Tuesday, May 10

The Reformation—RIP?

My good friend, Ben House, once again weighs in with his incisive analysis and Biblical mind:

The power of the courts is an ongoing topic of controversy and interest. All sides agree that great issues are at stake. Mark Levin’s recent book Men in Black is subtitled “How the Supreme Court is Destroying America.” Liberal Democrats, while not agreeing with Levin’s book, certainly see President Bush’s judicial nominees as threats to their vision of America. In fact, they are willing to shut down the government rather than bring these nominations to a vote. (Liberals willing to shut down the government?)

There is much historical and constitutional debate over the power of the courts. But beyond the issue of power is the issue of influence. Even more important is the unintended influence of the courts. In the 1973 Roe v. Wade case, the Supreme Court overturned centuries of legal prohibitions against the abortion of infants. It may be that Roe v. Wade will mark the ending of the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517.

For Protestant and Reformed Christians, the Reformation is a glorious time of Christian history. The boldness and convictions of Martin Luther continue to inspire the faithful. I love both the 1953 movie titled “Luther” and the more recent 2004 film version. Here I Stand by Roland Bainton remains one of my all time favorite books. Luther’s words, courage, and convictions continue to inspire many believers. And Luther was not alone. The age with brimming with theological geniuses, like John Calvin, Martin Bucer, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer. These men not only changed Europe in the 16th century, but they shaped the theology of both America’s early history and my own spiritual awakening.

Roman Catholicism throughout the Middle Ages was rich and complex in its transformation of European culture. But by the 1500s, indulgences, relics, the sale of church offices, and the corruption of the clergy were wrecking the Faith. In spite of the great works and writings of theologians, poets, and scholars, the drift of much church practice by Luther’s time was sharply downward. Internal reforms were inadequate: Erasmus is the prime example of a brilliant man who pointed out the abuses, but was powerless to effect internal reformation. Luther initially sought to cleanse the church through academic debate and parish preaching. He hoped his talking points—posted on the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517—would lead to productive debates within the scholarly community. From there, perhaps, the process of enlightenment and theological purification would seep throughout the church. But God used Luther as a catalyst that divided Christendom and put the Scriptural doctrines of grace at the forefront of the times. God turned an academician into a warrior.

Calvin, even more than Luther, sought the quiet life of the scholar. From his studies of the ancient thinkers like Seneca, he turned to the study of theology. Instead of granting him a quiet nook in a library, God placed him right in the middle of a culture war in the thriving city of Geneva, Switzerland. The Catholic establishment had been overturned, but rival factions pitted a Biblical Christian commonwealth against a libertine ‘blue state’ mindset. Only the intellectual and spiritual force of Calvin was able to tilt the battle firmly toward the Christian side. In England, theologians and scholars grappled with having to weave reformational theology into the political pragmatism and marital roller coaster of Henry VIII. In Scotland, more political and theological issues converged in the efforts of John Knox and others to remove or control a despotic Catholic queen, Mary Stuart.

In time, these issues continued to roil all of Europe, but especially in the northern countries. The theological upheavals of Europe during the 1500s provided much of the motivation for the new world migrations of the 1600s. Reformed Christians formed the bulk of the population that settled the shores of the English colonies in North America. Theological studies led to ecclesiastical and political convictions that were largely theoretical in the European setting. The newly cleared settlements in North America proved an ample proving ground for the ideas of the Reformation that animated and inspired the early colonists. David Hall’s magisterial book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, amply documents this story.

The city on a hill that became America was strongly Protestant and Calvinistic. In time, the vision broadened to allow for greater freedom for Catholics and others to practice their beliefs. Still, Protestant and Catholic hostilities and suspicions remained in the history of American. Governor Al Smith of New York not only lost the presidency in 1928, but also lost portions of the traditionally Democrat solid South in that election due to his Catholicism. In 1960, John F. Kennedy eased the concerns of Protestants only after he promised a gathering of Baptists in Texas that his Catholic faith would not intrude upon his political activities. (Unfortunately, this campaign promise was fulfilled completely.)

Efforts have been made between Protestants and Catholics to mend or overlook differences. The ecumenical movement sought unity at the expense of doctrinal differences, but the movement cast aside all vital doctrines in favor of unity. Neither Protestants of conviction or devout Catholics could tolerate that. Every effort to say that there are no real differences between the Catholic and Protestant theology, worship, and worldviews betrays convictions on both sides. Attempts have been made to promise not to proselytize each other’s congregations, but again that expectation for people who believe that truth exists is unrealistic.

Two things have become clear over time. The religious wars of the 1600s that convulsed Europe were not exactly the greatest witness to Christian virtues of love and longsuffering, and any theological latitudarianism that blurs or denies the Reformation impulses is unacceptable. And then out of nowhere, the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in start ending the rift.

Much of the conflict of the Reformation hinged on the importance of the body of Christ. The term, the body of Christ, can be used to mean the actual body of Christ or His church. The Reformation battled over both. Was the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper the literal body of Christ offered up again and again as signified in the Roman Mass? Or was it a memorial and means of grace pointing to the once-for-all-time complete work of Christ as emphasized by the Protestants? (This is an over-simplification, since Protestants began the process of infinite divisions over doctrine in their disputes over the sacraments.) Likewise, was the body of Christ, meaning the church, that organization represented by the pope as Christ’s representative on earth? Or was the body of Christ truly represented by assemblies of believers who faithfully ministered the Word, sacraments, and discipline?

Books and pamphlets poured forth on all sides of the issues. Kings raised banners and called together armies to enforce conformity and ward off heretics. Parliaments debated theology. Merchants packed religious tracts in shipments of fish and beer. Bible verses were quoted; church fathers were cited; and swords were brandished. It was of such grandeur and strife of the Reformation that one can apply W.B. Yeats’ phrase “and a terrible beauty was born.” Nearly five hundred years later, it is hard for a Bible totin’ Calvinist to minimize the price paid for our theological heritage. But between 1517 and 1973, a lot of things changed.

Catholics and Protestants believed the body of Christ was important—in whatever sense the term was used. Then in the 1800s, a secular humanist worldview emerged out of the darker forces of the Enlightenment and became manifest with the advent of Darwinian naturalism. Every ideology it spawned, whether nihilism, communism, or higher critical theology, shared a hatred and an antithesis toward historic Christianity. Modernity rejected the Protestant affirmation of the authority of Scripture, but it also rejected the Catholic affirmation of the authority of the church. Creedal Christianity, absolute truth, doctrinal standards, and the like were all rejected by the spirit of the modern age. God was, in the paradigms of the moderns, either dead or irrelevant or unknowable or as much a product of chance and change as we were. As has been frequently said, philosophers rejected belief in God in the 19th century and then rejected belief in man in the 20th. On both counts, the modern unbelieving mindset rejected the incarnate God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ. The formulations of Nicea and Chalcedon were the mythological equivalents of the rulings of Zeus and the pantheon of Greek gods on Mount Olympus.

The modern age moved from rejecting belief in God to rejecting the historic Jesus to rejecting the infant in the womb. The old philosophical question of the meaning of life was suddenly answered: Life begins when the Supreme Court says it begins and it exists at the whim and fancy of the court. So the safety and inviolability of the womb was violated. A mother-to-be became an arbiter of life or death. Personal convenience replaced motherly obligations. “I’m going to be a mother” was replaced with “My freedom is threatened.” Less often noticed was the destruction of the father’s role. The traditional leader and defender of the family had no say in the destruction of his offspring before birth. In time, even grandparents were removed when parental notification of a girl’s abortion was denied.

From fighting over the body of Christ to fighting for the bodies of infants, Catholics and Protestants have been reminded of common beliefs. The world changed when a baby was born in Bethlehem. If Jesus was both God and man, then issues of human life and of truth and morality must all be referenced around His revelation in Word and deed. If He were simply man, then our philosophy classes can resume the question of whether our lives have any meaning or not. But if He is God, then both Catholic and Protestant is obliged to hear and follow Him. Despite a host of differences on other issues, Catholics and Bible-believing Protestants stand together on the doctrine of the Incarnation. Hence, Jesus called upon His followers in 1973 to stand together for the truth.

Already the Left is redefining the late Pope John Paul II, just as the Left redefined the late President Reagan. Liberals study history not to learn what happened in the past, but as a tool for promoting a future agenda. Dogmatism with a congenial personality and a winning smile may not win your enemies over while you are alive, but those characteristics will enable them to redefine you after you are gone. If only, we are told, Joseph Ratzinger could be as open to the times as was John Paul II; if only, President Bush could be a statesman like Reagan; if only Paul could echo the true spirit of Jesus.

The humanists, the relativists, the merchants of death, the haters of tradition, and the enemies of Christ all have need to worry. Fragmentation has been the miserable hallmark of Protestantism. We Calvinists are often the worst promoters of ‘divide instead of conquer.’ Indifference and unbelief have captured vast segments of the Catholic Church. Revival in both camps is still needed and true reformation of both theologies is ever to prayed for. Real substantial doctrinal issues will divide us for the morning hours each Sunday. But the times seem to point to greater unity on common social issues. All this bodes ill for the city of man and revives hope for the City of God. We might have a bit of a cause for some cautious, long-term optimism.


Anonymous said...

I just have a couple of thoughts... Does your friend Mr.House have a website - I love hearing his thoughts and you seem to hold the key to them :-)

Also I keep thinking/hoping that you will post something on The Kingdom of Heaven, have you seen it?

gileskirk said...

Esther: I posted a comment/answer to your blog. Standfast. Dr. G

MTG said...

Interesting blog just when I needed something to show my husband who is trying to relate Calvins ACTIONS to his theology, thus voiding the theology. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable analysis. Thank you for posting Ben's insight.

Congratulations on your newly comment-friendly blog!

I believe some time ago I located Ben's blog, but can't prod google to find it again - I second the inquiry into his web presence.

Unknown said...

Dr G,

You finally have a blog that allows for comments. I'm happy!

Keep up the good work (I've been reading your work since you came to the NM convention in '99).