September 23, 2017

Photoshopping Luther

Martin Luther: The Christian between God and DeathThe longer I observe evangelicals, the more astonished I am that anyone among them could, with a straight face, ever criticize the Roman Catholic church for paying too much attention to “the saints.” The evangelical focus on personalities, past and present, can’t be too far behind any Roman Catholic veneration of the saints.

For example, I first saw “Dead Theologians Society” t-shirts at Calvinist gatherings in the 1990’s. The shirts featured the faces of Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, Edwards, John Owen and so forth. Today, if you Google “Dead Theologians Society,” you’ll get this: a fan club for Catholic theologians of the past.

Interestingly, Inter-Varsity Faculty ministries has a “Dead Theologians Society” discussion group model that embraces both Protestant and Catholic theologians. Now there’s a t-shirt that I ought to sell on this web site.

I’d like to suggest that when you observe evangelicals picking, promoting and icon-ing their favorite theological heroes, you may not be learning so much about those theologians as you are about evangelicals themselves. These icons tell us what evangelicals want to believe about themselves, their theology and their church movements.

Consider some questions:

How many who quote Luther endorse Luther’s overall view of his connection to the RCC, Mary, the Jews or the radical reformation? How many can endorse his use of language or his view of the sacraments?
How many who quote Calvin have his view of church and state?
How many who quote Bonhoeffer would agree with Bonhoeffer’s view of Barth’s theology, especially regarding scripture?
How many who cite Spurgeon would agree with him on weekly communion? The use of the invitation? Sharing the pulpit with other denominations?
How many who cite Edwards know that there is considerable evidence of obsessive/compulsive disorder and a tendency to terrorize his congregations to the point that suicide among members became a concern and a reality?
How many who cite Owen endorse his congregationalism?
How many who quote Wesley endorse his perfectionism or agree with his ecclesiology?
How many who cite the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention have ever read a defense of slavery by those founders?
How many who quote Tozer or Chambers know how those men would have viewed today’s Calvinistic Christianity?
How many who cite Lewis agree with his view of free will, atonement, inspiration, purgatory or beer?

Let’s take one good example: Martin Luther. Probably no one is cited as often as a supporter of evangelicals than Martin Luther. In the typical evangelical portrait, Luther is….

…an example of a true evangelical conversion.
…an example of a “Bible only” preacher.
…the inspiration for fervent anti-Roman Catholicism.
…an advocate of stressing “justification by faith alone” as a unifying evangelical doctrine.

A good recent example of this kind of sentiment is rock musician Neal Morse’s new CD Sola Scriptura. Based on the event of the posting of the 95 Theses, Morse’s lyrics are the kind of “hot” anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric that will offend some moderate evangelicals and delight most fundamentalist evangelicals.

Using imagery from Luther’s writing and the book of Revelation, Morse’s powerful progressive rock is the medium for the equation of the Roman Catholic church with the whore of Babylon and the anti-Christ. Morse’s view of the RCC is as negative as any Chick tract.

In fact, compared to most Protestants, Luther was highly Catholic, right down to his view of Mary. Take a Southern Baptist to any traditional Lutheran service and ask what’s different in this service and the mass down the street. Though the differences are substantial to the informed observer, to the unaware, a Lutheran service appears very much a version of a Roman Catholic mass. (I would assume a lot of evangelicals would say the Lutherans know little about Luther and have gone back to Rome.)

Luther’s very catholic theology of the sacraments would be offensive to most evangelicals, and his historic opposition (and endorsed violence) to the Anabaptists would surprise many who cite him as the defender of the great Protestant principles. How many who wear Luther t-shirts understand Luther’s view of infant faith, baptism and the real presence?

Luther’s connection to the broad Roman Catholic tradition was for stronger than his connection to the Biblical radicalism of the radical reformers. Similarly, many who cite Luther seem completely unaware of his rejection of the Calvinistic reformation’s view of the sacraments and the resulting split between Calvin, Zwingli and Luther. A staunch Lutheran will bristle at the notion that Luther is part of the “Reformed” movement or that today’s evangelicals are using the name of the Augsburg Evangelicalism. And they should bristle at this abduction of the “parts” of Luther that evangelicals want to use.

What we see is Luther used, not understood. Parts of the Luther story are bought, repainted and utilized for the purposes of the evangelical. Luther’s boldness and courage are attributes that evangelical theologians want to import into their own ministries, so they do so while ignoring much of the Luther legacy that goes in an entirely different direction. The real Luther is too complex for most of those who use him as an icon.

I applaud the endorsement of reading historical biography among contemporary evangelicals, but I would suggest that many of the biographies point to highly altered versions of the personality being examined. In many instances, these selective biographies would be found highly distorted by scholars.

A fair biography will place a personality in his/her time, will use all the information available to draw an accurate picture, and then relate the person to the contemporary situation without turning them into a representative of any movement. In other words, Luther can be seen as a significant person in Christianity, but his disapproval of most of what goes on in contemporary churches won’t be lost. (Sorry Baptists, but he’d probably have you killed.)

A good example of this kind of biography is Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ psychological quirks and failures of maturity and pastoral competence are all there, but Edwards survives as a person we can admire. What won’t survive is the use of Edwards as an endorser of everything going on among today’s Calvinists.

Martin Luther: A Penguin Life (Penguin Lives)Before closing this post, let me suggest two very different books on Luther. Richard Marius has written Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. It is a rip-roaring good read that diagnoses Luther as the distorted personality at the root of everything wrong with western civilization, particular in its ideas about God, hell and truth. Marius’s Luther is the ruination of a reasonable, tolerant classical world. He will say things virtually no evangelical could possibly say, but that need to be said. I recommend the book.

On the other end of the scale is a very reasonable, modest, moderate, dependable biography of Martin Luther by Martin Marty. When all the biographies are sorted out, Marty has his hand on the most likely picture of Luther: flawed, great, spiritual, troubled, trapped in his world, still influencing ours.

Comments

  1. chrisstiles says:

    But .. but .. you missed out CS Lewis ..

  2. ..not to mention Luther’s endorsement of polygamy.

    Luther was a great man in spite of being human. 🙂

  3. In all fairness to Luther, I should say that, as far as I know, he is only recorded as recommending polygamy in one unusual circumstance. I admit I was shocked and disappointed when I first learned this….but I got over it. I’d have no one to admire if I disqualified them by any and every area of weakness or disagreement with me.

  4. last year i read a book called “faith and freedom: an invitation to the writings of martin luther”. it had a short bio and many differents pieces of his writings put together in one book. some of his writings i loved and adored like “the freedom of a christian” and his “preface to romans”. after reading a few others, i did a double take on the stuff you mentioned above. i was a bit stunned with his teachings on the perpetual virginity of mary. luther also rejected copernicus’ heliocentric theory as unbiblical.

  5. I would assume a lot of evangelicals would say the Lutherans know little about Luther and have gone back to Rome.

    In my experience, the usual (non-Augsburg) evangelical explanation for Luther/Lutheranism is that Luther wasn’t able to fully escape from his inheritance of medieval Catholicism and that it took Calvin to finish the job. The implication tends to be that, if Luther had had longer to think things through, he would have come round to the Reformed way of thinking sooner or later.

    As for the specific question of whether Luther’s teachings on the sacrament of the altar were a hangover from medieval Catholicism, there’s a great quote from Luther somewhere in which he defends his teachings on justification by faith (I think) by saying he has thought about these as deeply, and investigated them as closely, as he has the sacrament of the altar. In other words, Luther’s teachings on the Lord’s Supper, far from being not fully thought-through, were regarded by him as the touchstone for all his other teachings.

    I’m sure you’ll have come across this before, Michael, but for anyone who hasn’t, David Yeago wrote a superb essay for First Things about ten years ago on The Catholic Luther, in which he argues that a “catholic” view of the sacraments, far from contradicting Luther’s teachings on justification by faith, was in fact at the very core of those teachings.

    Personally, I’m convinced that many of the problems in evangelicalism (individualism, fissiparousness, triviality in worship) stem from detaching justification by faith from the context of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament, which is where Lutheran theology firmly places it.

  6. CAndiron says:

    You go through several points there.
    >The evangelical focus on personalities, past and present, can’t be too far behind any Roman Catholic veneration of the saints

    I disagree. Big difference between admiration, however excessive, and praying to a saint and expecting intercession from them. Is there a Protestant analog to Mel respecting Catherine Emmerich’s writings so much he seems to regard them as cannonical?

    >I’d like to suggest that when you observe evangelicals picking, promoting and icon-ing their favorite theological heroes, you may not be learning so much about those theologians as you are about evangelicals themselves.

    Nothing wrong with picking and choosing. After all the reformers were fallible and everything they said should be tested by scripture, therefore a certain level of picking and choosing is inevitable.

    >What we see is Luther used, not understood
    I’d tend to agree more with John H. I think most people know of these aspects of his theology, but cut him slack if he didn’t happen to get around to all the details.

  7. Candiron:

    No prayer to Spurgeon, yet. I agree.

    But how bad is it?

    http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/bio/contempreform.html

  8. CAndiron says:

    Ugh! Why does Piper look like Woody Allen? Yeah, that’s going a bit too far, LOL.

  9. I’d tend to agree more with John H. I think most people know of these aspects of his theology, but cut him slack if he didn’t happen to get around to all the details.

    Oh, Luther definitely got around to the “details” – Luther’s Works in English is a 55 volume set. Of importance to the ‘evanglical’ community to realize (speaking here as the Lutheran that I am): Luther was a reformer, not a revolutionary – and a politically saavy reformer, at that.

    In my readings of Luther as I age, I am also beginning to realize that Luther was becoming in touch with a certain form of spirituality – the sacraments (of which Luther only discerned two) were not just symbols or reenactments, but a way to connect with the sacred. (Thus, Luther’s split with Zwingili had little to do with “Roman Catholic Tradition” rather than Luther’s view of the presence of God/Christ in the actions of the sacraments, and also includes how “God acts” in salvation and the sacraments.)

  10. misterqj says:

    The evangelical focus on personalities, past and present, can’t be too far behind any Roman Catholic veneration of the saints.

    As an evangelical for the past 19 years, I must disagree. Maybe my church/community is unique, but I don’t see this obsession with “personality” as you claim. I certainly don’t see anything near the elevation of saints in the RCC.

    I also seem to be missing out on the fascination with Martin Luther. He is definitely looked to as someone who was willing to “put it on the line” to share Biblical truth, but I don’t see anyone trying to paint Martin Luther as an evangelical, or using his teachings as foundational to evangelical theology.

    I do see individuals arising and getting attention for awhile. I see fad teachings and quasi cult ministries. I see many shortcomings, but none of them unique to evangelicalism.

    As a lurker here at imonk for the past few months, I find myself agreeing with some of your criticism of the evangelical movement. I appreciate and echo your desire to see politics and religion further separated. I would love to see an end to many “Word of Faith” ministries. But I can’t help but feel that in some way you are trying to kill your parents to attain some measure of freedom. If you want to leave your parents house, I would say go ahead and leave. It isn’t necessary to nitpick at the brothers and sisters who choose to stay.

  11. >I can’t help but feel that in some way you are trying to kill your parents to attain some measure of freedom. If you want to leave your parents house, I would say go ahead and leave. It isn’t necessary to nitpick at the brothers and sisters who choose to stay.

    “Nitpick.” Interesting word. Small criticisms are just as endemic of the need to leave as large ones, eh?

    I’m picturing your comment in the context of family therapy. You would be the one saying to those of us pointing out family dysfunction that we are “nitpicky” and ought to just get another family. After all, aren’t we really just trying to “kill” our parents?

    Family dysfunction is worked through by telling the truth. Sometimes the truth, coming through subjective experience, is less than flattering. If our rule is “be sure and don’t say anything too alarming,” then the whole therapy project is wasted. Of course, that’s how a lot of evangelicals feel: they are OK. Everything is OK. Show that critic the door.

    “Nitpicking” is a code word for “we’d all be happier if the critic would just go away.” I don’t plan to kill my parents, or leave.

    I appreciate your pov, but I disagree.

  12. misterqj says:

    >I’m picturing your comment in the context of family therapy. You would be the one saying to those of us pointing out family dysfunction that we are “nitpicky” and ought to just get another family. After all, aren’t we really just trying to “kill” our parents?

    To extend your analogy, a family in therapy does not cease loving one another. A family in therapy is presumably seeking healing and restoration. Are you seeking healing and restoration of the family, or are you trying to start a new family and leaving behind the old?

    >Family dysfunction is worked through by telling the truth. Sometimes the truth, coming through subjective experience, is less than flattering. If our rule is “be sure and don’t say anything too alarming,” then the whole therapy project is wasted. Of course, that’s how a lot of evangelicals feel: they are OK. Everything is OK. Show that critic the door.

    I agree with telling the truth. It is often painful and many people don’t want to hear it. But telling the truth in therapy is a means to an end, not the end itself. What is your goal in telling your truth here on imonk? Is it just to vent the frustrations you feel toward the evangelical church, or do you have a higher goal in mind?

    And I have no desire to show you the door. I would rather show you a comfy chair, give you a cup of coffee and chat awhile 🙂

    (Sorry for taking this thread off topic. I appreciate this blog, and your hard work and wisdom here Michael. However, I do have sincere questions. If there is a better forum, please let me know).

  13. Let’s assume, for a moment, the ridiculous idea that I may one of the most vocal critics of evangelicalism you’ve read.

    The first thing I would say is that everything I write is an echo of people I’ve read. The entire recent reformed resurgence is a critique of evangelicalism. Macarthur’s book “Ashamed of the Gospel” was a critique of evangelicalism. He’s spent hundreds of pages denouncing evangelical charismatics and is about to spent hundreds denouncing evangelical missionals and emergents.

    R.C. Sproul. Timothy George. John Armstrong. Os Guinness. Francis freakin’ Schaeffer himself. And on and on and on. Michael Horton and the entire history of WHI.

    If I am a critic, I am a dim bulb compared to the more articulate, more academically prepared critics that inspired me.

    No one hits evangelicalism harder than Eugene Peterson. Is he killing his parents?

    Your point about this blog makes it sound as if I am somehow odd. I am one small voice in a large group of critics. Read the Cambridge Declaration. Who are they seeking to correct.

    If you have detected a note of “abandon ship,” please cite it. How does saying we have too many personality driven aspects of evangelicalism amount to me trying to kill my parents? Is that what Keith Green and A.W. Tozer and even Steve Camp are doing?

    I appreciate your point, but it seems to be trying to make ME into the problem, something I am used to on this blog and something that’s easy to do because I am a problem. But trust me, I am hardly the only person making these points.