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Posts Tagged ‘Protestantism’

Today most people are celebrating Halloween. It is also the day Protestants celebrate what they call Reformation Day. Even some Catholics are observing this day in honor of Luther’s posting of 95 theses 500 years ago on October 31, 1517. That there are Catholics celebrating this, simply shows how much ignorance there is concerning Luther and the history of the Protestant revolt. Sure there was corruption in the Church at the time (seriously, what else is new; the Evil One does not tire), but to say that Luther reformed the Church is ridiculous. Ten years after the event celebrated today Luther was already writing tracts against other Protestants. There was no clean break from Rome with a Protestant front reformed and united in Christ. Those who broke from unity with the Church of Rome quickly fractured and fell into disunity among themselves. As time progresses the divisions among the various Protestant communities has only increased, and just like the division with Rome these are divisions of faith, of doctrine, not merely divisions of praxis and life. What reform are we celebrating exactly?

Over the centuries the problem has been exacerbated by the parallel march of the so-called modern age with Protestantism. Religion like everything else in life is not insular. Some have claimed the roots of modernism with its extreme individualism come from Luther. I do not think this is the case, but I do think the two are intertwined. The furrows of the modern age were already being plowed and provided a fertile environment for Luther’s novel conception of faith and his novel conception of salvation based on that understanding of faith – an understanding centered on the self, not God, that is reflexive and assertive. (For more on Luther’s novel understanding of faith and its application to salvation I highly recommend Paul Hacker’s Faith in Luther: Martin Luther and the Origin of Anthropocentric Religion). Reciprocally, Luther’s thought acted as fertilizer for the seeds that would eventually sprout and bear the fruits of modern secular thinking.

On this Revolution Day, marking 500 years of division within Western Christendom, divisions that have spread far beyond religion and the continent of Europe, I do not see a reformation. I see a world and Church being tossed in ever more violent storms of ideology and violence, and relentless attacks on what God has hallowed – sex, marriage, the family, priesthood, Church – from both outside and from within the Church Herself. I see a protestantism that has devolved into various political and social ideologies across the spectrum, and many Catholics of similar ilk proclaiming the same while calling it the Good News and clobbering the faithful with tweets, openness, degrees, and even shepherds’ staffs.

In the midst of such a storm and seeming degradation of Religion, on this dark All Hallow’s Eve, I look to the saints of tomorrow’s great feast and find courage in the words of Our Lady to King Alfred on the island of Athelney:

But you and all the kind of Christ

Are ignorant and brave,

And you have wars you hardly win

And souls you hardly save.

 

I tell you naught for your comfort,

Yea, naught for your desire,

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

 

Night shall be thrice night over you,

And heaven an iron cope.

Do you have joy without a cause,

Yea, faith without a hope?

 

 

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In the previous post I asked Protestants to please consider that Martin Luther called the Epistle of James, which is a divinely inspired writing, an “epistle of straw”. That Luther said this seems to be common knowledge among those who care – Catholic, Protestant, whoever. Often times though what is accepted as common knowledge is not known in its proper context nor is it as simple as we typically think. Since I did not know the context for this little quote from Luther, I decided to do a quick internet search. Over at The Calvinist International there is a post with the quote in context.

In a word St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that is necessary and salvatory for you to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it. (LW 35:362)

The above was stated in Luther’s preface to his translation of the New Testament. In the preface specifically to the epistle, he also says that the author “wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task” and, therefore, “cannot include him among the chief books” (emphasis mine; cherry-picking of quotations follows that used in the article linked above).

Over at Alpha and Omega Ministries, James Swan has a piece explaining the greater historical and textual context of Luther’s statement that James “is really an epistle of straw.” The piece is apologetic in nature. In it Mr. Swan gives a defense of Luther against what he sees as an unjust use of the “epistle of straw” quote by those who scrutinize Luther. I very much appreciate what Mr. Swan has written. Luther made his comment that James was an “epistle of straw” in 1522, five years after posting his 95 theses. This is relatively early in Luther’s protestations since he would die 24 years later. In later editions of his translation of the New Testament this statement was excluded. Luther, himself, was the one to do this. I was glad to hear that Luther made this comment relatively early in his career and seemed to step it back later. However, I do not think that the exclusion of his comment from later editions is a simple case of retraction as Mr. Swan implies. While there were others who questioned the canonicity of James, it was simply not acceptable to treat with such disparity a book that was so widely accepted and had been for so long. Speaking in such a way of a book that many believed to be inspired would only hurt Luther’s cause.

Mr. Swan admits that “Luther does appear to have held lifelong doubts about the canonicity of James,” but says that these were more objectively rooted than in simply having a problem with the content of James. He points to Eusebius and St. Jerome both disputing the authenticity of the book and that even Catholic contemporaries of Luther such as Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan questioned its canonicity. He goes so far as to say that a Catholic taking issue with Luther is hypocritical because of his shared opinion with Erasmus and Cajetan, and that the canon of Scripture for the Catholic Church was not infallibly decreed until the Council of Trent (see Swan’s quotation from the New Catholic Encyclopedia). The problem here is that it isn’t the question of canonicity with which there is an issue. It’s a question of Luther’s attitude toward the book. He also apparently called into question the canonicity of Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelations. Did he speak of them in the same manner as he did James? Did he call them straw? If he didn’t treat these other books in the same way as he did James then it begs the question: Why James? It’s one thing to believe a book is not canonical; it is another to say it is “straw”, “has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it,” and that the author was “unequaled to the task.” (Mr. Swan also says that Luther’s praise of the book should not be ignored; however, I would respond that his praises do not outweigh such criticism as found here).

Contra Swan, it appears that Luther’s primary problem with James is not its questioned canonicity by some such as St. Jerome, or its not being authored by either apostle with the name “James” (which is wholly irrelevant), but rather its content. It is undeniable that Luther did find the content of James problematic, not in regards to Paul’s doctrine, but for Luther’s doctrine. Luther said that he would give his doctor’s beret to anyone who could reconcile Paul and James. If the reconciliation of Paul (rather Luther’s interpretation of Paul) and James was a great enough feat to earn Luther’s own doctor’s beret then it must have truly been a problem for Luther. Though Luther apparently reconciled the two for himself, can we really downplay the issue of content in James when this posed such a problem for Luther? This especially when it is Luther who created this problem for himself by his novel understanding of justification through faith alone, a problem compounded Scripturally when he added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28.

One must also wonder though if the content of the Epistle of James was not only a problem doctrinally for Luther, but also morally. Luther does praise the moral value of James and its “vigorously [promulgating] the law of God.” However, Luther seemed to have suffered from scrupulosity before his rejection of the true faith (see Gerald R. McDermott’s The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide for Luther’s struggles as a monk). At The Calvinist International linked above, Jordan Ballor wonders about this pointing to Luther’s “big mouth” and James’s rebuke of those with “wagging tongues.” Mr. Ballor gives an excerpt from James 3 as an example of James’s rebuke. In this passage James says to his audience that not many of them should become teachers because they “will be judged more strictly.” He then goes on to speak of falling short in speech, how the tongue can be a small fire setting “a huge forest ablaze,” and can “[defile] the whole body.” Even more challenging than James 3 is James 1:26 – “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain.” Luther certainly took pride is his being a doctor of Holy Scripture and vigorously defended his doctrine and, therefore, his religion. Considering his struggles with scrupulosity and the bitterness of his tongue these words from James would certainly be difficult to hear. For a small sample of Luther’s bitter tongue there are these little gems. (Actually, some of them are pretty good, but in charity I cannot use them).

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Martin Luther

Over at First Things a 2014 post by Timothy George on Reformation Day has been reposted. Understandably, I, being a Catholic, had completely forgotten that such a day exists. In his post Mr. George states: 

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

Leaving aside the fact that Luther’s actions did divide the Church (you will know a tree by its fruits and the path to hell is paved with good intentions), there is something else stated here that is laughable: “he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God.” WE ARE TALKING ABOUT A MAN WHO ADDED A WORD TO SCRIPTURE AND CALLED ONE OF THE INSPIRED WRITINGS OF THE NEW TESTAMENT STRAW!!!!! Please my Protestant brethren, before you go singing the praises of Luther let that sink in.

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