Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A Brief Break from My Vision for a Church to a Dialogue with Luther

I'm way too swamped to continue my posts about my vision for planting or re-building a church, so, instead, here is a copy of an article I published while studying at Cornell in the Journal for Case Teaching. The point of the article is not to take pot shots at my man Luther (he's was a righteous dude!) or the protestant Reformation (I'm for it) but to learn about how the style of reforms and lack of foresight by even the bravest and most intelligent can produce unintended consequences. I've removed all of the footnotes for your reading enjoyment.

Have fun!

A Dialogue with Luther

Matthew Rawlings
Cornell University

The winter of 1521-1522 saw Sultan Suleiman I devour Belgrade and begin his march to Rhodes. It witnessed St. Ignatius of Loyola begin to formulate his Exercitiae. Across the world, Juan Sebastiano del Cano attempted to bring his men home in the wake of the death of his captain, Ferdinand Magellan.

The world had only begun to notice the religious rumblings in Northern Europe. Martin Luther, an obese, defrocked Augustinian monk, stood at the center of a budding maelstrom. The winter found him in the back of a carriage as it slowly made its way from Wartburg Castle to the town of Wittenberg.

Luther stared intently out of the carriage window. After hearing of the actions undertaken by Carlstadt and the Zwickau Prophets, he did not deliberate long on his course of action. He had decided that his return would cause no more commotion than the near anarchy of present events. He had written a number of sermons by candlelight, had packed his bags, and had taken his life into his own hands and headed home. He had decided to ascend the pulpit and take the reigns of the reformation from the hands of those he regarded as foolish zealots.

The sermons he had penned the night before lay in his lap as the carriage bumped along. The homilies called for a moderate approach to reform. He insisted that the reformers had done the right thing at the wrong time. Luther believed them impatient and would urge them to wait for inner change before undertaking such radical steps. He believed they were attempting to force the hand of God.

The carriage bounced roughly along the road. The frozen German forest lay before him. He was awash in thought when a familiar figure emerged from the snow tipped brush. It was a creature who had visited him many times. It was the Devil himself.

Luther shouted to his driver, “Stop!” He threw open the door to the carriage and began barraging the demon with a string of profanity.

Satan slipped into the vehicle paying little attention to the roaring theologian. Once comfortable in the seat across from Luther, the Devil grinned and stated matter-of-factly, “We need to talk.”
The bristling monk slammed the door shut and bellowed to the driver to continue. Satan, staring directly into Luther’s eyes nearly whispered, “You’ve created quite a stir, my friend. I am almost jealous! Now please satisfy my curiosity and tell me what you believe to be the crux of the matter.” Luther began a rambling diatribe concerning salvation, sources for theology, and then authority.

“Ah-ha!” the Devil interrupted, “now we are getting somewhere.” He rubbed his hands together greedily and leaned close to the red face of Luther. “Authority is the crux of the matter. ‘It is the issue implicit within all other issues.’If it were settled then all the others would be resolved! If there is no final authority then anyone may posit whatever he or she likes. You have benefitted greatly from such a structure. The condemnation of Pelagias was accomplished through Rome, my friend, and your beloved Augustine stated that he would not believe the gospel “except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.” He believed that those who rejected the authority of the church were not entitled to its truth. He lived among the whirlwind of competing opinions and saw that there had to be a final judge. Your little band of troublemakers seems to love the creed but reject the article “one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

Luther exploded, “I do not deny the necessity of the teaching office of the church! I only seek to rip it from the tentacles of philosophy and place it under scripture.”

The Devil’s smile widened. “Scripture did you say? But wasn’t it the church which decided between authentic and inauthentic scripture? Where does the canon come from, my friend? Didn’t the church grant scripture the authority it has today? Or do you believe that the Bible has an intrinsic, self-authenticating force within it? If so, then where do heretical interpretations come from, dear doctor?”

Luther pounded his fist against the seat and bellowed, “You pig! First of all, you know as well as I do that the Word preceded the church. It formed the church. The church then, guided by the Spirit, decided between authentic and inauthentic scripture. The church, however, obviously has no place for the guidance of the Spirit anymore, only for the pagan Aristotle! Once the church has been cleansed and placed under the Word then it may claim authority.”

The Devil mockingly assumed the pose of “the thinker” and stated, “Assuming that the Word has accurately been recorded in the scriptures, it seems that you have still opened a Pandora’s box. By openly questioning the authority of the church you have unwittingly invited everyone to seek another authority without being prepared to offer the people a clear one in return. You have opened the door to private judgment and arbitrary subjective authority. You may never be able to close that door. Moreover, you have theological problems, my friend. Tell me what happened to the ‘Spirit of Truth’ spoken of in John 16:13? Where has it been if the church has fallen from grace?”
“You fool! Your ignorance of the scriptures is priceless! The emphasis in that verse is on the term ‘all’ ”. John was stating that although our Lord has made the truth known, we cannot fully grasp it. It will be the paraclete that guides us to the full meaning. So, you see, the Spirit brings understanding of the Word, but it cannot do so through Aristotilean heretics! Finding no one in Rome to guide, the Spirit has looked elsewhere just as it always has, for it refuses to abandon us. Now hear me, I do not seek to split church with truth. I am no schismatic! I seek only to harmonize the Word and the church again. I do indeed worry about the authority of the church, but it is not I that has damaged it but the loose morals and pagan philosophy of Rome which have done the damage. It does take a pastor who has received a proper education, who is formed by scripture and tradition, to deliver and guard the Word. But it must be an education freed from man-made philosophy and tradition that has not been formed by scripture. I am not embarking on a new enterprise, but am seeking to steer the church to its oldest vision. I am seeking to guide the Holy Church away from the Thomists and back to the Word. Luckily there are many fine scholars, such as the misguided Erasmus, who are giving us the Bible in its original language for ‘the water of a stream is purest nearest its source.’ Perhaps I should alter my cry from sola scriptura to sola valde prima, but my point is that the church must make the revelation of God contained in scripture primary! How could they not? It is the Word that has the very power to create as is evidenced in Genesis 1. It is the Bible that contains the words of Christ which Hebrews 1:2 tells us is how God speaks to us. It is the Word that Jesus quoted to you and to the Pharisees as authoritative (Mt 4:4,6,10; 19:4-5). It is only demons like you that question it as you did in Eden (Gen 3:1-6)!”

Satan let Luther’s words hang in the air for an awkward moment, then he lifted his arms behind his head and responded, “But how do you guard against interpretive corruption? You say you recognize the necessity of a teaching office and that you only seek to harmonize scripture and the church, but how do you do that? Can you divorce men’s prejudices from the reading of scripture? Tell me, if you have the ‘Spirit of Truth’ then place Paul next to James and tell me what the church should teach? Doesn’t it have to choose one or the other? Or shall you create a canon within a canon? What of the ‘Priesthood of all believers’? Does this include women? Tell me, my dear doctor, how 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 and Galatians 3:28 are handled in your scheme? Is it possible to separate scripture from interpretation? And if so, is it possible to elevate scripture above the teaching office without stripping it of authority? How in the world does this church you envision operate and maintain any kind of order or consensus?”
Luther’s mind raced until he blurted with excitement, “Aha! You may have tried to make me lose sight of the truth with your riddles and enigmas but you have not! You want to know what the true church looks like, Devil? I will tell you how to recognize it! It is the gathering which possesses the holy Word of God, even if all do not possess it in equal measure just as the blessed Apostle stated in 1 Corinthians 3:12-14. Some possess it purely, others do not. Yet the holy thing is the true holy thing, the true anointing that anoints with eternal life. The church may be recognized by the speaking of the eternal Word, preached by people like me. The proclaimed Word is what Christ left behind as an eternal sign by which His people are recognized. Wherever you hear or see such a Word preached, believed, confessed, and acted upon, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica must be there even if there are only a handful of them!”
The Devil shrilled with glee, “Now you show your true stripes! You are indeed a schismatic. You do not seek to reform the church but radically break from it.”
“Nein!” Luther interrupted. “I only stress the necessity of the central role of the Word of God in constituting the true church. An ordained ministry is preferred, as I have said, but is not necessary to guard the existence of the church. If the Word is preached there will be faith, and if there is faith then there will be the true church. The legitimacy of the church is based on theological, not historical, continuity with the apostolic church. How this works is not my concern. God is present and will guide those open to His direction. If this sounds radical then it is only because you are a godless creature. But understand this, if the church will not pay heed to this truth, then it will not be the few leaving the many but it will be the many who have left the few.”

The Devil shook his head in vain. “My dear Luther you have played the trump card of all trump cards. You leave the details to your hidden mysterious God. So be it. Before I go, let me give you a brief glimpse of the future you have helped to shape.” Then with a wave of his hand the two were transported to a musty hall filled with Vatican officials.

“Where are we?” Luther demanded.“We are in Trent,” Satan responded. “The date is December 4, 1563 and this is the final gathering of an assembly called nearly eighteen years ago to respond to your call for reform within. I suppose you should feel flattered that they responded, but you will not be so pleased with the results. Rome has cemented its positions. Before you began your ruckus there was some toleration for a plurality of views within the church but now that is gone. Moreover, in the face of your taunts they spend their time searching to harmonize doctrines. The result is that the pastorate has become so enthralled in polemics that cultivating faith is superseded. Tell me, did you really expect the church to capitulate in a time of such uncertainty? It is a time of transition and transition brings stress. They weren’t about to add to the instability. But this is not the end of it.” Satan waived his hand again and they were transported elsewhere.

They found themselves in a strange town square. A line of headless bodies lay before them. A sour, burnt stench was in the air and they were engulfed in tortured screams. Satan shouted in Luther’s ear, “These are the descendents of Carlstadt and the Zwickau prophets. Their forefathers in chiliastic zeal sought an undogmatic church. They have attempted to live a life under sola scriptura. Their ‘Spirit of Truth’ led them to believe that there had been no true church since the conversion of Constantine. Their benevolent spirit told them that the end was near. They withdrew from society as pacifists believing they were both following in the true footsteps of Christ and that they would be rewarded with his quick return. The inevitable wars meant that no man could be spared in the eyes of the rising nation states. So in 1529 they began to be sentenced to death. Listen and you can hear some of the condemned sing to your hidden god!”

Intermingled with the screams was the faint hymn sung between tears, “We creep for refuge under trees. They hunt us with the bloodhounds. Like lambs they take us as they please and hold us up roped and strong bound.”

The Devil leaned close to Luther shouting, “This is the product of your indifference to structure! Your friend Carlstadt got off easy. He was only exiled for his pacifism. Regardless of how you feel about him personally, is that how he deserves to end up for simply disagreeing with you and your compatriots? Is this the mercy the ‘Spirit of Truth’ brings? Can you picture Christ setting a torch to one of these men, women, or children? They believed they were separating from the “carnal church,” but then the carnal church came looking for them!”
Yet another wave of the Devil’s hand brought them to a setting totally alien to Luther. It was a modern street corner lined with different churches. Satan spread his arms and in the voice of a sideshow master roared, “Welcome to the product of your labors—the religious marketplace. The only authority the body of Christ recognizes is their own. They decide where and how they worship. They decide who proclaims the Word. There is a church to meet every need or desire. There is a seminary to support any belief. They are mostly Protestants who claim sola scriptura, yet few agree on an interpretation of scripture. After the wars and atrocities following your ‘re-formation’ helped to drive the intelligentsia away from religion, there ensued a number of epochs of interpretive change. For example there came a man named Schleirermacher who insisted that a text is understood when the interpreter recovers the author’s consciousness. The words provide the access to the psyche. Later came the structuralists seeking the deep forms that lay behind all human constructs including texts. Now, nearly five hundred years after you committed yourself to the study of scripture, there has been the ‘reader’s revolt’ in which many believe that the text has no meaning until it is constructed by the individual reader. The vacuum of authority created by your movement has been filled by the autonomous voice.”
The Devil pointed to a nondescript building with the words ‘Community Church’ etched in its foundation’s red bricks. “That church has just fired its pastor for not pandering to each person’s own ‘Spirit of Truth.’ It is packed with Christians this very moment arguing over whose ‘Spirit of Truth’ is more truthful. Now, my friend, you were not the only one contributing to this mess, but you were certainly a major catalyst. You see, a generation after you depart this life, those who will follow you will not remember what it was like to have grown up in the Catholic Church and, as such, they will not miss it. They will not long to reform it but only to reshape the faith into their chosen image. What do you say now, dear friend?”Luther stood speechless. Finally the Devil waved his hand again and they returned to the carriage slowly winding its way towards Wittenberg.
The demon slapped the monk’s knee in a friendly, almost sympathetic manner. “Do you know what to do, dear Luther?” Satan inquired. Meeting silence he continued, “Your concerns are well founded. Rome has certainly stretched the facts in order to make some of their claims such as infallibility. A true pastor arises from within a community, not from above it as the priests arrogantly attempt. A true pastor draws his or her authority from their witness to God’s revelation, which does, of course, necessitate a strong theological foundation and a pure life. Indeed God’s revelation has not been taken as seriously as it should. Yet are you arrogant enough to believe that none within Rome long for a humble interaction with the Word? Did you ever consider joining these voices in encouraging a dialogue between scripture and tradition then emending the latter to conform more with the implicit vision of the former? You have rushed like a bull into a china shop demanding quick change. But to call for any change takes great wisdom and patience.

“If you are to be a wise problem solver and/or change manager, then you must realize that every ‘solution’ creates a ripple that must be considered. Every problem is unique and arises out of community. This means that you and all priests must come down from the ivory towers you have constructed and get to know the people. This then means that you must always be thinking about how best to communicate your message. You must work hard to make sure that what you are saying is simple and understood. You must know the sheep to be a good shepherd! Leadership does not take place until a person has taken his or her place within the community to influence and be influenced. Once this is done then you can move within, shaping the church to care for each other. This takes years which means you must have patience! In order to do this effectively, you must understand both your mission and the culture. You have not even attempted to do the latter, my friend. Don’t get me wrong, structure and hierarchy are fine. God created the nation of Israel and Christ collected His twelve who formed the Council at Jerusalem. The priest may claim authority just as Paul did, but why did he have it? Was it not in part because he was a member of every community that he led?“The Apostle lived among the people and got to know them and all the factors that effected their lives. It is painfully obvious that you have only considered what you perceive to be the problem and not the factors surrounding it or the long-term ramifications of your attempts. Would it truly be too much to ask a man who writes so voluminously to pen a statement of your purpose, vision, and core values after ministering to the people and reflecting on their lives. Isn’t this what Paul did? It would provide depth and clarity to your writings, which are notoriously unsystematic and confusing. You should all the while remember, my portly friend, that problem solving requires patience and is as much a mindset as it is a technique. Speaking of mindset, do you realize what your demeanor and tone have already done? You say you want peaceful reconciliation and reform yet you poison the wells all along the way. Have you seen the woodcuts depicting the pope as antichrist? Creating an ‘us-them’ mindset is not conducive to generating the atmosphere you claim to crave, my friend. Is this what Christ would have done? If you claim to be a servant of the Kingdom, then tell me what this Kingdom stands for? It seems you may be separating your vision of the Kingdom from the King and this is dangerous! If all life is to be lived under the banner of the Kingdom of God then theology should be your starting point, not just for academic disputes, but for ministry, politics, and life! They cannot be separated. Perhaps the continuity that you need to assert is not ‘right doctrine.’ It is important and should be sought after, but what if the true continuity of the faith is the desire to follow Christ and wrestle with the revealed Word of God. You are right that the Word came first. But is it always so easy to understand? Perhaps instead of Word over community or community over Word, it is both in dialogue. The community seeks, the Word speaks, the community asks what it means and through love and the guidance of the Spirit by way of a humble, expectant interpreter, meaning arises and becomes authoritative. Are you willing to do this? Will you return to Wittenberg and seek to lead from within, teaching them to be servants of the Kingdom first and ‘correct’ later? What do you say, my friend?”

Luther had been staring at the floor for most of the Devil’s speech. Now he raised his face and stared the demon in the eyes. “I will tell you what I think,” he growled as his face turned red. “I think you are a liar! You led those in the Garden astray, but you will not lead me. You have attacked the clear authority of scripture, therefore you have attacked the divine author! You speak fancy words about the nature of authority, but I say the highest authority must be its own authority as a matter of logic.”

Luther stuck his head out the window and shouted for the driver to stop. He kicked open the door and strung a string of profanities together as he motioned for the Devil to leave. Satan calmly exited, hearing the door slam behind him. He turned and watched the carriage pull away as a fellow demon joined him on the road.

The Devil’s companion asked, “Why did you bother to tell him those things?” Lucifer smiled and stated, “He was wrong about the challenge in the Garden. I actually spoke the truth because I knew they would listen. I spoke the truth again because I knew he would not.”