Friday, September 2, 2011

Religion Friday: Reformation Protestants


When I wrote about the Catholic Church, I mentioned how Christianity had once been outside of the institution (Roman Empire) but then became the institution. Skip ahead a few centuries, and the Church was a powerful force. With that, came some shady business dealings. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a Catholic priest in Germany, famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the church door. It mainly criticized the Church’s practice of selling clerical offices and selling indulgences, which are remissions for punishment. By selling these, the rich were essentially “buying their way into heaven.”

At first, Luther sought to end corrupt and hypocritical actions he saw in the Church, but as the Church continued to oppose him, he began to break further away. He gained support from German princes who opposed the Church’s political interference in their territories. Politically, this turned Europe upside down. Once unified in a religion, now there were Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists (more on them later). After years of rebellions and war, the Peace of Westphalia guaranteed rulers the right to determine their state’s religion and promised Christians whose denomination was not the state religion a right to practice their faith.

Of course, the break wasn’t all political. The further Lutherans distanced themselves from Catholics, the more theological differences also arose. Luther proposed that salvation came from grace alone (not grace and works). He also believed that the Bible was the only source of divine guidance, a theory called sola scriptura. These two ideas continue to form the basis of most Protestant beliefs. In the past few decades, sola scriptura has been taken to extreme; some believe the Bible to be completely literal and always right. But Luther only meant that the Bible be the only basis of Christian teachings instead of also relying on papal authority (including priests as mediators between man and God). I find this absolute literalism very risky, as the Bible was written by multiple men at various times, compiled by other men at later times, and translated numerous ways numerous times. That’s not to say the authors or translators weren’t divinely inspired and had the best of intentions, but I believe there has to be room to account for human err. The Bible is a guide that reflects the history of God’s relationship with His creation including the testimonies of men who witnessed Christ in the flesh on earth and worked to build the Church. However, reducing the faith to biblical literalism denies the different, transcendent, and sometimes subtle ways God speaks to us. It also limits learning from insights people have had beyond 99 A.D. It is a very narrow way to see a very wide God (cue “Deep and Wide” with hand motions).

Luther didn’t just pave the way for Protestants; he did succeed in some reforms to the Catholic Church as well. This is known as the Counter-Reformation. As a response to the rise of Protestantism, the Church established seminaries for the proper training of clerics and began a stronger focus on the spiritual (rather than political). There was a rise in mysticism around this time as people strived to transcend the political turmoil and find a true relationship with God. I think this shows the good that can sometimes arise from very ugly, messy situations.

So what about today? Mainstream Protestants (usually considered to be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians) tend to be more progressive than other Protestant groups. They focus on inclusion and social justice causes. The Episcopalian, PCUSA and some Methodists even ordain open homosexuals, which has caused further splits among denominations. There is not much I can say generally about mainstream Protestants, however, because the one thing about Protestants is, each church is individual. Each denomination is different in many theological points, and sometimes even individual churches within a denomination hold different views.

There were many good things that came from the Reformation: less corruption, more focus on personal spiritual relationships, scripture in the vernacular so people could read it for themselves. However, I find the many divisions sad. If someone takes issue with what his church is teaching, he can just go start his own church. He doesn’t have to consider that the church might be right and that he just doesn’t like it, or that the church isn’t right and needs a reformer and serious reevaluation. There is a lack of accountability. When you read about the early Church, the churches are always greeting one another and holding each congregation accountable for its actions. Back then, it was a necessity to be united and accountable for a small, new faith to survive. But isn't that also true now? Instead of being one faith, Christianity has become a mix of various interpretations loosely connected by our trust in Christ. I think we would all be stronger and better witnesses if we could only agree on a unified foundation instead of using religion as a social and political tool.

[Most Protestants see crucifixes and icons as idolatrous and thus use the basic cross. It’s not clear Luther actually nailed the 95 Theses to the church door, but the story persists that way, probably because it makes the situation seem more rebellious.]

I found this chart on Wikipedia. I think it shows the branches of Protestantism in a pretty clear way. Vertically, it shows the degree of the reform, from most radical on top, to minimal (basically just leaving the Pope) on bottom.


Next Friday: Calvinism

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