Luther's Follies

The original link to this post became a target for spammers, so I'm reposting from 2005 (by the way - I'm amazed at the masculine-centered language I used a decade ago):

I just finished reading another biography of the great reformer, Martin Luther by aptly named scholar Martin Marty.

Whether advocate, critic or indifferent historian, it is impossible to chronicle this man's controversial life without noting both praiseworthy accomplishments and troubling inconsistencies. As Luther entered the fray of what would be emerging Evangelicalism, he was wide-eyed, idealistic and indignant toward a corrupt Roman Catholic Church. This much, most of us know. What is truly fascinating, however, is to watch the changes that took place through the progression of Luther's life.

As Luther entered his latter years (in that era, his forties) he became obsessively concerned with the extremity of the Protestant Reformation. He seemed to have expected the movement to begin and end with his indictments against church authority (vs. scriptural authority) and the selling of indulgences. But whether social inevitability or Holy Spirit movement, the changes were far from over with Luther's initial theses. Clergy and parishoners alike pushed for further reform: laity taught the Word, all shared in the bread and wine of communion, infant baptism was questioned... all of this seemed natural amidst the questions Luther, himself, brought to bear.

Were Luther's fears of "too much freedom" founded, or was the Holy Spirit to be trusted in the evolution of the Protestant Church?

Today, I and many others are suggesting certain reformations in America's churches. We desire more freedom - less scientific, clinical, critical approaches to scripture. We embrace mystery over fact - humble relationship over staunch fundamentalism.

However, it seems that in every conversation I engage, I am always met with pushback:

"Well, that may be okay to a point, but you have to make sure it doesn't go too far..."
"You must be certain to predefine what is right and wrong..."

"You can't let go of the black and white of the Gospel or such ideas will snowball..."
The worst is: "But how far is too far? You're approaching a slippery slope, and if you go down this path you may never get back. It's best not to even ask these questions..."

When can we simply trust that the Holy Spirit is qualified to guide the Christian Church? When will we truly believe that God is in control? Yes, there will always be extremists who go too far: Lutheran zealots who murdered Catholic priests. Modern Liberals who reject Biblical truth. The list of failures goes on... but these failures (theological mutations?) are not the norm. Within the church, truth must be trusted as the path the Helper of Pentecost leads us toward. Through prayer, scriptural study, open discussion and pure gut instinct, God can reveal his nature.

Reckless? So was Peter. Counter-culture? So was Paul. Scandalous? So was Jesus.

Can we let go? He promised to catch us...

Surrender the Church...

After reading "A Brief History of the Catholic Church" by Hans Kung, I am left to puzzle over modern Christianity and its formation from Catholic roots.

We share an ugly history, to say the least, but Kung says best in his introduction: "Those who deliberately step in all the puddles should not complain too loudly about how bad the road is."

Although I am sure one could write a long account of good works by Roman Catholicism, (and though I am by no means anti-Catholic) there are MANY puddles on this road. In fact, there is often more pond than path, and issues of theocracy, hierarchy and supremacy ring truest for me.

But before I go any further, it’s important to identify a key point: Catholicism and Christianity have been synonymous in the world for a far greater time than they have not. It would be wise to take any charges against the Catholic Church as charges against ourselves, the Christian Church as a universal (root word: catholic) community.

There is almost no need to list the sins and atrocities committed by Catholicism through the last two-thousand years since they are so widely known: tyrannical governments, racism and anti-Semitism, sexism, inquisition, torture, massacre, and more recently Nazism and sexual crimes. It could be argued that since the 3rd Century Church, Christianity has been on a moral downward spiral in spite of its exponential growth.

An important commonality through the Christian time line is standardization. In fact, since the governmental sanction and ultimate promotion of Christianity by Constantine in the 4th Century, Christianity has been continually striving to normalize its belief system – to place its ideologies into linear reason and rationality – essentially, to despiritualize natural spiritual movements and inclinations within the body of believers. The Catholic Church is an ultimate example of the modernist struggle, but today’s Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Protestant churches strive equally hard to normalize faith and stamp out divergences in theologies – to take away the opportunity for individual, experiential interpretation (this in spite of seemingly endless new denominations). Granted, even a Christian conscience can be perverted as personal experiences, cultures and prejudices subvert Gospel teaching. This is exemplified in many famous religious figures, notably Pope Pious XI who personally endorsed Adolph Hitler.

Kung, the author of this history, is himself an excommunicated Roman Catholic priest and professor. Since speaking out against policies of John Paul II in the 1980s, he has written much on needed reformation within Catholicism. His efforts, though noble and commendable, lead me to the following question: why keep trying?

Martin Luther’s own efforts at internal reformation are testimony enough to the impracticality of change from within. For real change to take hold, Luther’s contemporaries established a new church outside of Catholicism. So what leads men and women to be so afraid of releasing the establishments we ourselves have created, for the sake of Christ? We have the gospel and we have each other... isn’t that all we need? When something doesn’t work, throw it away and find something that does. I know it sounds harsh, but isn’t that common sense?

This is not a Catholic problem. It is not a problem of orthodoxy. It is a tendency in mankind to deify the things it creates. Even things created for God.

God is not the temple.
God is not the Jesus fish on the back of your car.
God is not the word Christian.

If these things are unnecessary stumbling blocks, can’t we let them go?

I have no desire to save the Catholic church or the Assemblies of God or the Lutherans or the Methodists. My desire is to invoke an essential, uncompromised, uncomplicated Christianity.

What do we need to give up?

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