Thanks to Leadership Journal for asking me to write the following. It’s now up at
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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living, Work with purpose
Tagged Benedict of Nursia, Benedict's Rule, Benedictinism, Gregory the Great, Johann Tauler, Martin Luther, Meister Eckhart, Pope Gregory I, vocation, work
“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 . . .”
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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged Catholic Church, confession, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Roman Catholicism, sacrament of penance, sacrament of reconciliation, salvation, sanctification, Theology
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):
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
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:
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
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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
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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants, Resources for Radical Living
Tagged Brian Kolodiejchuk, C S Lewis, dark night of the soul, health care, John of the Cross, Leadership Journal, leprosy, Martin Luther, Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa, the poor
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
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
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Augustine of Hippo, Balthasar Hubmaier, C S Lewis, grace, heaven, John Calvin, judgment, Martin Luther, purgatory, Roger Olson, Roman Catholicism, sin, Spirituality, Ulrich Zwingli
I once wrote that Luther tossed the saints off of the church calendar and thus removed an important spiritual tool from Protestantism. Now I am reminded by the “Here I Walk” blogger(s) that I should have qualified that statement. The document cited in the following is Lutheranism’s primary confessional document, the Augsburg Confession.
Melanchthon gives an account of why Christians should not invoke the saints in prayer (Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Article xxi). But he and Luther both allowed for the possibility that the saints pray for us, and neither of them denied the designation of some believers as saints in the sense of “extraordinary witnesses to Christ.” In fact, Melanchthon lays out three extremely important things that saints do for believers that makes “giving honor” to them perfectly appropriate: Continue reading
For a while this summer, I dug deep in the sources to try to discover whether C. S. Lewis’s strong taste for virtue ethics, manifested both in his Abolition of Man and in his Mere Christianity (among other places) reflected an equally strong appreciation for Thomas Aquinas. At the Marion Wade Center, I pored over the massive four-volume set of Aquinas’s Summa that once resided in Lewis’s library. There were almost no annotations in that set by Lewis, but then again, many of the books he loved most were likewise unmarked.
I read through certain letters of Lewis in which he cautions his correspondent to stay away from the neo-scholasticism of Jacques Maritain and others (he identified T. S. Eliot with this movement). To Dom Bede Griffiths he wrote, “There is no section of religious opinion with which I feel less sympathy.” Lewis seems to have objected to the neo-Thomists’ insistence on certain philosophical formulations and understandings as essential to the faith: “there are some of this set who seem to me to be anxious to make of the Christian faith itself one more of their high brow fads.” This would seem to rub against Lewis’s commitment to “mere Christianity.”
Also, Chris Mitchell of the Wade Center warned me that Lewis got most of his understanding and appreciation of virtue ethics directly from Aristotle, rather than via Aquinas. So I began to worry that Lewis was in fact anti-scholastic, and that I would have a hard time using him in my Medieval Wisdom book as an guide into the passion for precise theological understanding that characterized the great scholastics. Continue reading