almost 500 years, to the days of colonial Mexico.

This recent news story on NBCNews highlighted a particular way of celebrating Guadalupe in our own day, by describing and containing video of a group of ritual dancers called “Matachines.”  The news story describes a group of dancers from a church in Houston, but these kinds of dancers can be found throughout the Americas.


In case you want to know more about the Matachines, you can check out this link from the Texas State Historical Association.  If you want more on Guadalupe, check out this site from a pious Catholic perspective, or this book on her veneration from my former professor Max Johnson.

Image credits: and

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