Happy St. Paddy’s Day!
Here’s one of my professors, Irish theologian Tom O’Loughlin, on the life of legacy of St. Patrick
Happy St. Paddy’s Day!
Here’s one of my professors, Irish theologian Tom O’Loughlin, on the life of legacy of St. Patrick
So says John Ortberg.
In the ancient world children were routinely left to die of exposure — particularly if they were the wrong gender (you can guess which was the wrong one); they were often sold into slavery. Jesus’ treatment of and teachings about children led to the forbidding of such practices, as well as orphanages and godparents. A Norwegian scholar named Bakke wrote a study of this impact, simply titled: When Children Became People: the Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity.
Perhaps we would do well to think through some of the implications of this. Do we expect total and unquestioning obedience from “real people”? Do we impose our will on “real people,” without considering their opinions; or do we expect to have to work towards compromise and win-win situations? Do “real people” get into trouble when they make routine mistakes, like spilling drinks on the sofa? Do we get to hit “real people” when they don’t do what we want?
To find out other surprising ways Jesus changed the topography of the Western world, read the rest or Ortberg’s article here.
The Reformation was an accident. A happy accident, to be sure. The Church in the late middle ages had lost its way, and every so often throughout the course of the Church’s history God raises up prophets and rebel rousers to call her back to vocation and center. But on October 31, 1517 when Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castel Church at Wittenberg, it was not intended as the kind of revolutionary act portrayed in the movies. The Castel Church at Wittenberg was home also to the University of Wittenberg, and the door on which Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses was something like the university bulletin board. It was common practice in the medieval academy for University professors—of which Luther was one—to publish series of controversial theses that they were willing to defend in a public debate with another member of the academic community. Luther wrote the theses in Latin, so that only a handful of people could read them–academics and a few priests–and nailed them to the University bulletin board. Luther wasn’t trying to start the Reformation, he was trying to start an academic debate. In fact, The Ninety-Five Theses were really not even theological in nature. They say nothing about justification by faith alone. Nothing about the sole authority of the Scriptures in matters of dogma. Nothing about the nature of the sacraments. Luther hadn’t even begun, in 1517 to develop those doctrines yet. The ax Luther wanted to grind with the Ninety-Five Theses was with the implementation of a particular Medieval Catholic social practice–the sale of indulgences.
Medieval Catholic spirituality owed much to what we could call “the Augustinian paradigm.” St. Augustine taught that life was a journey toward God. What moves you along in this journey is love. Augustine says “my love is my weight.” In ancient physics weight could pull you up as well as down. Things that are made of earth are pulled down by their weight to where they belong, on the earth. But fire’s weight pulls it up toward the heavenly bodies where it belongs. So, “my love is my weight” means that we are naturally drawn to God by our love, because it is in him that our true happiness is found. But there are lots of other things that seem to make us happy, at least temporarily: money, sex, food, alcohol, friends, all the pleasures of this life. It’s easy for our loves to get skewed so that we being to desire these pleasures more than God. So what we need is for grace to come along side us and straighten out our loves so that above all other things we can love God. And God is happy to offer us this grace. This is what Augustine calls being in “a state of grace.” Of course, if you really perverse, you can choose to get off the path for which you were created, decide that what you truly want is money or sex or alcohol, even more than God. And God will let us have what we truly want. This is called being in a state of “mortal sin.”
Well, by the time you get to the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries there was a trend toward a kind of “hell-fire and damnation” preaching. There was lots of anxiety about whether you were living in a state of mortal sin, and there was really no way to tell. But if you die in a state of mortal sin you would go directly to hell to be tormented for all eternity. And people are terrified. In the modern world when we talk about sin, we usually associate it with feelings of guilt. But in the middle ages when people talked about the consciousness of sin, the world they most commonly used was terror. Purportedly, doing good works–works of love, as they’re called–were supposed to help straighten out your loves and keep you from mortal sin. And there are all these spiritual practices–pilgrimages to holy sites, fasts, vigils–all of which were supposed to help, but no one knows if they really even work.
As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, medieval preaching focused on not only the fear of hell but also of purgatory. Purgatory, in Roman Catholic theology, is part of heaven, not hell. It’s a place of purgation, cleansing. The idea is: if you receive an invitation from a Prince or King to a banquet he is throwing, you don’t want to show up right after work in your sweaty old clothes and with dirt under your finger nails, right? No, you want to go home first and get cleaned up. How much more, then, if you are invited by The King to the heavenly banquet? So purgatory is a place to get cleaned up. The technical language is that in purgatory one earns merit, so that when you get to the heavenly kingdom, you fit in, you deserve to be there. So in the early centuries of the Church purgatory is seen as a good place. Dante’s purgatory is joyful, there’s music, everybody helps each other. But by the time you get to the centuries before Luther, purgatory has become in popular opinion a place of punishment and torment–it’s like a temporary hell to be suffered before you make it to heaven. So one of the purposes for these spiritual practices I mentioned was to get indulgences. It was believe that the pope possessed a “treasury” from which he could dispense merit for doing good works. The more merit one had, the less she had to earn in purgatory, the shorter her time there would be. Well, by 1517, Pope Leo X had gotten in over his head on a building project–the basilica of St. Peter, in Rome, which was supposed to be one of the largest and most beautiful churches the world had ever seen. So Leo had the idea that he could offer a service by selling indulgences–selling merit–to the faithful who desired to shorten their stays in purgatory–or even to shorten they stay of their loved ones who had already passed–and he could raise money for money for his building project at the same time. So the pope commissioned an army of preachers to go around Europe selling indulgences on his behalf. One in particular, John Tetzel, whom Luther had interactions with in Germany, came up with a cute little slogan: “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the souls from purgatory flings.” As you can imagine, many fearful people were taken by this opportunity, especially widows and mothers of deceased children. How could they not do anything in their power to keep their lost loved ones from suffering torment any longer than they had to? The modern parallel would be the kind of televangelist who promise healing or financial blessing, all you have to do is make your check out this address. Well this all mortified Martin Luther, who was himself terrified of both hell and purgatory and wanted no part of anything that would offer a false sense of security. So with his Ninety Five Theses, Luther was attempting, not to start a new Church–in 1517 Luther would have been appalled at the thought of that. But he did want to argue against the sale of indulgences.
The Ninety-Five Theses
Now, if you know anything about Martin Luther you know that he was a blusterous and strong-headed personality. He pulled no punches with his theses. It wouldn’t have been in his nature to do so.
As you can imagine, the pope wasn’t too thrilled about these claims. And his ire was fueled by the fact that this event coincided with the invention on the printing press about 70 years earlier, and so controversial theses were quickly translated into German and disseminated to the common people. They became an instant best seller. But how did what Luther intended as a mere academic debate, turn into what we now call the Great Reformation? To understand that, we’ll have to ask how Luther found himself here at the University of Wittenberg in the first place.
Luther’s Early Life and Theology
Martin Luther wasn’t supposed to be a Bible professor, he wasn’t even supposed to be a monk. Luther was born in 1483 to Hans and Margaretha Luther in Eisleben, Germany. Hans was the owner of a copper mine, who has worked his way out of peasantry. Determined that his son would have a better life than he, Hans sent Martin to university and then to law school. But that all ended in the Summer of 1505, when Martin was caught in a thunder storm on his way back to school after Summer vacation. A bolt of lightning struck a tree right next to him. This is a terrifying experience for a medieval person: not knowing if in the next minute you are going to die, possible in a state of mortal sin, and spend the rest of eternity in hellish torment. So what does a medieval person do in this circumstance? Well, he prays to the saints. Luther cries out “Help me, St. Anne! I’ll become a monk!” And get this: when his life is spared from the storm, Luther does it! We’ve all made bargains with God in desperate situations, but Luther actually followed through.
So Luther drops out of law school and joins an Augustinian monetary. And Luther is a very devoted monk, he dives right in to the religious life. Most of all, he spends his days praying for grace to straighten out his loves so that he will desire God above all else. Because that’s what your suppose to do, right, to love God more than anything else? But Luther can’t seem to shake the sneaking suspicion that he really only loves God for the sake of being saved, not God’s own sake. And think kind of intense introspection launches Luther into an awful downward spiral. Because if he love’s God, not for his own sake, but for the sake of being saved, then what he really desires most is not God himself, but salvation. But that would mean that he has an anterior motive for his love for God, a hidden agenda of the worst kind, a love turned in on itself. It would mean that he loved himself more than God. But that’s mortal sin. And now God hates me and is going to damn me to hell for being in a state of mortal sin. And the only way not to be damned to hell for all eternity is to love God truly. So now I have to try to love a God who hates me and wants to damn me. But Luther doesn’t love God, he secretly hates God for hating him and wanting to damn him. So now God’s really going to get him for hating him.
Luther really did think this way as a monk in the early 1500s. He would have awful bouts of fear and depression—anfectung, he called it—because he really believed that God hated him wanted to damn him because he was living in a state of mortal sin. Luther describes these periods of anfectung being
so great and so much like hell that no tongue could adequately express them, no pen could describe them, and one who had not himself experienced them could not believe them. And so great were they that, if they had been sustained or had lasted for half an hour, even for one tenth of an hour, I would have perished completely and all of my bones would have been reduced to ashes. At such a time, God seems so terribly angry, and with him the whole creation. At such a time, there is no flight, no comfort, within or without, but all things accuse . . . In this moment, it is strange to say, the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed.
It got so bad that Luther came to believe that if he sincerely desired to be damned to hell, maybe then God would justify him. Luther actually makes this argument in his 1515 Commentary on The Letter to the Romans, he says, if you sincerely desire to be damned, then you are agreeing with God’s judgment, and then God has to justify you. Just image the perverse psychological torment this must be, trying to make yourself sincerely desire to be damned to hell so that God will justify you.
So Luther countless hours every day in the confessional rehearsing and analyzing all the inner thoughts of his heart trying to identify and route out any anterior motives or hidden agendas in his love for God, and trying to sincerely desire his own damnation. It went on like this until Luther’s confessor–the priest who listened to his confessions–Johann von Staupitz, got so fed up that he said, “Martin, you’ve got to get a job!” And that’s how Luther found himself a Bible professor at the University of Wittenberg, nailing theses for academic debate to the church door. And the debate he tried to start on indulgences became so sensationalized that Luther found himself, in the months and years following October 31, 1517, having to dive into the Bible like he never had before in order to make a solid public defense of his position. And this turn to the Bible was the best thing that ever happened to Luther, because it saved him from his wearisome cycle of fear and depression.
The Turn to Protestantism
Think of young Luther. He’s terrified of hell and purgatory, and so he wants more than anything to be saved…but that means that he desires salvation more than he desires God…but that’s mortal sin…because he’s in a state of moral sin God must hate him and want to damn him….so now he has to try to love a God who hates him, but he secretly hates God for hating him…so now God really going to get him…which makes him even more terrified…and down and down he goes. So how do you get out of this cycle?
Well you get out of it by meditating on Scripture, like Luther had to do to defend his Ninety-Five Theses. Famously, one day in 1519 Luther was meditating on Paul’s letter to the Romans. He said “I had a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in that letter, but what stood in my way was that one phrase in chapter one: ‘the righteousness of God.'” Luther said “I hated that phrase: ‘the righteousness of God,’ which I had been taught to understand as that righteousness by which God is righteous and by which he punishes sinner and the unjust.” He said, “I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…Isn’t it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel by threatening us with his righteousness and wrath?” He said “I constantly badgered St. Paul about this spot in Romans 1.” Isn’t that a great line? He says “I meditated night and day on those words until at lat, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: ‘The righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.’” “Then I began to understand,” he said, that St. Paul was talking about “a passive righteousness…by which the merciful God makes us righteous by faith.” Luther says, “that phrase of Paul became for me the very gate of Paradise.” But how is it that God gives us his own righteousness in faith?
Luther learned this by turning to the sacraments. Interestingly, after he had relearned to read the Bible, Luther discovered that he could receive God’s righteousness right there in the confessional booth with Johann von Staupitz, because he finally allowed himself to hear the words of absolution at the end of the sacrament. When von Staupitz said “I absolve you of your sin, in the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he spoke on behalf of Christ himself. (This is Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: that any Christian, when he administers the sacraments, speaks on Christ’s behalf). So what right do Luther have to disagree? If Luther wanted to believe that his sins weren’t forgiven and that he was damned, he would be calling God a liar. As a young monk, Luther thought that he had no right to believe he was in the state of grace. Now he understood that he had no right not to believe that he was in the state of grace. If God promises to absolve your sins, or promises you no less than himself—“this is my body given for you”—who are you to disagree? Luther realized that all you have to do is believe God’s promise, and you receive it. That’s Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone: believe Christ’s word when he says he is giving you God’s righteousness, and you have it. You have to believe the gospel—you have no right not to. Luther’s favorite pastoral aphorism, when his congregants suffered the kind of fear and guilt that he once had, became: “stop calling God a liar! Believe the gospel!”
Of course, by the time Luther had figured all this out, he had been deposed as a heretic and the Reformation had broke out almost right under his nose. Luther has this great quote in Some Book, he says, “I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip…the Word [did all the work of the Reformation]…I did nothing, the Word did everything.”
And this Reformation, to which Luther says he contributed so little, changed not only the Church, but the entire course of Western history. For instance, since all medieval schools were housed in monasteries, the Lutheran Reformation bankrupt the school system in Germany, and Luther had to deal with it. He wrote an open letter to noblemen asking them to find schools in their regions. So without Luther there would be no public school system. Luther was also a great lover of music and he encouraged congregations to sing together rather only listening to choirs. The Reformation revolutionized the music is the West—it got simpler, more catchy. Had there been no Martin Luther, there would have been no Beatles. Luther taught us to subject everything to the Word of God, and to question every other claim to authority. Had there been no Martin Luther, there would have been no European Enlightenment. But in order to do this people had to know the Word, so Luther recovered the practice of preaching and teaching in the Church. He also set about the major task of translating the Bible into common German. With Luther’s translation, for the first time in centuries, common people could read and hear the Bible in their own language. Luther brought Pentecost to Germany. That was the Pentecostal experience in Acts chapter 2, right? Not speaking in other tongues, but hearing the Word of God in their own language. Luther also wanted people to hear the gospel in the sacraments, so we revived the practice of receiving communion. In the middle ages, Holy Communion was a sacrifice that the priest made on behalf of the congregation, standing in front of the alter with the congregation watching. The average person in the pew would probably receive the elements only once or twice a year, on Easter and possible Christmas. In the Reformation, the priest came around to the other side of the table and offered the body and blood to the people.
Our calling as Lutherans
This is the story that we live into as Lutherans. And it is our unique vocation to preach the good news to all who are plagued by fear and guilt. To tell the world that they have no right to believe that they are unworthy of God’s love and grace, for Christ makes them righteous. And to invite them to the table where Christ offers himself to us.
Two recent conversations with friends have prompted me to write this post. One was with a seminarian whose dissatisfaction with the methodology of The Jesus Seminar, had turned him off completely to the historical study of Jesus. For what it’s worth, I think my friend was right to question some of the methods employed by The Jesus Seminar and I told him as much. But, if it is in fact Jesus’ whole life that is redemptive, then wouldn’t it be important for us—not least for an aspiring minister—to explore from every possible angle what Jesus actually did and said while he was here as well as the meaning of those word and actions? Of course, historical Jesus scholarship is like anything else in theology: one should soberly and prayerfully consider the arguments being made and then take what seems wise and fruitful and leave the rest behind.
The second conversation was with a lay person who, after reading Marcus Borg’s account in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (co-authored with N. T. Wright), was relieved to find a biblical scholar who affirmed her suspicion that some of what she read in the gospels was embellished or even invented make a point, but that she did not, therefore, have to leave the whole thing behind. Imagine how she perked up, then, when Borg suggested that most “mainline Jesus scholars” agree on at least the foundations of his picture of Jesus, (a claim that could be true depending on how broadly or narrowly one defines “mainline”). “Who are these ‘Jesus scholars’?” she wanted to know.
That is the question that I have set out to answer all too briefly in this post: Who are these “Jesus scholars”? And what is the landscape of contemporary historical Jesus scholarship? For the most part, I have refrained in the present post from making judgments about which constructions of the historical Jesus I think “get it right.” This is not because I don’t have an opinion. To the contrary, there is quite a lot in contemporary Jesus scholarship that I find to be poor history supporting and supported by poor theology. But even with the presence of what I find to be a wrongheaded theological perspective, I think the historical Jesus quest itself is extremely important. Moreover, I have found almost all of the contemporary Jesus scholarship with which I am familiar to be, in one way or another, very enlightening. So, I have tried to keep most of my opinions to myself because what I hope you will do with this post is not agree with my judgments, but actually read some of the books!
A fair warning: you will not agree with everything you read about the historical Jesus. You can’t—I don’t care where you are on the theological map—because the pictures of Jesus that contemporary scholars present are far too varied and disagree between one another at too many points. What you will do is dive into the texts of the gospels and into the world of first century Palestine and you will come out on the other side, I have no doubt, with a deeper and richer understanding of what the man Jesus of Nazareth did and who he was. And that brings us to one place where I just have to tell you my opinion: The more you know who Jesus was and is, the more you’re going to like him! So, if St. Augustine was right—any interpretation that leads to greater love of God and man is a good one—then all historical Jesus scholarship must be worthwhile!
Let’s dig in! There are three classic texts that everyone cites because together they got the ball rolling on the contemporary quest for the historical Jesus: Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Geza Vermes’ Jesus in His Jewish Context and perhaps most importantly E. P. Sanders’ The Historical Figure of Jesus. Each of these books is, among other things, a reminder that Jesus was a first century Jew and that we must, therefore, understand everything he thought, said and did within the matrix of first century Judaism. The cumulative effect of their arguments was enough to convince everyone and thereby to open up a whole new set of questions for Jesus scholarship. Because so much of what was innovative about these works is taken for granted in recent writings, my judgment is that if you’re reading the later stuff you really don’t need to read these unless you really want to dig deep into the quest.
Probably the work that best represents the majority of mainline American contemporary Jesus scholarship is The Jesus Seminar, a collective of about 150 mostly liberal biblical scholars, historians and lay people who got together to try to peel back the layers of Christian tradition and construct an historically accurate picture of Jesus of Nazareth. Their first accomplishment was a really interesting, modern American-English vernacular translation of five gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and the Gospel of Thomas, complete with curse words and racial slurs. The translation is published in their book The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? in which they also vote (based on historical criteria which you can find on their website) on whether Jesus really said something like the words in these gospels, line-by-line. In a second volume, The Acts of Jesus: What Did Jesus Really Do? they vote on what they think Jesus really did.
Two important critics of The Jesus Seminar, both British, are James D. G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham. James Dunn, who has been on the cutting edge of developments in New Testament studies for the last four decades, argues that one of the seminar’s primary assumptions, that the gospel stories are late developments in the Christian tradition, is faulty because they failed to account for the efficiency of oral tradition in traditional cultures. So, while he grants that the gospels may have been written late in the first century and perhaps even into the early part of the second century, Dunn argues that the stories which comprise them go back to Jesus himself. Dunn’s big, fat scholarly book on this is Jesus Remembered. His shorter, popular-level book is A New Perspective on Jesus: What the Quest for the Historical Jesus Missed.
In his book, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham examines the theological corollary of Dunn’s historical argument. According to The Jesus Seminar, since the New Testament is a tradition that developed over a long period of time, we can discern developmental trends over this time period and, thus, determine the kinds of statements do not go back to the historical Jesus, but are embellished or invented by early Christians. One such trend can be observed with affirmations of the divinity of Jesus. It seems, to seminar scholars at least, that while such affirmations are ubiquitous in John (our latest gospel), they are far less frequent in Matthew and Luke and nowhere to be found in Mark (our earliest Gospel). Bauckham argues, however, that this proposed trajectory is specious and only seems to be the case because we are used to looking for such affirmations of divinity in Greek concepts of ontology. (Jesus is “of one being with the Father,” so goes the creed). But when we think instead in Hebrew concepts of identity, argues Bauckham, we find that the New Testament is teeming with affirmations of Jesus’ divinity. The trajectory, in other words, is not increasingly insisting on Jesus divinity, but doing so in increasingly Greek language.
If we stopped there, it might seem like all Jesus scholars fit neatly into two camps: on the one hand a groups of liberal American historians in The Jesus Seminar who deconstruct the biblical narrative to re-construct a historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth, on the other a handful of conservative British New Testament scholars who trust that the gospel stories offer and an early and reliable picture of Jesus. But, of course, nothing is that easy! The fact is that there are historians plotted at almost every point along a massive scale of how much of the material in the gospels can be attributed to Jesus himself and, even when they agree on which word and actions are historical, they cannot agree on their meaning. There are as many pictures of the historical Jesus as there are historical Jesus scholars. Below I have listed a few of the most important (or at least the most widely read) of these scholars. If you want a more thorough introduction to the diverse views within contemporary Jesus scholarship, the best place to start is Mark Allen Powell’s Jesus as a Figure in History: How Modern Historians View the Man from Galilee.
If the classic texts were a catalyst for the study of Jesus’ Jewish context, John Dominic Crossan has done the same for his Roman context. Palestine was after all under the controlling arm of the powerful Roman Empire during Jesus’ life time. As it turns out, Jesus had quite a lot to say to and about these powers. Crossan has done as much as anyone to help us see this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Corssan’s big, fat, scholarly and frankly almost-impossible-to-read book is The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. His slim and very readable, popular-level version is Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography.
To Crossan’s account, the archeologist Jonathan Reed and adds an interesting perspective, employing a host of first century artifacts in Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, (co-authored with Crossan).
Bishop N. T. Wright synthesis the Jewish-Roman matrix with an implicit trust in the reliability of the New Testament documents to construct a picture of Jesus as a Jewish eschatological prophet declaring that both God’s final judgment of Israel and God’s promised return to Jerusalem had in fact come in Jesus’ own life, ministry and death. Wright’s big scholarly book on this topic is Jesus and the Victory of God, the second in a four-volume series on Christian origins. His smaller, popular-level book is The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is.
Finally, Marcus Borg broadens the conversation by adding to historical Jesus research the cross-cultural study of religious mystics, healers and charismatic leaders. Borg’s most complete book is Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should get you started. Happy reading!
Frequent readers will know that I am apt to post anything I can get my hands on by my teacher at Eastern University, Phillip Cary. So, I was delighted to stumble across this interview on Homebrewed Christianity, in which Cary discusses how subtle shifts in theology drastically affect the everyday experiences of Christians, especially their anxieties. Par for the course, Cary uses this topic as a springboard into a primer on the entire history of Western theology from Augustine all the way to modern evangelicalism that will shock and delight you, and most of all inspire you to ask deep questions about your own theological commitments. I really do hope you will take the time to listen to this interview, you won’t regret it!
One suggestions: the interviewers record a few minutes of silliness before getting to the interview, so you may want to skip ahead to minute 7:50.