by Brian G. Daigle
A talk given at Trinity Anglican Church in Lafayette, Louisiana on Saturday, May 13th 2017
Choose your test. Grab the instrument or data point or questionnaire you believe will most clearly reveal how healthy the Church is today. What is it? What do you choose? Consider the various appeals we make when we want to show the decay of the contemporary church in America. Perhaps we say...
Our Christian children are leaving the church and abandoning it in droves.
Multiply the number of churches that open each year by twenty or thirty or forty or four-hundred and that’s how many churches close each year
Christian ethics, Christian principles, and Christian thought have left public
Hardly anyone reads the church fathers anymore
Christian references and symbols have left the popular imagination.
We’d be hard pressed to find a congregate, or perhaps even a clergyman, who has read Herbert and Donne and Hopkins and Chesterton.
Contemporary church architecture is indistinguishable from cheap office
Take a look at our Christian schools. They follow the lead of government
education and slap on a bible class.
Perhaps you say “the Christian radio station and the Christian bookstores are
evidence enough that, in America at least, Christendom is dead”
Be it children, sacramentology, church art, or church growth, whatever you choose to determine the health and presence of Christendom in North America, the outcome is the same. We are in a bad place, and it’s not because we have been too faithful to the Triune God.
As has been reiterated today, this year marks the 500th anniversary of one of Church history’s most important events. It marks the 500th year since a man used one of the most important tests, one of the sharpest instruments, to show the deep unfaithfulness, unbridled corruption, and vast confusion in the Church. Martin Luther grabbed a very important instrument in showing the sicknesses of the Church in his day. Luther grabbed his intellect. And he didn’t just wield his intellect: he asked his opponents to do the same.
For those unfamiliar with the academic practices of Luther’s day, it’s easy to think that Luther’s act of nailing something to the church door was at best antagonistic and obnoxious. “What kind of jerk nails something to a church door?” asks the 21st century mind. Today we have blogs and tweets and posts and church marquise signs. What mad man nails things to church doors? But nailing theses to a church door was common practice. This was an indication that Luther didn’t want a world-wide church split. He was hardly aware of the continental bundle of sticks that would ignite after his theses were printed widely. What Luther wanted in posting the 95 was to be debated in an academic setting. He was, after all, a doctor of theology, and this is why he composed the 95 in Latin, the language of academia. Sometime before posting the 95 to the church door, Luther had posted a different set of 97 theses attacking scholastic theology. He did this in hopes that his colleagues at the University of Wittenberg would respond with open discussion. As Church historian Justo Gonzalez tells us, these 97 theses were “received [by his colleagues] with little more than a great yawn.” Then came 1517 and the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Historian Richard Hannula explains:
“The Castle Church in Wittenberg housed more than 17,000 relics, the largest
collection in Germany, claiming among them four strands of the Virgin Mary’s hair, a piece of straw from the baby Jesus’ manger, a nail from the cross, and a
piece of bread from the Last Supper. The pope decreed that visitors to the Castle
Church on All Saints Day who venerated the relics and gave a contribution could
reduce their time in purgatory by over one million years.” (Hannula 123).
Then, on October 31st, 1917, the eve before All Saints’ Day, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and doctor of theology, made his stand. Luther was 34 years old. This was Luther’s challenge, 95 challenges to be exact. But the spirit of the 95 cannot be missed, and neither can the context. Luther’s challenge was an intellectual one and it was a moral one; it was a public challenge to have a public and academic discussion concerning matters of theology, ecclesiology, orthodoxy, and orthopraxy. Again Hannula states, “What Luther had intended to be a discussion on indulgences among the university professors and churchmen of Wittenberg exploded into a spiritual struggle that engulfed all of Europe.” (Hannula page 123)
And in so being an invitation for a public debate, it was one of the strongest tests to see how healthy, or not, the Church and her officials really were. Consider for a moment some of the fruit of a healthy church:
opponents or enemies
commitment and conviction.
And consider for a moment the proper context which is required for a good debate or discussion, a good intellectual tumble. The list is the same: brotherhood, brains, opponents or enemies, commitment and conviction, and humility. Each of Luther’s theses were set out to show the corruption of the Church in his day; and it is the same of the 95 Theses as a whole. The spirit, wording, and even method by which he made the proclamation as a whole also show the corruption of the Church in his day, and if we look close enough, we will see how these indicate some of the problems in contemporary Christianity. Let’s consider each of these components separately.
First, Luther had brothers.
Luther was a monk and professor in community. In the digital age it’s easy and unfortunate for us to think of Luther’s act as something of a blog, a rant he typed late one night as he thought about the missteps of his Christian brothers in the church across town. But the spirit of Luther’s theses were anything but a rant. They were anything but complaining. The very existence of the 95 theses tells us he had a basic respect and care for who he thought would answer the call, who he thought his opponent would be. His concern of corruption was public, it was invitational, and it was clear. These are all the marks of brotherly love. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.”
Second, Luther had brains.
Luther was a monk with brains. A quick look at the 95 theses tells us Luther was no intellectual slouch. As previously mentioned, at the time he posted it, he was already doing some intellectual heavy lifting. Much had been required of him in his academic formation. Unfortunately, the modern university and contemporary seminaries have much lacking. I’m afraid all too often today our priests and pastors have shaped their intellect like the world, if they have shaped them at all. The current general anti-intellectual climate of the United States makes the majority of our Christian academic institutions tepid. As Christians, we have not sought to hold the line or raise that standard but to lower it, to meet the world at its level. This is not the same thing as Christ’s humility in his condescension to man. What we have done in the west is acquiesce, and we have become tepid. As apologist Ravi Zacharias once said, “A tepid Christianity can’t withstand a rabid secularism.” This truth does not just apply to “Christianity.” It is really saying something about our actions as Christians, since Christianity is a life to be lived and not merely a set of propositions to be believed. The original quote applies to all Christian disciplines which are tepid. Tepid music in our churches can’t withstand a rabid secularism. Tepid education can’t withstand a rabid secularism. Tepid sacramentology. Tepid church leaders. Tepid church art. Tepid church architecture. Tepid preaching. None of these tepid things can withstand a rabid secularism. If we want to see what kind of priests and pastors the Church will have in twenty years, look at the kind of boys we are raising. We don’t teach boys logic, and we are surprised when ministers can’t think. We don’t teach boys poetry, and we are surprised when ministers can’t read. We don’t teach boys rhetoric, and we are surprised when ministers can’t preach. We send our boys to the goal line sooner than we send them to the nursing home, and we wonder why ministers lack compassion, no thought of death or fear of God. We make our boys tepid and we are surprised by tepid ministers and therefore tepid churches.
Third, Luther had enemies.
Let’s first begin by determining whether there is such a category as “enemy,” whether a man should have enemies at all. By definition, an enemy arises out of conflict. And conflict arises out of opposition. Opposition arises not only from difference, but irreconcilable differences, differences that are not worth negotiating. Before we know it, there is real disagreement. Two very irreconcilable differences are (1) the object of our honor and (2) truth claims.
A popular enough conflict arises when two people discuss whether something is worthy to be praised, whether something is worth our time, affections, money, and thoughts. What should we honor? We may call this the seat of glory. What belongs in the seat of glory? Irreconcilable differences arise in any context - business, education, the home – when two people cannot agree whether one thing should be praised or its opposite. This creates enemies. And as we will see, this is sometimes necessary and good.
Another area of conflict is truth claims. If a conductor claims the tunnel is twenty feet wide, wide enough to fit the train, and the co-conductor claims the tunnel is only fourteen feet wide, narrow enough to shave off the train’s side and wreck the whole venture, both men can’t be right. The tunnel is either wide enough or not. And as the train barrels down the track, there will be consequences one way or another. One of these men will play the hero and the other the villain. Despite what those flashy “COEXIST” bumper stickers may say, some truth claims cannot coexist with others. Some truth claims don’t play nice, and they shouldn’t.
A man will have enemies; a man will have trouble. Stanley Hauerwas said the point of Christianity was to have the right enemies. If a man doesn’t have enemies, he has ceased being a man; he has become lower than an ant, for even the ants know there is something worth fighting for when an Oogpister Beetle attempts to storm its land. As N.D. Wilson asks, assuming man will have trouble, will it be good trouble or bad trouble? Will a man have good God trouble or bad God trouble? Will a man have good man trouble or bad man trouble? The Psalms teach us this: good man trouble, bad man trouble, good God trouble, and bad God trouble. It is true that King David had real, historical enemies, and we ought to read the Psalms this way. It is likewise true that if we are living upright and godly lives, we too will have enemies. And the Psalms teach us what kinds of enemies we should have and how to deal with them. C.S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms states, “…though it is very bad to be a prig, there are social atmospheres so foul that in them it is almost an alarming symptom if a man has never been called one.” (Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 74) And we may appropriate this to Luther. “…though it is very bad to be a heretic, there are ecclesial atmospheres so foul that in them it is almost an alarming symptom if a man has never been called one.”
Fourth, Luther was committed to the church.
The Catholic response to Luther’s 95 Theses is no secret. It has been called the Catholic Counter-Reformation, and the Church in Rome, and those who did her bidding, stood its ground as much as Luther did. But Luther wasn’t responsible for the Church’s response. He was responsible for speaking the truth in love, even if it meant contending for it, and perhaps even dying for it. Consider the spirit of modern man when it comes to differences, even differences in churches. Here are some popular slogans:
These ideas have slipped into our Christian imaginations. Therefore, think about what happens when something far less significant than doctrine has been compromised. Because we are more committed to treating church like a shopping mall rather than life together, pursuing what is true, and good, and beautiful, we may jump churches at the first sign of petty imperfections. Perhaps there is no youth group for 10-12 year olds. Perhaps you think there should be two acoustic guitars instead of one. There is something right, and true, and beautiful about contending with one’s brother in the bond of friendship and commitment. This is one blessing of a covenant mindset. Luther did not nail up the 95 Theses because he was resolved to leave the church. Luther nailed up his 95 theses because he was resolved to stay with her and clean her. Two years after he put up the 95, he had a public debate with Johann Eck. A few years after that, Luther even went on trial at the Diet of Worms and defended himself publicly. This spirit of contentious commitment is needed once again. We must first commit to a city, a church authority, a people, and then we should in that commitment work together with intelligence and a spirit of love to mature together.
Fifth and finally, Luther had a Shephard’s heart.
There are many reasons why a man would pick a fight with his neighbor, and not all of those reasons are God-honoring. In Luther’s case, to not pick a fight would have been to dishonor God. There is a time when to avoid the fight is to deny or compromise the Gospel. This is precisely where Luther found himself. Luther had the kind of obedience to the Church that would have necessitated that only a few years before his 95 theses, he too would have been purchasing indulgences and paying harsh penance. It was in reading Romans 1:17 Luther was set free from guilt and never-ending shame:
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is
written, The just shall live by faith.
Luther found this freedom, and he wanted this freedom for others, and would rather be burned as a heretic than allow such corruption to continue uncontended in the Church. We see this in the book of Jude.
1 Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called:
2 Mercy unto you, and peace, and love, be multiplied.
3 Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.
4 For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ.
We should not necessarily pray for another Luther, for he was a gift. What we should pray for are the eyes to see as Luther saw and the courage to live as Luther lived. We may never be called to challenge widespread corruption in the Christian church as Luther did, but we should be prepared to do so if there ever were a need, for if the corruption isn’t as pervasive in the institutional church as it was then, it is at least that pervasive in our own hearts. And, like Luther, a 95 theses nailed to our own conscience is where we ought to begin.
Consider this list again: brotherhood, brains, opponents or enemies, commitment and conviction, and humility. These are sorely lacking in contemporary Christianity, in our world at large. Instead of brotherly friendship, we have Facebook friends. Instead of brains of steel, we have buns of steel. Instead of opponents or enemies, we have tolerance and egalitarianism. Instead of commitment and conviction, we have comfort and conformity. And instead of humility, we have vanity, teaching our citizens, and especially our children, that they deserve more than they actually do. The recent fuss at Duke Divinity School is a good example. Even in our most esteemed institutions of higher education, we don’t discuss or debate. We shame, shout people down, and use bumper-sticker logic to get our way and push our agenda, to disciple others into the corruption. This is not intellectually responsible. Worse, it is not Christian.
To end, Luther’s act was a Christian act, it was one which followed Christ. It was an act of liberating the Church from her sins, a true liberation Luther had found because he too once purchased indulgences and performed every duty the Church recommended for his forgiveness. Luther saw it. A Roman guard nails the Word of God to a wooden cross, so that we would be reconciled to God in heart, soul, mind, and strength. Fifteen-hundred years later a German monk nails his mind to a wooden door, so that the Word of God, the one nailed to the wooden cross, would be proclaimed as the only path to reconciliation. For Luther to have nailed his intellect to the church door, he first had to have an intellect. And he had to believe that the church door was the best place for it. Let us, brothers and sisters, follow Luther in having a mind, and let us have the courage to speak it in love so that the Church would be holy and set apart. Thank you.