When on October 31, 1517, an Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posted 95 theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche, he was not thereby ushering in the Reformation. But his attack on the prevalent system of indulgences, with his suggestion that the pope, whose “riches … far exceed the wealth of the richest millionaires,” could better afford to build St. Peter’s than the faithful poor, was the one step in a long process which would symbolize centuries later the fresh, cleansing wind of God which swept across 16th-century Europe much as a belated breath of Pentecost.
The Castle Church door evokes memories of Luther at bay in Worms, Zwingli on the field at Kappel, Calvin fashioning a new Geneva, and Knox thundering judgments before Mary Stuart, after sitting at Calvin’s feet in what Knox called “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles.” These scenes were but part of the religious upheaval which shattered the face of Europe. Before it was over, Lutheranism would win from Rome the following of most of the Germans and Scandinavians; Zwingli would lead away many of the Swiss cantons; from Geneva cosmopolitan Calvinism would penetrate France, the Low Countries, Scotland, Hungary, and elsewhere; the English church would embrace certain Calvinist, Zwinglian, and Lutheran influences; and the Anabaptists would gain the allegiance of many in Switzerland, Germany and the Low Countries.
With an assist from the Renaissance, the Word of God had been loosed and the resultant impact upon the European populace was marvelous to behold. Historian M. M. Knappen describes the doctrine of the unique and complete authority of the Bible as “an acute-angled salient, wrecking the enemy’s defenses and acting as a bulwark for the prospective Protestant empire of northern Europe. Though the Catholics accepted its uniqueness, so effective was the Protestant employment of this tool that in the first heat of the conflict good Catholics equated a knowledge of the Bible with heresy and prided themselves on their ignorance of this element of their own faith.”
One is here reminded that Protestantism was not essentially a negative movement in contrast to a “positive Catholicism,” as the picture is so often drawn. The name “Protestant,” first used in connection with the protest of some German princes against decrees of the second Diet of Speyer (1529) and not adopted as a designation for a church until much later, assuredly has certain negative connotations which tend to overshadow other of its meanings such as “affirmation,” “assertion,” and “declaration.”
But the Reformation had glorious affirmations, brought forth fresh from the rediscovered treasury of the Word written. The Reformers were not seeking to build a new church or to introduce new doctrines. Theirs was not basically a departure or an innovation but rather a return—a re-formation. And in their work of renovation they leaned heavily upon Augustine, and cited often Anselm and the fathers.
The sovereignty of God was forcefully proclaimed in contrast to the Renaissance dogma of the sovereignty of man. And in contrast to Pelagian and semi-Pelagian views, man was held to be suffering from more than an untied shoelace or even spiritual sickness. Paul’s voice was heard again—man was “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). And something more radical was required to revivify him than grace which needed the aid of works. The answer was an unmerited justification by faith alone, inasmuch as the sovereign God was also the sovereign Lover whose grace was fathomless. Said Luther in his Commentary on Galatians: “Everyone who seeks righteousness without Christ, either by works, merits, satisfactions, afflictions, or by the Law, rejects the grace of God, and despises the death of Christ.” Those justified, the elect of God, are called quite apart from any personal merit and, though this be humbling, they are thus raised to the dizzying eminence of personal priesthood. Jesus Christ, the God-man, remains sole Mediator and High Priest between God and man, assuring direct access to God. Man thus finds his God-endowed freedom and the motivation and power to use it responsibly.
Here is the glory of the evangelical faith. One recalls driving to Padua with a Roman Catholic professor of law in the ancient university there. A description of the Protestant faith was requested. Upon hearing of the relationship of believer to God, the professor raised his hand and said, “There is where we part company. We have our priests, you know.”
In making their affirmations, the Reformers held many things in common with their opponents. Among others there were these: the Trinity; Jesus Christ’s incarnation, deity, virgin birth, atonement, bodily resurrection, and second coming; and God’s historical purposes in effecting a kingdom for his own glory.
But the Reformers found that out of positive affirmation arose the necessity also for negative protest. They lacked a certain spirit of modernity inasmuch as the tolerance they showed was not based on doctrinal indifference. The principle of the authority of the Scriptures alone left no room for the Roman elevation of church tradition and the “living mind of the church,” nor for the papacy either. Christ as sole Mediator had no need of a system of priestcraft, Mariolatry, and hagiolatry. Justification by faith alone meant that while good works had a place in one’s salvation, they had nothing to do with his justification. (Tetzel’s papal indulgences were certainly not up to the job.)
Luther speaks of his willingness to make “concessions to the papists”—“we are willing to offer them more than we should.” “But,” he says, “we will not give up the liberty of conscience which we have in Christ Jesus. We refuse to have our conscience bound by any work or law, so that by doing this or that we should be righteous, or leaving this or that undone we should be damned. Since our opponents will not let it stand that only faith in Christ justifies, we will not yield to them. On the question of justification we must remain adamant, or else we shall lose the truth of the Gospel. It is a matter of life and death.”
Today the emphasis is on overcoming tensions between religious groups, and many tensions ought to be overcome. But too many tension fighters have such a superficial view of doctrine (quite apart from Luther’s life and death concern), that the significance of the Reformation is lost on them. They seemingly forget that whoever goes back to Rome today, or unites with it, inherits the liabilities against which the Reformers protested, and then some. For there has since been the counterreforming Council of Trent with its Roman hardening of anti-evangelical strands of the Medieval Church. And where the Reformers opposed “conciliar infallibility,” Protestants now face “papal infallibility.” Veneration for Mary has brought about the Assumption dogma as well.
But for many today, the only doctrine worth getting excited about is that of a unified visible church. The Reformers spoke from a setting of such a church, but they were concerned more for a unity in truth and doctrine than in organization, though the latter was desired as well. If the Reformation doctrines were unimportant, then Rome has had the proper answer all along.
Who are the inheritors of the Reformation? Not modernists, though they may observe Reformation Day. “Renaissance Day” would be more appropriately celebrated. For modernism was in some ways a more profound transformation for the infected part of the church than the Reformation. Its views of God and Jesus Christ were a radical departure from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism alike, not to mention the New Testament. Its view of man represented a drift to that of the Renaissance, ensnaring man in a false independence and optimism and thus enslaving him eventually to the lamentable cry of the chief priests, “We have no king but Caesar.”
Even as the Renaissance and Reformation views of life today constitute a schism in the Western soul, so also they compete even within the Church. The lights in many of the Reformation lands burn low as they suffer the blight of this latter-day revolution. Luther’s 92nd and 93rd theses shout out with a peculiar relevance: “… So let all those prophets depart who say to Christ’s people ‘Peace, peace’ and there is no peace. And farewell to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people ‘the cross, the cross’ and there is no cross.”
The inheritors of the Reformation are evangelical Christians. These are they who proclaim that Christ has “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). They detect a new assault upon the priesthood of believers in the interposition, not of priests and saints this time, but of demythologizers and destructive higher critics along with a resurgent churchianity. They must protest this, for they proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord,” believing that when God spoke, he did not simply stammer. They stand with the Reformers in preaching the Bible as the Word of God and against those who would invoke some way of knowledge and of salvation other than that revealed. They share the delight of a Cambridge Reformer who gathered with others in the White Horse Inn to discuss the new theology and go with Luther behind the Scholastics to the Scriptures. The English don said that to be in that company made him feel he had been placed in the new glorious Jerusalem. Evangelicals earnestly desire a position for the Bible akin to that held in Puritan England where its study became, as British historian G. M. Trevelyan puts it, “the national education.” He says, “A deep and splendid effect was wrought by the monopoly of this book as the sole reading of common households, in an age when men’s minds were instinct with natural poetry and open to receive the light of imagination. A new religion arose, … [its] pervading spirit the direct relations of man with God, exemplified in human life.”
Modern children of the Reformation often take their heritage for granted and sometimes forget that they have much to lose, although they have yet a long way to go. But they are essentially united, despite the variety of their denominational traditions, in the conviction that it was the preaching of the Word of God, bringing men and women into direct relationship with God, which turned the apostolic world upside down and transformed the geography of Europe. This is the hope for our day. Nothing less will suffice.
APPEAL FOR THE BIBLE CARRIED TO SUPREME COURT
The U. S. Supreme Court has now been called upon to resolve the question of Bible reading in the public schools. The school board of Abington township (a suburb of Philadelphia) has appealed an adverse ruling of the Federal Circuit Court in Philadelphia, which labels as unconstitutional the Pennsylvania law requiring the reading of at least ten Bible verses in public schools, as well as the common practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The court ruled that this constitutes a religious devotion odious to those of differing faiths (or of no faith at all).
A Unitarian couple whose children are enrolled in an Abington township school protested these religious observances, aided by the American Civil Liberties Union. Many citizens resented the effort of a small minority to conform majority wishes to their prejudices, and argued that separation of Church and State is being stretched to extraordinary lengths when the last vestiges of the traditional spiritual beliefs and culture of most Americans are excluded from public education. Other parents wonder why the minority were not content simply to have their youngsters excused from Bible readings. The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin asks editorially: “Will someone argue that the swearing in of Presidents and Supreme Court Justices ought to be on Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary?”
With Dr. Raymond F. Anderson, pastor of St. Paul’s English Evangelical Lutheran Church, many think it incredible that a nation so recently inserting “under God” into its pledge to the flag, and whose Declaration of Independence speaks of a supernatural Creator from whom man’s “unalienable rights” proceed, will now consider it inherently wrong for school children to hear that “the Lord is my shepherd” or to say “Our Father who art in heaven.” Dr. Anderson warns that human rights will not long be perpetuated in a society that erases the Creator from its vision.
The U. S. Supreme Court’s ruling will bear indirectly on other facets of freedom. In the name of liberty some agencies more and more oppose necessary conformity of any kind—permission of Bible reading in the schools, curtailment of obscene literature on the streets, and so on. The courts are being pressured by social forces in revolt against our traditions.
Americans will rightly resist use of the sword to enforce religious exercises. Some observers, friendly to Christian traditions, think the case for observances such as Bible reading and prayers is on less secure ground than the educational use of the Bible in the curriculum. In the enthusiasm for Bible readings they see a misdirected effort to remedy the secularization of the public school. Since public education has been infiltrated for a generation by humanistic motifs, some leaders today would restore a phantom sort of theism to its core, while others would maintain the Christian heritage on its periphery.
Yet Bible reading itself may be viewed as an educational activity as fully as a religious exercise. A religious spirit of sorts inevitably pulses through the classrooms; the religiously neutral educational program simply does not exist. The minorities will increasingly bend the majority to their prejudices, in shaping this religious climate, as long as majority indifference precludes an effective counter-emphasis: that the minority’s sectarian biases are likewise odious. To deprive children of the possibility of hearing the Bible and to militate especially against readings from this Book, seems to many parents to border on religious intolerance. The Supreme Court, it may be hoped, will take a long look at American heritage and purpose in resolving this issue. The question is worthy of full study by the nation’s highest tribunal.
SHOULD AMERICANS ELECT A ROMAN CATHOLIC PRESIDENT?
The possibility of electing a Roman Catholic to the office of President of the United States has aroused considerable debate in political as well as religious circles.
Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Governor Edmund G. Brown of California, Governor David L. Lawrence of Pennsylvania and Ohio’s Governor Michael V. DiSalle are Catholics prominently mentioned. Kennedy in particular has denied that his religion in any way unfits him for this high office.
If the Roman Catholic church were like most denominations, all Americans would welcome a qualified Roman Catholic citizen in the White House. The U. S. Constitution imposes no religious test and the principle is sound. But the nature of the Roman Catholic church and the provisions of its canon law raise problems in considering a Catholic presidential candidate that do not arise in the case of a Protestant or a Jew.
Pope Boniface VII in 1302 in Bull “Unum Sanctum” made it clear—and Roman Catholics stand committed to papal infallibility—that the church has ultimate authority in both temporal and spiritual realms and that Roman Catholics are responsible to the Church above the State. The Bull was addressed especially to Roman Catholic rulers. In 1885 Pope Leo XIII in his Encyclical Letter “Immortale Dei” (The Christian Constitution of the State) reaffirmed “whatever the Roman Pontiffs have hitherto taught” and specifically restated the Bonifacian doctrine of “the harmony of Church and State.” Leo goes on to spell out what the Church means by “union of Church and State”: “The State should officially recognize the Catholic religion as the religion of the Commonwealth; accordingly it should invite the blessing and the ceremonial participation of the Church for important public functions, as the opening of legislative sessions, the erection of public buildings, and so forth, and delegate its officials to attend certain of the more important festival celebrations of the Church; it should recognize and sanction the laws of the Church; and it should protect the rights of the Church and the religious as well as the other rights of the Church’s members.” Then follow passages which, if implemented, would deny rights and privileges of certain kinds to Protestants and non-Catholic religions.
Dr. Sebastian Smith, eminent Roman Catholic authority on canon law, states the claims of the papacy over civil government in his three-volume work on ecclesiastical law.
Dr. John A. Ryan and Dr. Francis Boland in their volume, Catholic Principles in Politics, published by Macmillan in 1940 (ninth printing in 1958), reiterate these claims. The book bears the imprimatur of Francis Cardinal Spellman and the nihil obstat of Dr. Arthur J. Scanlan, president of the Catholic University, of Washington.
Probably the most important treatise on this issue, from the standpoint of free and democratic government, was prepared by the Honorable William E. Gladstone, nineteenth-century British prime minister. Gladstone’s treatise was titled, The Vatican Decrees and their Bearing on Civil Allegiance. On pages 28 and 29 he deals specifically with the claims of the Roman church over civil governments and over Roman Catholic citizens of such governments. Every Roman Catholic must either faithfully fulfill the canon law requirements of the church in all matters involving ecclesiastical authority or be liable to excommunication.
In view of these facts of long standing, which have never been repudiated ex cathedra by any pope or by any papal council, many observers believe that election of a Roman Catholic to the presidency of the United States sooner or later would be a threat to our freedoms and the American way of life. Many distinguished Roman Catholics in public life have a higher sense of moral concern than some Protestants and Jews aspiring to the presidency. Senator Kennedy has written a book, Profiles in Courage. In the light of his personal commitment to the principle of separation of Church and State and his profession of loyalty to the American way, it would be heartening if he would with high courage initiate a movement in his church looking toward the repudiation of those sections of its canon law which compel his American compatriots to look with uneasiness upon Roman Catholic candidates for political office.
CANADIAN VIEW OF LAST THINGS CALLS FOR RESTUDY IN DEPTH
Life and Death, an official study of “the Christian hope” by the Committee on Christian Faith of the United Church of Canada, discards eternal punishment, revises the doctrine of hell, holds out hope for the ultimate salvation of all men, approves prayers for the dead, and teaches that Christ’s second coming need not occur in a “physical manner.” The Executive of the General Council of UCC, giving “general approval,” commends the 118-page statement as “worthy of study in the church.”
The report has provoked much criticism. While the foreword states that “The Committee has tried to produce a statement, based upon the Scriptures …,” evangelical leaders point to controlling biases that compromise the biblical view of man’s final destiny with the speculative notions of our times. The study deprives Scripture of revelation-status by viewing the Bible simply as “the record” of God’s acts and revelation (p. 5). An explanatory note designates the prophets as men of special “insight” into God’s will. The doctrine of eternal punishment is held to be neither true nor false but merely an existential statement of spiritual relationship (pp. 48 ff.)—a strategem whose implications for other doctrines, if consistently applied, must be apparent to all. Christ’s bodily return is opposed on the ground that the biblical language is symbolic (p. 81).
An appendix on “Symbolism in Relation to the Interpretation of the Bible” asserts that the Bible does not depict history but rather seeks “to convey certain truths” when recording an earthquake at Christ’s death miraculously releasing saints from their tombs, or giving us word pictures of the final judgment. The report stresses Reinhold Niebuhr’s view that “it is important to take biblical symbols seriously but not literally.”
Apart from gratuitous reduction of facets of the last things to symbol, and failure to show how existential seriousness can long survive the surrender of literal truth, the study multiplies confusion by emphasizing that “all language is symbolic” (p. 80). If so, we are then back where we started. For, granted this view of the nature of language, a valid distinction surely remains between historical facts like the virgin birth of Christ and his death on the cross and figurative statements like “I am the door” (John 10:7). To excuse disbelief in the second coming on the ground that all language is symbolic otherwise shipwrecks all history.
Instead of being sent to the churches, the study might better have been returned to committee for more searching of Scripture and less exchange of opinion. Such reports tend to discourage Bible study and to finalize flexible theological speculations.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.