September 2 marked the anniversary of the death of Nikolai Frederik Severin Grundtvig, who died in 1872. Grundtvig was a brilliant scholar (of Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature), an accomplished poet, an important education reformer, and Bishop of the Danish Church.
He was also a controversial figure in his day because of his opposition to the rampant rationalism that had infected the Danish church. A brief sample of his life-story:
“In 1826, Nikolai was forced to resign his pulpit after he made a blistering attack on the rationalism of H. N. Clausen. By this time, Nikolai was already well-known for a study of Northern mythology in which he argued that poetry speaks better to mankind than prose and is the best medium for conveying spiritual truth to the soul. Although he attacked Schelling and other philosophers for the false ideas of Romanticism, he himself was thoroughly Romantic, and translated and introduced Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature into Denmark. This included Beowulf and the sagas of Iceland. He also wrote religious poems, sermons that called for a return to the spirit of Luther, and fervent Christian hymns….
The established church wasn’t sure what to do with Nikolai. He was too visible to ignore but too controversial to assign to a pulpit. In 1839, the church made him pastor of a hospital chapel. He stayed there the rest of his life. Eventually the state church gave him the rank of bishop—but not the duties.“
Perhaps Grundtvig’s best known hymn among English-speakers is “Built on the Rock, the Church Doth Stand.” The words are a poignant reminder that, whatever should happen in the world around us, the Church itself as the body of Christ shall ever stand. It also speaks to the importance of our own local churches, as the place where God’s Word is spoken and the Sacraments are administered. (Read the full hymn in English here.)
In the article I explore Saltzman’s reasons for leaving Lutheranism vis-à-vis Jaroslav Pelikan’s, who famously converted to Orthodoxy in his 70s. As it happens, I had been reading one of Pelikan’s early works when I heard the news of Saltzman’s conversion, so the comparison seemed apropos.
I go on to note what both Saltzman and Pelikan have noted: that Lutheranism itself never intended to create a new church; the Lutheran movement itself was deeply catholic.
That the Lutheran tradition intended to be faithful to the catholic tradition does not seem to be in doubt with either Saltzman or Pelikan: “Philipp Melancthon’s profession that “the churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith” is understood to be an accurate assessment of the intentions of the historic Lutheran church. No, the problem lies not in the Lutheran tradition, according to these writers, but instead with contemporary expressions of Lutheranism.”
Saltzman notes a general dissatisfaction with those Lutherans who have rejected this rich catholic heritage. Pelikan, decades before his transition to Orthodoxy, noted similar concerns. To be sure, I agree, “contemporary Lutheranism may have its flaws” but this doesn’t change the fact that, “at its core the Lutheran tradition is deeply and fundamentally catholic. The riches of the catholic tradition are already ours, and at our best we embrace that heritage. I pray that our churches will delve deeper into that tradition.”
Here’s a nice reflection from Kelsey May (via Converge Magazine) on why so many young Evangelicals are turning towards liturgy:
“Grandeur hooked me, but it wasn’t what made me stay. The initial mystique of traditional churches may enchant or repulse us — but we need to look deeper. The aesthetic of traditional churches appeals to me, but the substance behind it anchors me…. The liturgical service doesn’t answer for my sufferings; it draws my attention to the suffering of Christ.”
Incidentally, if any of you are looking to connect with that kind of church—a church with liturgy and real substance behind that liturgy—give me a shout. I know a guy who works for Lutheran Church-Canada who can probably hook you up. :)
Back in May, the Canadian Church Press and the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada held a joint conference together in Winnipeg. Among other things, the conference featured a number of workshops. One of these was a panel discussion on “The Francis Effect,” at which I was one of the panelists, bringing a Protestant perspective. Joining me were Joe Sinasac, Publishing Director of Novalis Publishing, and Marlena Loughheed, Public Relations and Communications Director of the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Toronto. Laura Kalmar, editor of The Mennonite Herald, served as moderator.
While much of the discussion was spontaneous—answering questions posed from the audience—each of us was also asked to prepare a few minutes of introduction, attempting to answer what made Francis such a media darling. What follows is a draft of my opening remarks. Why should Protestants care how Pope Francis is viewed in the media? See my take below:
Shortly following Pope Francis’ election, Christianity Today published an interview with Luis Palau, an Evangelical leader from Argentina. Among other things, Paula praised Francis as “warm and gentle and spiritual.” “He likes to mingle with people,” he continued. “He’s gentle in his conversation.”
“Warm, gentle, spiritual.” These are words that have come to define Pope Francis’ public interactions. And it is this mixture of gentleness and faith that has garnered him such public admiration, I think. In other words, it is his pastoral tone that has brought him praise. He genuinely seems to care for people, for all people—and it’s hard not to like someone you suspect likes you first.
That’s what Evangelicals in Argentina came to understand, as Palau explains. And they weren’t the only ones. News of Francis’ election brought praise from both branches of Lutheranism in Argentina: the church associated with the more theologically conservative International Lutheran Council and the church associated with the more theologically progressive Lutheran World Federation. Both hailed his elevation. This is a man that all people seem to respect.
The same things which brought him respect in Argentina have brought him respect in wider Christendom—including among Canadian Christians. Along with the rest of the world, we have come to appreciate the Pope’s humility, his care for the forgotten, his—as I’ve said before—pastoral tone. Francis suggests that one cannot merely pontificate, if I may use the word, on moral issues; instead, he says, we need to make the Gospel central. Morality is important, yes, but it is not the central tenet of the Christian faith. Mercy is.
Some Canadian Christians have found in Francis’ manner of addressing the world a template for their own reinvention. Christians in the West are used to enjoying a position of respect in society: we’re used to having a platform to speak authoritatively into the lives of others. But that position has been eroding for a long time. Now when we try to speak authoritatively on moral issues, we find ourselves coming up against a wall.
It is in this context that Francis’ words in an interview published by America in September 2013 become clear. He warns that the Church must first focus on mercy, and not diminish Christianity to mere moralism. That’s not to say that he thinks morality is unimportant; it is. But you deal with first things first. In caring for the wounded, he says, you deal with the wounds first; and you leave the issue of high cholesterol till the patient has stabilized.
This way of approaching the world—pastorally, rather than by issuing moral decrees—is necessary in a society where Christianity has lost its traditional place of authority. Before we can tell people how to live, we must first earn their trust—we must first prove to them that we care about them, and that we have their best interests at heart. This way of communicating with the outside world is something Canadian Christians will, I hope, continue to learn from Pope Francis.
* But Francis isn’t just a model for emulation. He also serves as the de facto face of Christianity in the world, including, I think, Canada. There is name-recognition when it comes to the Pope in a way that there isn’t for the leaders of other denominations. People know who he is. It matters therefore vitally what the secular world thinks of him. If people have a positive impression of him, then it makes Christians’ work in sharing the Gospel all the easier—regardless of denomination. But if the secular world dislikes the Pope, people become more resistant to the Christian message in general—whether it’s being shared by Orthodox, Protestants, or Catholics.
If the secular world dislikes the Pope, people become more resistant to the Christian message in general—whether it’s being shared by Orthodox, Protestants, or Catholics.
As it happens, Pope Francis is still enjoying remarkable popularity. And while studies from Pew Forum and others haven’t seen an increase in church attendance due to the Francis Effect, there is a measurable increase in people who hold positive opinions of the pontiff. That leaves them open to what he might say.
But that’s the question: what might he say? Francis engages the media in a very different way than his predecessors did; he’s spontaneous. Unscripted. And while that has given a sense of genuineness to his pastoral tone, it’s also left him open to misunderstanding. Those expressions that have garnered some of the most media coverage—“Who am I to judge?,” being the classic example—have divided Canadian Christians of other traditions. Progressives have embraced this as evidence that Francis is going to make changes to Catholic teaching on issues like human sexuality, contraception, female ordination, and the like. Some conservative Christians have expressed concern that maybe he is withdrawing from traditional Catholic stances on these subjects. But I think it’s more correct to say that Francis has been misunderstood in these areas. He’s certainly relegated some hot-button issues to a less prominent place; but he hasn’t abandoned Catholic teaching on them.
I think the fact that the Pope can’t be put in these narrow political boxes of “conservative” or “liberal” are part of his appeal at current, both to the secular realm and to Christians of other traditions. But I’m not certain how long this popular approval can last. I suspect as people become more aware that Francis is, as he says, a loyal son of the church, his approval ratings will drop. Canadian Christians need to be aware therefore that this mini-renaissance of public approval for the church probably isn’t going to last.
* Of course, Pope Francis’ impact on other Christian traditions is not merely as a good example of how to better engage the unchurched around us. He is also a strong ecumenical voice. We have a real sense that he cares for Christians of other traditions. His history in Argentina speaks to this of course, but we’ve also seen it in his work as pope so far. We’ve seen it in official acts, of course: his meeting with Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic church, visits with members of the Lutheran World Federation, and his [then] upcoming trip to Jerusalem to strengthen ties with the Orthodox. But we have also seen his concern for ecumenism in unscripted acts as well: his video message to an American charismatic conference, for example, where he lamented the separation between Christians: “Who is to blame for this separation?” he asks, before humbly suggesting, “We all share the blame. We have all sinned.”
His words in a December 2013 interview were truly inspiring. When asked whether ecumenism was important to him, he was clear: “Yes,” he said, “for me ecumenism is a priority. Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for.” Those are words that most Christians, Protestant or otherwise, can appreciate and respect.
That final message—the idea that, to those outside the Church, we are all simply “Christians,” is an important one. It’s true of course to those who are literal enemies of the Church—those who wish to kill Christians. But it’s also true of those who are merely in the secular realm: to these people, unaffiliated with the faith, Christians are all simply Christians. And for many of these people, the Pope is the de facto face of Christianity.
(Image: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0. Attribution: presidencia.gov.ar, via WikiCommons).
“The Lamb hath alone died for us, the Lamb only hath shed his blood for us: the Lamb only hath redeemed us; these things hath he done alone; now, if these be sufficient, then hath he alone made satisfaction, and is alone worthy to be our Redeemer and Justifier.” – Only Faith Justifieth Before God (Robert Barnes, English martyr)
On this day, we remember the Rev. Dr. Robert Barnes, martyred for the faith July 30, 1540. Barnes, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Cambridge, preached a Christmas Eve sermon in 1526 which expressed criticism of ecclesiastical abuses. This sermon is often credited as the beginning in earnest of the English Reformation. Not coincidentally, Barnes is also considered one of England’s first Lutherans. He was a member of the group which met at the White Horse Inn.
Barnes was not executed alone. Reflecting the politically-charged nature of the Reformation in England, he was executed along with five others: two of them Evangelicals (ie, Protestants) and three of them conservatives (ie, Roman Catholics). All were executed without the benefit of a trial. Shortly before the execution, the three Protestants (Barnes, William Jerome, and Thomas Garrett) had been invited to preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The three Catholics (Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherston, and Edward Powell) had all supported Queen Catherine when Henry VIII sought to have the marriage annulled. The Protestants were executed for heresy; the Catholics for treason.
While we thank God for the faithful witness of Robert Barnes, we also pray for the day when Christian division would cease, according to the prayer of Jesus. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 20-23).
Regular readers of this blog will remember me plugging The Christian Humanist Podcast (CHP) from time to time. If you’re at all interested in theology, philosophy, literature, “and other things that human beings do well,” as the tagline goes, then it’s well-worth listening to.
CHP just took on one of Tertullian‘s works recently, and the resulting episode is very enjoyable. Go listen to it, but before you do be sure to read the piece by Tertullian. It’s called “On Idolatry” and you can find it online here.
I had a few comments after listening which I’m sharing with the show on its website, but thought I’d post them here as well. [In case you’re interested, I’ve previously discussed one of their episodes on Luther’s Freedom of a Christian over at First Things in a post entitled“Non-Lutherans Reading Luther: What Makes Good Works ‘Good’?”.] Now, my unpolished thoughts on the Tertullian episode:
Just listened to the Tertullian podcast and thought it great. The episodes where you take on a particular text are always among my favourites.
Michial’s comments about how doing theology in general can become a form of idolatry were thought-provoking. They were balanced nicely by David’s comments about the need (and difficulty) of submitting our theological reflection to the greater authority of revelation. Otherwise we are very much in danger of re-creating God in our own image.
I can’t help but think of Helmut Thielicke’s classic A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. Despite the rather patronizing-sounding title (the German original is not so offensive), the book is useful reminder to those who study theology that their “superior” learning does not give them leave to ignore the thoughts (and occasional rebukes) of “simpler” Christians. One important note Thielicke makes is that the theologian must not presume to think he can simply study theology at arm’s length. “We must also take seriously the fact that the ‘subject’ of theology, Jesus Christ, can only be regarded rightly,” he writes, “if we are ready to meet Him on the plane where He is active, that is, within the Christian church. Only the Son knows who the Father is; only the servant knows who the Lord is.” In other words, our examination of the things of faith must be mediated by the revelation of Christ—in His Word (Scripture) and His body (the Church).
This is, incidentally, why Lutherans have a bit of trouble with Calvinist approaches to theology. From our perspective, the Calvinist has too strong an urge to try make logical sense of everything, whereas Lutherans instead warn about the danger of peering into the “hidden things of God.” The prime example is the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. It certainly makes good logical sense of the doctrine of election, but nevertheless distorts (to my mind at least) the clear Scriptural teaching that God desires all to be saved. (I’ve broached this subject at First Things before in an article entitled “Why Lutheran Predestination isn’t Calvinist Predestination.”)
I’d also like to thank Michial for his pastoral reflections on idolatry and our own guiltiness and need for grace. While Tertullian might imply we can somehow avoid sinning, Michial comes in with a much more realistic (and biblical) take: that we are all guilty, both of sin ourselves and culpability in supporting the sin of others. As St. John puts it so well, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). That being the case, claiming like Tertullian that we can fully avoid idolatry actually results in falling into another form of idolatry—one in which God declares us righteous on the basis of our sinlessness. Expecting God to say we’re doing just fine? That’s the Pharisee’s god. But it’s the Publican who gets things right, coming in repentance to a God who is just but nevertheless merciful. Otherwise you have a Christianity that doesn’t need Christ. And if that’s not idolatry, I don’t know what is.
On June 25, 1530 at the Diet of Augsburg, the Evangelical German princes presented The Augsburg Confession to theHoly Roman Emperor Charles V. This document, crafted by Philip Melanchthon, stands to this day as the principal explanation of what it means to be a Lutheran.
And what does it mean to be a Lutheran? Nothing more than that we are truly catholic Christians. We teach in accord with the Scriptures and with the Church’s faithful re-presentation of the Scriptures.
Are confessional Lutherans catholic? Yes. And we always will be, so long as we hold fast to the traditions of the Apostles, written in the Scriptures and faithfully passed down to us by the Church. Consequently, I cannot help thinking that those seeking out a “Protestant Future” should in fact be looking to the Protestant Past. Looking for a church which faithfully receives the catholic tradition while clearly proclaiming the authority of Scripture? Looking for a church which is both sacramental and devoted to salvation by grace through faith alone? Looking, in other words, for an Evangelical Catholic Church? It already exists. It’s called Lutheranism.