Skip to comments.Medieval Mistakes
Posted on 10/21/2005 5:37:01 AM PDT by sheltonmac
Although provoked by the indulgences peddled by Johannes Tetzel, the very first proposition which Luther offered for public debate in his Ninety Five Theses put the axe to the root of the tree of medieval theology: "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance." From Erasmus' Greek New Testament, Luther had come to realize that the Vulgate's rendering of Matthew 4:17 by penitentiam agite ("do penance") completely misinterpreted Jesus' meaning. The gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind-set and an equally deep transformation of life. Later he would write to Staupitz about this glowing discovery: "I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek!"
Is it not true that we have lost sight of this note that was so prominent in Reformation theology? We could well do with a Luther redivivus today. For a number of important reasons evangelicals need to reconsider the centrality of repentance in our thinking about the gospel, the church and the Christian life.
One of our great needs is for the ability to view some of the directions in which evangelicalism is heading, or perhaps more accurately disintegrating. We desperately need the long-term perspective which the history of the church gives us.
Even within the period of my own Christian life, the span between my teenage years in the 1960s and my forties in the 1990s, there has been a sea-change in evangelicalism. Many "position" which were standard evangelical teaching are now, after only three decades, regarded as either reactionary or even dinosauric.
If we take an even longer-term view, however, we face the alarming possibility that there may already be a medieval darkness encroaching upon evangelicalism. Can we not detect, at least as a tendency, dynamics within evangelicalism which bear resemblances to the life of the medieval church? The possibility of a new Babylonian or (more accurately, following Luther) the Pagan Captivity of the Church looms nearer than we may be able to believe.
Consider the following five features of medieval Christianity which are evident to varying degrees in contemporary evangelicalism.
Repentance has increasingly been seen as a single act, severed from a life-long restoration of godliness.
There are complex reasons for this--not all of them modern--which we cannot explore here. Nevertheless, this seems self-evident. seeing repentance as an isolated, completed act at the beginning of the Christian life has been a staple principle of much of modern evangelicalism. It is sad that evangelicals have often despised the theology of the confessing churches. It has spawned a generation who look back upon a single act, abstracted from its consequences, as determinative of salvation. The 'alter call' has replaced the sacrament of penance. Thus repentance has been divorced from genuine regeneration, and sanctification severed from justification.
The canon for Christian living has increasingly been sought in a 'Spirit-inspired' living voice within the church rather than in the Spirit's voice heard in Scripture. What was once little more than a mystical tendency has become a flood. But what has this to do with the medieval church? Just this. the entire medieval church operated on the same principle, even if they expressed it in a different form: the Spirit speaks outside of Scripture; the believer cannot know the detailed guidance of God if he tries to depend on his or her Bible alone.
Not only so, but once the 'living voice' of the Spirit has been introduced it follows by a kind of psychological inevitability that it is this living voice which becomes the canon for Christian living.
This view--inscripturated Word plus living voice equals divine revelation--lay at the heart of the medieval church's groping in the dark for the power of the gospel. Now, at the end of the second millennium we are on the verge--and perhaps more than the verge of being overwhelmed by a parallel phenomenon. The result then was a famine of hearing and understanding the Word of God, all under the guise of what the Spirit was still saying to the church. What of today?
The divine presence was brought to the church by an individual with sacred powers deposited within him and communicated by physical means.
Today an uncanny parallel is visible wherever cable TV can be seen. Admittedly it is no longer Jesus who is given by priestly hands; now it is the Spirit who is bestowed by physical means, apparently at will by the new evangelical priest. Special sanctity is no longer confirmed by the beauty of the fruit of the Spirit, but with signs which are predominantly physical.
What we ought to find alarming about contemporary evangelicalism is the extent to which we are impressed by performance rather than piety. The Reformers were not unfamiliar with similar phenomena. In fact one of the major charges made against them by the Roman Catholic Church was that they did not really have the gospel because they lacked physical miracles.
The worship of God is increasingly presented as a spectator event of visual and sensory power, rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God.
The mood of contemporary evangelicalism is to focus on the centrality of what 'happens' in the spectacle of worship rather than on what is heard in worship. Aesthetics, be they artistic or musical, are given a priority over holiness. More and more is seen, less and less is heard. There is a sensory feast, but a hearing famine. Professionalism in worship leadership has become a cheap substitute for genuine access to heaven, however faltering. Drama, not preaching, has become the 'Didache' of choice.
This is a spectrum, of course, not a single point. But most worship is to be found somewhere on that spectrum. There was a time when four words would bring out goose-bumps on the necks of our grandfathers: 'Let Us Worship God'. Not so for twentieth-century evangelicals. Now there must be colour, movement, audio-visual effects, or God cannot be known, loved, praised and trusted for his own sake.
The success of ministry is measured by crowds and cathedrals rather than by the preaching of the cross and the quality of Christians' lives.
It was the medieval church leaders, bishops and archbishops, cardinals and popes, who built large cathedrals, ostensibly Soli Deo Gloria--all this to the neglect of gospel proclamation, the life of the body of Christ as a whole, the needs of the poor and the evangelism of the world. Hence, the 'mega-church' is not a modern, but a medieval phenomenon.
Ideal congregational size and specific ecclesiastical architecture thankfully are matters of indifference. That is not really the central concern here. Rather it is the almost endemic addiction of contemporary evangelicalism to size and numbers as an index of the success of 'my ministry'--a phrase which can itself be strikingly contradictory. We must raise the question of reality, depth and integrity in church life and in Christian ministry. The lust for 'bigger' makes us materially and financially vulnerable. But worse, it makes us spiritually vulnerable. For it is hard to say to those on whom we have come to depend materially, 'When our Lord Jesus Christ said "Repent!" he meant that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.'
Wow, an interesting article and one I happen to agree with. The evidence is there but few seem to be paying attention.
Thanks. An interesting and convicting read...
Great article - hits the nail right on the head. Concepts of sin and repentance have been replaced with "Touched by an Angel" feelgoodism.
It's nice to see an article that begins with such an open admission of complete ahistorical cluelessness, and ends by asserting that the movement spawned by the (so-called) Reformation is guilty of exactly what it was founded to oppose!
Luther wouldn't have known the "tree of medieval theology" if it had bitten him on the rump -- most of it was relegated to libraries before he was born -- and Protestantism owes almost as much to medieval Catholic theology, with St. Anselm as a prime example, as it does to Luther. The idea that the essence of medieval Catholic theology -- as distinct from medieval popular piety -- was the failure to understand the difference between performing a work of penance, on the one hand, and leading a repentant and recollected life on the other is, well, stupid.
1. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible (a) rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience; Although the (b) light of Nature, and the works of Creation and Providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and His will, which is necessary unto Salvation. (c) Therefore it pleased the Lord at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that His will unto his Church; and afterward for the better preserving, and propagating of the Truth, and for the more sure Establishment, and Comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan, and of the World, to commit the same wholly unto (d) writing; which maketh the Holy Scriptures to be most necessary, those former ways of Gods revealing his will unto his people being now ceased.
6. The whole Councel of God concerning all things (i) necessary for his own Glory, Mans Salvation, Faith and Life, is either expressely set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new Revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men. ~ 1689 London Baptist Confession. (Chapter 1)
It never ceases to amaze me how much of the church is into secret gnostic type ways to get at God's will for their lives. It is as if they actually hate what the Scriptures have to say about it so they are trying to get God to make exceptions for them. Example: Instead of judging whether or not to attend a church based upon whether or not they teach the truth, they decide to pray about it and wait for God to tell them where to attend. They look for nice fuzzy feelings about it.
Did you notice how that show never mentioned the name of the Lord?
I even watched an episode where they specifically changed Scripture to leave out the name of Jesus in their citation.
A few of these "mystics" were heretics and were pointed out as such by church leaders. Most were wonderful Christians and contributed to the spiritual growth of many other Christians. Visionaries are not the same as mystics. There always were some who had the gift of prophecy, ever since the daughters of Philip in the New Testament. The medieval church leaders also understood that prophecy can be counterfeited by the devil, so formal processes existed to distinguish genuine from false prophecy. Indiscriminate use of the term "mystic" usually indicates that the author doesn't know what he's talking about.
The same applies to repentance. A wide variety of ways of expressing one's heartfelt sorrow for sins were practiced. Some people gave up career and marriage to live a life of repentance, both within monasteries and as consecrated lay people. Some lived "normal" lives in business and agriculture, repenting of sins sometimes soon, sometimes long after but caring about their eternal destiny. Some people lived utterly unrepentant lives and were scoundrels--at all levels of society.
But belief in Jesus Christ as God Incarnate dominated the culture, and belief that one was saved by Christ's work on the cross was taught without exception. Did everyone follow this, did everyone act on this? No. But this articles charges are totally without merit. Belief in Christ and his teachings, for instance, on marriage in Mt. 19, totally transformed a Germanic culture in which women were "married" by being snatched up by whichever man was strongest (the term was raptus, abduction) and then discarded for the next woman--transformed it into a culture where married women were protected by insistence on monagamy and had more rights in marriage than at any time between 1500 and 1950. Christianity totally transformed a Germanic culture of sheer power and warfare into a culture in which criteria for justified war were in place, even if not always followed--but bishops, at the cost of their lives stood up to kings conducting unjust wars--Hugh of Lincoln did just that agains Richard I in the late 1100s. Christianity transformed a culture in which the rule of laws emerged rather than the rule of sheer power (to which we have now reverted in many ways). A king was not free to do whatever he wanted. Both the high nobles and the bishops served as a check on the king--who, after all, was an elected ruler. Did kings sometimes ignore bishops or nobles when they pointed out that the king was doing something unjust? Yes. Did they sometimes listen and change their behavior? Yes (Henry II would be an example). At no time between the ancient world of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the American republic or perhaps the English unwritten constitution of 1688 was there such a degree of rule of law and protection of people's rights against arbitrary power domination than in the Middle Ages. This is the result of Christianity's deep embeddedness because Christianity insisted that kings were not better before God than peasants--no one was above God's law as laid down in the Bible, and Jesus set up a pretty high standard of behavior in the Sermon on the Mount. This was built into the practices of the Middle Ages. Was it often ignored and disobeyed? Yes. Were those who disobeyed these laws called to account? In many cases yes, in many cases no.
Was it a perfect society? No. Was it a Christian society? Yes. Compared to the ancient Romans or Greeks or Persians or the medieval Muslims, the deep impact of Christian faith, of the belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and would hold people to account for their sins is clearly evident.
Was there much needing reform? Yes. But none of the things this author mentions in his vague, useless terminology, touch on either the stellar or the despicable aspects of medieval Christian culture. What this author has done is trot out phantoms of his own prejudices as fact. I doubt that he has ever read a single actual text or historical document in its complete form.
The "selling of indulgences" was denounced by reformers of the 1400s and by the Sorbonne theologians in the early 1500s long before Luther raised the issue. Were there corrupt popes? Yes. Were all popes corrupt? No. Were there corrupt bishops? Yes. Were all bishops corrupt? No. Powerful voices were raised calling for reform of the corruptions throughout the later Middle Ages. The biggest single factor (and there were many factors) inhibiting full-scale reform of the corruptions was the slow coopting of the church (the bishops) by the emerging consolidated nation state from about 1200-1500. That's what destroyed the effort to reform via church councils in the 1400s--the kings and princes tried to grab control of it to use the church to gain control over every aspect of society. This is the period in which the groundwork was laid for absolutist kingship. Henry VIII and Francis I were the first absolutist monarchs. Henry VIII, for instanced, banned all freedom of the press--you had to submit everything to the king's agents before it could be printed. He wanted to control everything, including the church.
Luther's call for reform might have succeeded in reforming the Church without splitting it had the kings and princes not chosen sides and had Luther not turned into a radical between 1519 and 1520 (he was badly provoked by doubledealing on the part of some of the Curia--he was dealt with unjustly by them and he was right to be mad at it, but his response was to launch into claims about the pope as the antichrist and to reject the very notion of the church that he held up to that point--he overreacted--which is understandable given the specific provocations of 1518 but nonetheless a fatal error on his part). In the end, however, it was the choosing of sides by the kings and princes that torpedoed any chance of reaching agreement about what reforms needed to take place and implementing them. That's what turned the Protestant Reformation from a reforming movement into the catalyst for state churches in both Catholic and Protestant countries.
Thank-you for being the voice of clarity here. This article starts out with some false premises and then just gets worse.
I couldn't bear to watch it, save to remind myself how blessed I am to not buy into it's mysticism.
I remember one episode where a young boy was going to shoot his abusive father. The angel couldn't intervene because that would "violate the boys free will".
However, later when the father went to hit the child, the angel stepped in and intervened. Free will for one but not another? lol
Although, I suppose a show titled "Called by the Holy Spirit" wouldn't sell too well with the masses? Not "touchy-feely" enough.
FWIW, my wife was at a women's conference and the producer of the show (I believe a Jewish convert to Christianity) was one of the main speakers. She was asked about that. She said the creators would have preferred to be more openly Christian, but realized they had to be more "generic" (that's my term, I forget how she actually phrased it) to get by CBS and the sponsors.
That's not a defense of the show. Just some trivia I had taking up space in my brain.
I suppose popularizing a German translation of the Bible was rather radical back then.
>>but realized they had to be more "generic"...to get by CBS and the sponsors<<
The same CBS that has no problem with openly homosexual contestants and characters on it's shows. Not surprising.
>>Just some trivia I had taking up space in my brain.<<
Now, with me, I've found that if I exercise the useless trivia, it frees up some room for other useless stuff. I'm conviced there's a finite amount of space up there, and eventually we reach maximum capacity. If I have a mmeeting at work and need to learn the new Corporate Mission Statement, I forget how to get home..
ROFL! Been there.
I believe this stems on the concept of Sola Scriptura taken to its illogical end. When people begin to realize that the Bible IS NOT simple to understand - that many people contradict each other on foundational beliefs - they will look to other questionable sources. How does a preacher KNOW he is correct, but the preacher across the street is wrong on the same subject while using private interpretation of the Scriptures? And of course, Rome certainly couldn't be right...
Thus, people will look to some other "source" to clarify and determine contrary opinions. Unfortunately, man's intellect is clouded. More often than not, we are subject to delusional thoughts and Satan, interpreting these as "movements from God". Thus, the need for an outside source of authority from ourselves is imperative. One that is trustworthy and can be relied upon - from God.
Oh boy. You just may recall that Johannes Guttenberg -WHO DIED IN 1468!! - printed his Bible in German. That would be a Catholic Bible, in a Catholic Germany, over 50 years before Luther's trip to a certain cathedral door.
An outstanding rebuttal to the tenor and specifics of the piece heading this thread, Mr. D!
I have a relative who watches the show religiously. So, every time I visit, we get to watch over and over on syndication. The show seems very Catholic to me. I can't stand it, but I know bunches of people who love it and think it so spiritual.
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