Reformation day

Amy Deardon has a post today about Martin Luther and Reformation Day, and since she asked for my feedback, I’ll give some.

I know many regard Martin Luther as a hero. I also know one person who, when we were talking about Heaven, said, “We only know for certain one person is in Hell,” and as I was about to say, “Judas?” he said, “Martin Luther.”

Of course at the time, the Catholic Church was badly in need of reform. But you also had people such as St. Philip Neri who were reforming it from the inside. The results he had in Rome showed that people were hungry for a real, active faith. It isn’t necessary to leave a system in order to patch it up. Imagine if your spouse came to you and said, “We need to reform our marriage, so I’m going to divorce you and move a thousand miles away.”

Martin Luther leaves a legacy of differences that pretty much prevent reconciliation between Protestantism and Catholicism.
1) he changed the canon of the Bible from what had been recognized since the fourth century
2) Sola fide, the doctrine that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone
3) Sola scriptura, the doctrine that only what’s in the Bible can be considered authoritative.

Along with sola scriptura comes the injunction that you the reader determine what scripture actually means, which places new Christians in the intriguing position of needing to decide what teachings best align with scripture before they’ve actually read scripture very much at all. So you have to become an expert in order to begin learning. (Which is why some people resort to literalism and all its difficulties.)

As for #1, I have no idea why he thought he had the authority to do that, but you can see why someone would reject external authority and tradition if he wanted to reject several books of the Bible.

For #3, sola scriptura has no scriptural basis. In fact, we mentioned here earlier how the scriptures themselves extol the importance of sacred tradition. In order for sola scriptura to work at all, we’d need an infallible table of contents to go with the infallible scriptures, and we don’t. Jesus didn’t give us a set of documents: he gave us a Church, and the Church gave us the Bible.

And #2, sola fide, my favorite because it creates people who froth at the mouth and snarl things at me like “Are you saying that our SINS can DEPRIVE us of HEAVEN?” Uh, yeah, they can. The Bible doesn’t hold with sola fide either. 1 Corinthians 13:2

If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.

Salvation comes through faith working in love. In Revelation, the good deeds of the saints are the only things that follow them into the next life. When Jesus talks about separating the sheep and the goats, he talks about it solely in terms of deeds (“I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink,” etc.)

But the ultimate test of anything is the fruit it bears, and what is the fruit of Luther’s work? Well, the Church is definitely reformed, although as I mentioned, others worked within the structure too in order to reform it. Simply leaving will never reform a corrupt organization.

But what we do see is something like thirty thousand different denominations of Protestantism, and I’m not so sure that’s what Luther would have wanted, that anyone who disagrees with a church can shear off and begin his own newly-reformed version of the church.ย It’s not the unity that Paul talks about in the Spirit, not the unity that Jesus wanted, that we might all be one as he and the Father are one.


EDITED: Amy asked a follow-up question in the comments,and I answered it in the next day’s post.

Also, a reader who didn’t wish to comment in public said:

I just wonder if some mention of the joint declaration on Lutherans and Catholics on justification by faith might be good here?



  1. Ivy

    Luther was sort of a strange figure. He decried the Church’s anti-Semitic practices at the time, claiming the Church was so horrible that no one would want to join. Then, after forming Protestantism, he sent out a call that all the Jews could come join since he’d made it all better. He was so shocked that, for the most part, the response was, “Well, thanks, but no thanks” that he turned anti-Semitic himself, writing “On the Jews and their lies” in 1543.

    From the outside, the reform looks a lot more like hanging new kitchen curtains than moving 1,000 miles away. What shocked the Church to its core, what forced a change, was the Enlightenment. In a relatively short period of time, on a historic scale, we went from the pope anointing kings, who then needed to retain papal favor, to the people electing presidents.

    It’s all a cycle. The earliest forms of Christianity and Islam were born of, and broken off from, Judaism, and they in turn gave birth to various incarnations and forms.

    Sola scriptura makes no sense to me because of the requirement that the scriptures be perfect and able to self-authenticate.

    First, the scriptures are self-contradictory, otherwise Mary and Joseph were stopping on their way to answer a census while fleeing to Egypt.

    Second, because there are obvious gaps. Adam and Eve were created. They had Cain and Able. Cain killed Able. So logically, the world population was at that point Cain, Adam, and Eve. Except Cain goes off into an obviously well-populated world, filled with all sorts of strangers, and takes a wife other than Eve.

    Third, taken only at face value, some of Jesus’ prophecies are provably false. Within the lifetime of some of his listeners, the stars were to fall out of the sky, the moon and the sun would go out, and his very listeners will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Well, unless there are some first century Palestinians running around somewhere (probably Florida) or no one bothered to record these crazy astronomical events actually happening (the Egyptians were big on record keeping–we have lists of what builders took which sick days when constructing the pyramids and Giza; they would have made a note of the sun going out) this is either failed prophecy, or something other than literal truth.

    Fourth, and this is a different category of objection, Jesus quite obviously accepts Talmud as holy because he keeps quoting it. For example, “It is easier for an elephant to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the gates of Heaven” is from Talmud. He changed “elephant” to “camel” to make a pun in Aramaic.

    My first response to the one person sure to be in Hell, would have been Hitler, but if I ran into David Thorstad after I died, I’d be solidly convinced I was in Hell.

  2. Pat

    Martin Luther shows some classic signs of recognizable personality disorder. So, I believe, did Hitler. I’m not at all sure that people go to hell as a result of mental illness, but I wouldn’t call them great leaders or heroes, either!


    1. Ivy

      I know one man who was driven to rape his daughter. Absolutely obsessed with the notion. All he could do is keep promising himself, “Not today. Just not today.” Some days he had to take her to a public place to prevent himself, but he never molested her. He was, without a doubt, mentally ill, but as a human he had free will, and he used it to choose not to fall into sin. Neither Hitler not Luther were so deranged, so detached from reality, as to be utterly unable to function and make moral decisions. They were both simply evil.

    2. philangelus

      What personality disorder did he show? I think of him as someone who was offended by what he saw around him, then started a movement that got way beyond the scope of what he’d originally intended, but which he didn’t care to stop.

      1. Ivy

        Some clinicians claim he suffered from OCD. He’s hard to get a perfect handle on.

        He was offended by what he saw around him, and wanted to make things better. In 1523 he wrote That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew and argued against anti-semitism. He goes so far as to claim “Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are.”

        Something changed in him by the time the movement had gone in directions he hadn’t intended. It might have gone to his head, it could have been a factor of his illness, I’m not sure, but by 1543, he argued for burning down all the synagogues, confiscating the homes possessions of the Jews, and curtailing the freedom of the Jews. He claimed Jews were “full of the “devil’s feces” and later advocated genocide, calling it a sin not to kill all the Jews. His “On the Jews and Their Lies” became the basis on which the Nazi’s later built.

        1. philangelus

          Ouch. That’s a bit brutal. ๐Ÿ™

  3. Amy Deardon

    I’m sorry, as a Lutheran I accept Sola Scriptura. I am sadly not a theologian and may not be able to argue this articulately, but I have trouble accepting either tradition or priestly authority as revelatory. Heck, wasn’t that what Jesus fought over with the priests in HIS day? Ivy, I believe Jesus was God as well as man, therefore He could not make incorrect predictions. Are you saying that a) Jesus was wrong, or b) his predictions were recorded incorrectly? If either of these options is true, what would make either tradition or authority any more substantive? Certainly there are difficulties in the Bible, but I believe these often occur from (option c) reader misinterpretation.

    Your points are interesting, but I have a different take on them if you’re interested. Quickly, Mary and Joseph: they weren’t origianlly on their way to Egypt until after Herod got wind of Jesus’ birth. Second, Adam and Eve: where does it say that they didn’t have other kids? (Seth for one). The life spans early on were on the order of a thousand years; surely in that time people could have moved around. THird, Jesus predicted at “the end times” and so forth, which many interpret to be after Christ had come. Where does it say in his lifetime? Fourth, just because Jesus quotes the Talmud doesn’t mean he accepted it.

    If revelation is not closed, where is the line drawn? Some religions, such as Islam and Mormonism, have arisen from additional documents after John writes not to add or subtract anything (Rev 22:18-19).

    I came to my faith as a skeptic through reading the Bible esp. the New Testament — you can read my thoughts and arguments on my website if you’re interested. I accept Sola Scriptura because this makes sense that God would create boundaries around His revelation of who He is.

    What are some supporting evidences for accepting tradition and/or papal authority? Or Mary as Co-Mediatrix? While I am convinced of my position in Sola Scriptura, I believe in keeping an open mind and would appreciate considering any arguments. I want the TRUTH.

    These are important issues, and often entrenched beliefs. Philangelus, thank you for the opportunity to exchange ideas in a respectful forum ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Ivy

      Seth was born after Cain was sent away. That’s made explicit. In any case, if they were children of Adam and Eve they would be Cain’s brother’s and sister’s. They would not need a mark to identify him. They’d have grown up with him. Jabal is called the first herdsman, and he is a descendant of Cain born after Cain killed Able, but Able is a herdsman.

      Okay, what time and what day was Jesus crucified? Depends on which gospel you check. The day of the preparation of the Passover sacrifice? The first day of Passover? The accounts aren’t in perfect agreement.

      Incidentally, this doesn’t make them false. If you check the reports in multiple newspapers today, they are often in disagreement on the particulars because of a difference in focus or research. The two recent articles on how worms move sedimentary material (one in Nature, the other in Science News) vary in some details. It does mean you can’t take both together and call them perfect in all details.

      The part about “There are those of you standing here today who will not taste death until” is in Mathew. Somewhere in the 20s. You’re point C is exactly the one I was after–the only way to uphold it without claiming he was wrong or the bible was wrong is to say it’s metaphorical, and then you need a scholar to help interpret the metaphor.

      Better proof that Jesus accepted Talmud–he sat down at a Seder. The commandments in the bible for Pesach are vague–the Talmud defines and clarifies them. If he did not accept the Talmudic clarifications, he would not have attended.

      Where I personally draw the line? For me it’s more of a circle than a line. Torah and Talmud would be the center (and the various works of Kaballah such as the Zohar if I could understand them), with Rashi and Maimonides as the second ring, and various scholars taking the outer perimeter. Where someone else might draw the line, or what geometry that line would take, depends on their own inclinations and beliefs.

      1. cricketB

        I’ve attended Sedar, or at least the version offered by a Christian congregation, and haven’t accepted Talmud. I don’t know enough about Talmud to accept it.

        Also, it’s possible that Jesus accepted part of Talmud, enough to share an important event, but strongly disagreed with the rest. I know he disagreed with some of the teachers of the time, but not if parts of the Talmud were among those disagreements.

        1. philangelus

          Jesus went out of his way to celebrate the seder in Jerusalem even though he knew he’d be killed there. To me, that’s more than a passive acceptance of part of something.

          1. cricketB

            I go out of the way to share a meal with my family at Christmas, although for us getting there safely is more important than being on the date. I know several who don’t go to church who go to great lengths to celebrate on the day. But, yeah, he wasn’t going for family.

          2. philangelus

            His mother even followed him there. ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. philangelus

      Amy, 2 Thessalonians 2:15 has Paul urging them to accept the traditions he taught them. The Bible itself never says that it is complete. What Jesus does say is that the Holy Spirit will dwell with us and continue to teach us the things that He would have us learn.

      Jesus could easily have written his own Gospel or his own documents. He didn’t. Instead he gave us a Church. The Church then decided the scriptures, which sola scriptura then tells us is not important. It’s as if the Constitution forms the Supreme Court, which then dissolves the Constitution as having any authority whatsoever. We know the Bible has authority only because the Church and sacred tradition tells us it does. The Bible doesn’t claim it for itself. (In fact, the Bible is self-contradictory in places.) Nowhere in scripture does it claim that it’s complete. And in fact, John tells us that if it were all written down, the volumes would fill the Earth. Since my Bible here beside me is only three inches thick, I have to assume that while it contains everything necessary for my salvation, it doesn’t contain EVERYTHING.

      The Bible doesn’t contain an explicit definition of the Trinity. That comes out later. That’s just one example of something contained in scripture that isn’t explicit in scripture.

      Ivy uses this metaphor for Torah/Talmud, but it works with the Bible and the Church as well. Imagine two parents. Dad says, “Go clean your room.” The kid says, “What does that mean?” and Mom says, “That means, make your bed, put your toys on the shelf, and put your clean laundry in the drawers. Make sure you can shut the closet.” In this case, the Bible would be Dad, and the Church would be Mom, interpreting the texts.

      And you do believe in infallibility to some extent, because you believe Paul was infallible when he wrote. ๐Ÿ™‚ And Jude, and John, and Peter and Mark and Matthew and…

  4. Amy Deardon

    Whoa. Ad hominem on Luther.

  5. cricketB

    There are times when you don’t have the power to fix from within, in which case leaving and making it easier for like-minded people to leave is the best you can do. A woman should leave an abusive husband and take the kids with her.

    There’s a lot more to Luther than I learned in history class. (Isn’t that always the way?) Just because you now treat a minority civilly doesn’t mean they’ll want to join you! Perhaps that desire to lead was why he left in the first place. “All rebellions have one thing in common — rebel leaders aren’t in charge.”

    Seeing the mess that some groups have made of Christianity, I have to agree with much of what Jane says about following tradition as it came down through the Catholic channels. Even so, some of those traditions have changed for the better, and some go through cycles. It depends where you draw the line between Traditions and traditions.

    Seeing the mess that some leaders have made of tradition, both in Christianity and elsewhere, I like one thing Luther gave us: The beginnings of the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to make an informed decision for ourselves.

    Yes, it may have been, “If you see the facts that I present (complete with every rhetorical trick in the book) you’ll follow ME!” but at least it started people thinking.

    Henry whatever was worse in some ways. He didn’t even pretend to give people a choice.

    Some groups proudly claim all their people learn the scripture for themselves, in the original language. Guess who tells the masses what the random shapes and sounds mean?

    That’s the main reason I’m agnostic. I don’t trust others to interpret things for me. I’m interested in their interpretations, but I rarely do something just because a religious leader tells me to.

    Now I’m thinking about the H1N2 shot. The medical leaders tell us to get it. If it were as effective as they say, it would be easier. Even though my household is low-risk, I don’t want to carry the virus to someone else. Do I trust the labs got it right, or do I doubt them? I wish we could watch both groups for ten years, but we can’t.

    Faith is like that. Do we trust that we’ve learned enough to make an informed choice? Do we trust that our religious leaders have done so? Do we trust that they are making the same decisions that we would if we had all the information they do?

    Most of us muddle through with a combination of the above. We’d go mad otherwise.

    It goes for any type of leader. Medical, religious, political, educational.

    1. philangelus

      Good point. I’m not sure the church then was like an abusive husband, though. There were many individuals who remained within the Church and reformed it that way. The very best thing Luther did was point out the problems and shine a light on them. But imagine if he’d remained within the structure and used that influence to show Catholics in other countries what an actual vibrant faith looked like? Instead of creating enemies within the hierarchy, he’d have created admirers. Philip Neri, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, Frances de Sales, Charles Borromeo — they all worked wonders from within the structure they were changing.

      Catholicism is pretty open, Cricket. If I ever have a question on why Catholics believe something,it’s very easy to find a Catholic source that goes right back to basics and explains it in a way I can understand. It’s not, “Here, do this,” but “Here, do this, and here’s why.”

      I guess at some point, faith becomes informed by experience. If someone were to argue with me that angels don’t exist, for example, I’d laugh because I’ve experienced too much to doubt that my guardian angel does. ๐Ÿ™‚ The same with someone telling me God doesn’t exist. Now, we might start dickering about what God is like, or the nature of God, but once there’s been that personal encounter with faith, it’s not just “Well, the Bible says” or “Well, the pope says.” It’s, “Wow, that was amazing, and I want more.”

      1. cricketB

        He also created High German to do it — a huge feat of linguistics. Before that, Germans could not understand people three towns over. High German is less of a jump from the various forms of Low German than is Latin.

        1. philangelus

          Now that’s truly cool. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Amy Deardon

    Guys, what matters is TRUTH, not the failings of Luther or anyone else. How has God revealed Himself?

    1. philangelus

      I had my answer in the comments, but I’ve moved it into its own post:

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