Archive for February, 2010

A Viral Combination

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

So last night I am teaching on the Radical Reformation, that would be the Anabaptist and all their descendants:  Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, Moravian Brethren, some Baptists etc, and  I was reminded of what a viral combination it is when you unite principles like liberty of conscience with an authoritative document like the Bible.   Liberty of conscience at the time of the Reformation was a revolutionary concept that was understood primarily as a social or political theory, but the power structures of Europe had never allowed it the opportunity afforded by time and space to grow and expand as a social or political experiment.  The Bible had always been a revolutionary document, but full access to its ideas had been denied to the average person until the sixteenth century and the work of Martin Luther and other reformers.  The magisterial reformers were all about providing vernacular access to the Bible as a theological text, but they were not keen on promoting liberty of conscience as a foundational principle for biblical interpretation, enter the Anabaptists. 

Anabaptist were the true sola scriptura decendants of the Reformation, if by sola scriptura we mean “the Bible alone as the church’s source of authority”.  These bad boys (and girls) combined the Bible alone idea with liberty of conscience as their main interpretive method and, as they say, “it hit the fan” in a big way.  Liberty’s rhetoric and practice is a powerful drug that once tasted becomes addictive, and when you combine that addiction with the Bible as one’s primary source of authority, you have a recipe for revolution.  Revolution can be defined as creating the circumstances in which the  authority of tradition, station, and education are challenged by freedom, equality, and representation.  Luther, Calvin and Zwingli were focused on reform; the Anabaptists insisted on revolution.

The  religious and political powers of Europe were able to control this viral combination for a time because Europe was a restrictive environment in which ideas and movements could be geographically quarantined, but with the opening of the new world, all bets were off.  Let’s just say that America represented a nonrestrictive environment that offered both the time and space for the Anabaptists’ scions and others to experiment with this viral combination of liberty of conscience and the  Bible.  America became the laboratory where liberty’s rhetoric and practice and the Bible’s authority could be uncritically mixed and fused together to create a powerful, revolutionary sentiment that would permeate more than theology.  It would become the populist language for social and political revolution as well.  If you are interested in reading more about the role of liberty of conscience and the Bible in creating the powerful impulse of American popular sovereignty, read Nathan Hatch’s The  Democratization of American Christianity.

History is Biography

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

So, I’m in the process of finishing a course on Medieval/Reformation Christianity and I begin the Reformation section by asking the question, would there have been a Reformation without Martin Luther?  It is not meant to be a rhetorical question and I realize that such a question demands all sorts of speculative mental gymnastics, but I ask it for a reason.  My point is that history is full of all kinds of stuff:  pivotal events, inspiring movements, endless institutions, competing ideas, technological advances, diverse cultural traditions, social innovations and political systems, but all of this stuff composes the historical frame.  People are the picture and because people are at the center of the historical picture, history is biography.  History is a story about people.

So what?  Well, for many Christians, the Reformation was the decisive moment in the history of the faith and, though we might not admit it, we often act as though the Reformation trumped the incarnation and resurrection.  The names of Martin Luther, John Calvin and their disciples are  revered, but even more important are the complete theological systems these men are reported to have produced, theological systems intended to instruct, inform, and guide the faithful into the parousia(that’s theological language for the second coming of Jesus).  We are currently in the twenty-first century and these theological systems are still being used by various traditions to guide the faith into the parousia.  So, do I have a axe to grind, a bone to pick, a burr under my saddle, are my panties in a wad about theological systems per se? No…but I would like to make a suggestion.

Luther, Calvin and  many of their disciples were sixteenth-century or seventeeth-century people.  Allowing them to remain in their century is a good idea.  The theology they created emerged from their lives.  It was not like the Koran.  It was not given to them by God from heaven in some kind of inspired, prophetic moment.  Their theology was not the Bible, it was their understanding of the Bible developed over time. 

So my suggestion is simply this,  if you are interested in a person’s theology, especially if that person offers a theological system that you intend to use for instructing, informing, and guiding the faithful into the parousia, please find a good biography of that person’s life and read it carefully.  You are not looking for their theology in a biography, you are  learning their story.  You are trying to know the person that created the theology.  Allow them to be a person before you decide to let them be “your” theologian.  Allowing theologians to be people with a history and a theology will offer us an appropriate corrective for how we understand and use their theology.  For Martin Luther I would suggest Heiko Oberman’s  Luther:  Man Between God and the Devil, and for John Calvin I would recommend William J. Bouwsma’s  John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait.


By the way, this biography stuff  works well for philosophers, economists, politicians, scientists, CEOs, and other people as well.  The only problem is that you often have to wait for them to die before you can get a good biography.

Influence is a Decision

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

By virtue of the fact that most of us live in communities surrounded by people we interact with on a number of levels each day, each of us exert a certain measure of influence over our circumstances and relationships.  In this most general sense I believe that we all bear responsibility for the good or evil influence we have in this world, but that is not what I am talking about in this blog.  I am talking about what happens when influence becomes a decision we make, when influence becomes intentional and strategic.  I am talking about what influence looks like when it is married to commitment.

I recently read Steven Pressfield’s book, the WAR of ART.  Over half of the book is devoted to one subject, resistance.  Pressfield employs the word resistance in order to anthropomorphize (yes that is a real word) that insidious something that meets us every day in the places where we can decide to have real, intentional, influence, but don’t.  It meets us for only one reason, to prevent us from making that decision at any cost.  It will beat us down, paralyze us with fear or doubt, negotiate with us, cajole us, threaten us, accuse us or distract us.  And if none of that works, it will enlist people to help.

One quote from Pressfield’s book stood out for me.  It was taken from W.H. Murray’s The Scottish Himalayan Expedition:  “Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:  that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.”

I am currently teaching on the sixteenth century Reformation and last night I was speaking about Martin Luther.  Regardless of whether you personally/religiously appreciate Luther or despise him, the one thing you cannot do is deny his influence on his world and ours.  No one can know the influence their life is going to have.  No one can predict whether or not their decisions are going to change the world.  No one knows whether or not their plans will succeed or if future generations will bless or curse them.  Luther could not have known any of these things when he made the decisions he made in the face of continual resistance, but we do know based on the historical record that he continued to make decisions in the same direction day after day:  the 95 Theses, meeting Cardinal Cajetan, the Leipzig Debate, his 3 treatises of 1520, the Diet of Worms etc. etc. etc. 


That is in esssence what I mean when I say, influence is a decision.  I am tempted day after day to not have real influence in the places where I live and work, to not decide, to not commit, to not offer the best of who I am to the people around me because of all the reasons that resistence provides.  But what if it’s true?  What if at the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too?

Being Church

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

It seems to me, as a follower of Jesus Christ, that Christians have struggled mightily with being clear and consistent about what they mean when they use the word ”Church” and our history has not always helped us in this regard.  For example, Christian history in medieval Europe during the fourteenth century is filled with less than sterling examples of this dilemma.  Though of course many things occurred in the fourteenth century and it would be a bit of a stretch to characterize  the entire century by a few events, I am going to anyway.

Two periods bracket Christian history in the fourteenth century:  The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (BCC) and the Great Schism.  Let’s just say that the former precipitated the latter and that the majority of the fourteenth century was dedicated to resolving the issues/events that spilled over from these two periods.  The BCC was a period between 1309-1377 when the papacy moved its residence from Rome, Italy to Avignon, France.  For the French pope Clement V this was not captivity, it was self preservation, but later popes looked back on it as a period when the church was held captive by the French Monarchy.  The Great Schism was the direct result of the BCC when the European Christendom was eventually split between three popes, all excommunicating each other and dividing the church.  I believe that this less than exemplary period offers us an opportunity to address what is meant when Christians talk about “Church”.

There is a sense in which it is appropriate to speak of the church as an institution if by that we mean that it is an historical entity, that it has leaders, and that over the centuries it has developed its own peculiar organizational structures and practices.  But I do not believe that the church is primarily an institution and when it has tried to be one it has lost sight of its mission and purpose.  You see by the fourteenth century it was becoming readily apparent that the church as an institution could not back up its universal claims of temporal and political power in medieval Europe.  The BCC and the Great Schism were the practical consequences put into effect when the church failed as a temporal/political power, when it failed as a medieval institution.

So what is the church if it is not primarily an institution?  If you read the New Testament long enough you realize that there is no verse, no idea, no indication that is possible for the followers of Jesus Christ to go to church.  Practically speaking they have only two viable choices.  They can either be church or not be church; they cannot go to church.  Christians have through the centuries developed the bad habit of turning language about people in to language about places.   Biblically speaking, church is a community.  It is a people whose lives are  intimately connected with the person of Jesus Christ and the story of his death and resurrection.  The Church is a powerful, transformational community of broken, vulnerable people with leaders, organizational structures and practices developed over the centuries, but it is not an institution.  It is not building churches that Christians have struggled with through the centuries, it is being Church.