Tag Archives: Martin Luther

The heart of medieval heart religion: Devotion to the Passion of Christ


CrucifixionTheIsenheimerAltarpiecesNow we get close to the crux of late medieval heart religion: devotion to the Passion of Christ. Draft of a piece of the “affective devotion” chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis:

Perhaps the most intense and long-lasting dimension of medieval affective devotion was that era’s devotion to the Passion of Jesus, the God-man. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism and a thoroughly medieval man, acted on the repeated urgings of his Augustinian confessor, Staupitz, to “Look to the wounds of Jesus.” And soon after posting his 95 theses, he announced that the only man who deserved to be called a theologian was he “who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the Cross.” All through his life, his sermons and hymns contained striking images of that event. Where did this come from?

The roots of Luther’s passion devotion are to be found in the tradition of medieval affective piety that we have been examining: Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), asking Christ to forgive him “for not having kissed the place of the wounds where the nails pierced, for not having sprinkled with tears of joy the scars.” Abelard (d. 1142/43), focusing on the supreme example of Christ’s love and forgiveness in his Passion, in order to foster in the unbeliever emotions of horror and godly sorrow when confronted by this death. Bernard of Clairvaux’s (d. 1153) lavish attention to the emotions of the believer captivated by the love of God.

And then, of course, Francis of Assisi, whose all-consuming imitation of Christ seemed rewarded on September 17, 1224, in the hermitage on Mt. Alverno, when he is said to have received the gift of Christ’s wounds in his own flesh—the stigmata. Continue reading

Gnostic or hedonist – it all amounts to devaluing Creation


beautiful-alley-bench-nature-spain

I think I’m well and truly into the Creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Hoping to have it finished tonight or tomorrow. As with most of the other chapters, I’m starting with a framing of the modern problem(s) to which medieval faith suggests a solution. In this case, we’re looking at two sub-Christian attitudes to material stuff (including rocks, strawberries, gerbils, our human bodies, and all the ways we make culture in our social interactions). I don’t discuss the “medieval” solution yet – that will come in the next couple of posts.

Our issues: Gnosticism and materialism

Gnosticism

The early Christian Gnostics disavowed the spiritual significance and goodness of the material world: the world was created not by our God, who called his handiwork “good,” but rather by an inferior sub-god called a “demiurge.” Thus one must set aside the material world if one is to reach God. The world cannot be in any way a channel of Grace – it is rather an impediment to grace.

One online author who is convinced he sees Gnosticism all over the modern church suggests the following tests—a sort of “you might be a gnostic if . . .” The signs of gnostic thinking he identifies are (1) thinking Christianity is about “spiritual” things (only), (2) thinking of our destiny only in terms of our souls going off to heaven, (3) forgetting that “Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’),” and (4) believing that God neither gives us material things as means of grace, nor indeed cares about the earth at all – and neither should we.

This syndrome of devaluing the material—sapping it of all spiritual significance—supports a number of modern Christian bad habits. One is the sort of “it’s all gonna burn” end-times scenario indulged in the Left Behind novels. Another is the excuse Baby Boomers (and others) make for the fact that their faith makes no difference in their daily life: “I’m ‘spiritual but not religious.’”[1] Continue reading

Is everyday work spiritually second-class? Not according to these Christian thinkers


Refocused Vocation

Thanks to Leadership Journal for asking me to write the following. It’s now up at http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2013/
winter/refocused-vocation.html
.

Refocused Vocation

Over the centuries, it’s been distorted, but history also sharpens our view of every Christian’s calling.

Chris R. Armstrong

In the first history class of each new year at Bethel Seminary, I have my students talk about their sense of calling. Many of them tell a similar story: “I quit my job to go into the ministry.” What drove them to this decision was a sense of frustration and meaninglessness in their daily work. They didn’t see their workas pleasing to God or useful in the kingdom. The frequent assumption is that ordained ministry is where people are really working for God.

If that’s true, where does that leave the vast majority of Christians, who by the end of their lives will each have spent an average of 100,000 hours in non-church work? Can they see secular jobs as a holy vocation? Can non-church work be a means to serve others, giving cups of water to the thirsty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked (Mt. 25)—which (for example) parents do every month, whether through a paycheck or in the work they do in the home? Those in secular work often feel like only those doing things of significance in ministry positions will get to hear the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

This sense that ordinary work is spiritually second-class isn’t so much taught as caught. Continue reading

What should Protestants think about the Catholic sacrament of penance (confession)?


“The Confession,” by Giuseppe Molteni (19th c.)

Despite my attempts to clarify (what I understand of) Roman Catholic doctrine and practice in my lectures, I always get papers and exam essays from students at my Baptist seminary showing that they are impervious to correction of Protestant stereotypes.

In a paper on the sacrament of reconciliation (penance), a student wrote, “Being founded on a works-based righteousness . . .”

My response:

You haven’t demonstrated this. It is the typical Protestant stereotype. RC theology is officially Augustinian (grace-based), with the allowance that humans participate with God’s grace in that dimension of salvation that we call sanctification. Protestants agree with this point (except for some Lutherans). What we disagree on is the inclusion of sanctification in our understanding of salvation. In other words, RC theology is certainly not “works-based.” In practice, it sometimes leans that way, granted. But we need to be careful that we are dealing with a real (and I agree, flawed) theological stance, not a straw man. Continue reading

Dark Nights of the Soul – the Leadership Journal article


Here is the finished, significantly revised and polished form of the Leadership Journal article I wrote this summer on “dark nights of the soul” in the lives and thought of C S Lewis, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Martin Luther (the longer forms of each person’s story are linked at the end of this post):

The following article is located at:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2011/fall/historydarkness.html

Leadership Journal

A History of Darkness
The struggles of these spiritual giants yielded unexpected blessings.
Chris R. Armstrong

Monday, November 7, 2011

Christian faith is built on presence. Whether in the pillar of fire, the still small voice, or the incarnate Son, God has been Emmanuel, “with us.” He has promised never to leave or forsake us. In thousands of hymns, we have sung of an experienced intimacy with God in Christ. We have prayed, wept, and rested in his presence.

For a committed Christian, then, nothing is more devastating than divine absence, spiritual loneliness, the experience of our prayers hitting a ceiling of brass. Continue reading

Religion of the heart – part IV


Want to know more about Pietism's "religion of the heart"? Check out this book by some friends of mine

This is the final part of a 4-part post:

Pietism

Now at last we come to Pietism itself. There are all sorts of interpretations of where Pietism came from, when it emerged in the 1600s. Some Lutherans at the time felt it was a kind of crypto-Calvinism. Others felt it had on it the taint of Anabaptism. And so forth. But this much is clear: it was a natural development out of the thought and piety of Martin Luther. And so if we want to talk about how Pietism re-introduced the historical Christian “religion of the heart,” we need to remember that as it did so, it drew on this mystical side of Luther. In fact, Philip Spener, the man usually identified as the “father of Pietism,” was, according to Karl Barth, the greatest Luther scholar since Luther. He wasn’t making things up as he went along, creating some brand new form of Christianity. He was a deeply pious Lutheran, who counseled state-church Lutherans to stay in their churches.

Of course, he didn’t want them to just stay in their churches. For many of their churches were, just like their seminaries, “dead.” That is, they were more interested in orthodoxy than in conversion of life. Spener wanted the Lutherans of his day to read their Bibles at home, to get together in small groups, to get out and live Christianly in the marketplace and the town square—to let their love relationships with God make a difference in their lives. Spener’s protégée, August Hermann Francke, took this principle and turned it into a full-blown institution, founding and running a complex in the city of Halle that included a large orphanage, a school, a printing house, job training facilities, and much more. This was a faith not only with a heart, but with hands and feet. Continue reading

Martin Luther’s Anfechtungen–his own dark nights of the soul, and how they affected his teaching and ministry


Martin Luther 2

Image via Wikipedia

Well, it seems that each of the three sections of my forthcoming article for Leadership Journal has ballooned to the projected size of the whole piece: 2,500 words. So if I am to share in full what I have learned about Martin Luther’s teachings about spiritual depression (Luther is the third of three figures in the article, along with C. S. Lewis and Mother Teresa of Calcutta), it will need to be here:

Perhaps just as surprising as the story of Mother Teresa is that of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther. Well known is the story of how, as a young monk, Martin struggled mightily with a sense of his own sinfulness and inability to please God. This struggle culminated in the revelation that triggered the Reformation: righteousness is not within our ability to achieve; God himself freely gives it. Surely such a truth would free a man like Luther from all spiritual darkness. And yet it did not. Again and again throughout his life he descended into severe spiritual anxiety and emotional struggle, starting with a particularly long and intense depression that begin a scant few years after the Reformation, in 1527. During that period, he heard a haunting inner voice that asked him again and again, “Du bist allein Klug?” “You alone know everything?” That is, what if you are leading thousands of people into damning error and breaking the church? At this, said one Luther scholar, “self-reproach plummeted him into the utter depths of despair.”

Historian David Steinmetz describes the terror which Luther experienced at these times as a fear that “God had turned his back on him once and for all,” abandoning him “to suffer the pains of hell.” Feeling “alone in the universe,” Luther “doubted his own faith, his own mission, and the goodness of God—doubts which, because they verged on blasphemy, drove him deeper and deeper” into despair. His prayers met a “wall of indifferent silence.” He experienced heart palpitations, crying spells and profuse sweating. He was convinced that he would die soon and go straight to hell. “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” His faith was as if it had never been. He “despised himself and murmured against God.” Indeed, his friend Philip Melanchthon said that the terrors afflicting Luther became so severe that he almost died. The term “spiritual warfare” seems apt. Continue reading

Mother Teresa’s long dark night


Until a 2007 book, only a handful of people knew Mother Teresa's secret darkness

I’ve been working on an article for Leadership Journal on three people who experienced and thought carefully about something like the classic “dark night of the soul”: C S Lewis, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther. But the whole article must fit into 2,500 words, and the section on Mother Teresa has gotten out of hand, clocking even now, in a fairly refined form, the whole 2,500. So I am posting it here before cutting it down:

Almost every Christian thinker who has commented on the experience of divine absence and spiritual desolation called by John of the Cross “the Dark Night of the Soul” has concluded that the experience must have some spiritual usefulness. That’s one of the things that shocked the world when, in 2007, we discovered through a posthumously published book that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had undergone a severe, intense dark night that persisted through almost her entire ministry life, right up until her death.

It didn’t seem to make sense. Here was a person who, if anyone could merit the title during her lifetime, was thought of by almost everyone who knew of her as an exemplary saint. With our theology of a relational God, we would expect Him to smile benevolently down on such a person, even previewing some of his “Well done, good and faithful servant” in His behavior toward her in this life. And yet here it was, this agonizing decades-long Absence that darkened her whole life and left her only briefly, on one occasion.

What on earth sort of usefulness could such dereliction have for a person such as Mother Teresa? The editor of her letters makes it clear that it was not a “thorn” to rescue her from some sort of overweening pride—she had begun the ministry of the Missionaries of Charity based on a youthful vow that she would do everything God asked, submitting herself absolutely to His will. She was little inclined to pride, as all around her testified. Continue reading

Why do we have Christmas trees?


A Christmas tree in the United States.

Just why do we put these odd things in our houses?

When I have questions about church history, I often turn to one or the other of our family’s dear friends (and our older kids’ godparents) Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait. So naturally, when my wife came back today from shopping for a Christmas tree (empty-handed! The trees at the only lot she could find were dried out and $75!), and I began musing over this odd tradition, I turned to an article by the Woodruff Taits that reminded me how odd, indeed, is the history of the Christmas tree:

The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” Continue reading

Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues


H/t to scientia et sapientia for alerting me to Baylor prof Roger Olson’s suggestion that perhaps Protestants today should take C S Lewis’s cue and consider the possibility of a purgatory-like intermediate state between death and heaven. You’ll see a variety of responses, some quite heated, at Roger’s blog. Also, scientia links a thoughtful critical response from Dallas Seminary grad and theological educator Michael Patton.

Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection: Continue reading