To my surprise, I am impressed with Martin Luther. He made big mistakes, as don’t we all? and he was headstrong, as aren’t we all sometimes? But I think his intentions were honorable, his heart was good, and much of what went wrong with the Protestant Reformation (which was a whole lot) was not Luther’s fault. However, some of it was.
Or at least that’s what I think, as follows:
1 Papal intransigence
Did the late medieval Roman Catholic Church need reforming? Desperately. I wrote last time of how it had largely covered up the Gospel, the genuine Tradition with what in seminary we used to call “medieval corruptions”, legalisms and blind obedience instead of the Good News of God’s love and Christ’s triumph over death, substituting the God “who is good and loves mankind” with a lesser god who was required by “justice” to condemn his children to hell. Not to mention astonishingly immoral behavior among especially the higher clergy. Luther was right to rebel against this. That the Roman Catholic Church was not open to reform was not Martin Luther’s fault. He tried.
2 “Sola Scriptura”
In Luther’s time the Roman Catholic Church was making little use of the Scriptures, which allowed their “tradition” to become badly deformed. Was Luther right in his rediscovery of the centrality of the Holy Scriptures? Absolutely. That’s why in Orthodox churches the book of the Holy Gospels is placed permanently at the center of our Holy Table at the center of our Altar – In western terms the center of the “altar” in the “sanctuary”. His translating of the New Testament into German combined with the use of “modern media” (the printing press) made it possible for the first time for laypeople to have direct access to the Scriptures – a wonderful thing. But we all know it is easy to bounce from one extreme to the other, which is what Luther did: he proclaimed Bible alone, “Sola Scriptura”. How could he have missed the obvious? (1)The Bible had never stood alone. The Church and her Tradition had come first: the community, the oral remembrance of Christ, what he did and what he said, the apostolic ministry, the sacraments, the Christian “way” of living. From within that context, the New Testament was written. (2) “Sola Scriptura” is a teaching never found in the Scriptures! (3) Luther believed that the Bible was “self-interpreting”, that all would read it the same way. Wrong. Oh, how wrong! If the Scriptures are not guided by the Tradition of the Church, they can mean anything to anyone, as past history should have made clear to him. Had he never heard of Arius? This was Luther’s fault. If only he had been guided by the Church’s living Tradition…
3 “Faith alone”
Another example of going to the opposite extreme: The Roman Catholic Church had fallen into salvation by works, by following laws. Luther, reading Galatians 2:16-20, had rediscovered the need for personal faith. He was right. But then in his German translation of Galatians he had the audacity to add the word “alone”! We are justified by “faith alone”. Faith, not works. This became the key doctrine of Lutherans and most Protestants. However Paul never said that. In fact the only place those words are found in the New Testament is James 2: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone [!]… Faith without works is dead.” When this was pointed out Luther became as intransigent as the Pope. He called James “an epistle of straw” and said he wished he could take it out of the New Testament. All this from the man who taught “Scriptures alone”!
Exactly what Luther meant by “faith” can be debated. However, if good works and right living have nothing to do with our salvation, why should we behave ourselves? I once visited a man in our local jail who had violated almost all of the Ten Commandments. I asked him if this didn’t bother him. He answered, “No. I believe in Jesus. I’m saved by faith, not by works.” Certainly most classical Protestants don’t act this way. Indeed they do many good works, sometimes more than us Orthodox. But when asked, they quickly insist that their good works are not necessary for salvation. I’ve learned by experience here in super-Lutheran Wisconsin that if I even gently raise the issue to conservative Lutherans most withdraw into a shell. To them this un-Scriptural doctrine is an unchallengeable absolute. (We Orthodox believe they misunderstand the New Testament and Patristic concept of what salvation is all about. More about this in a minute.) This teaching and all that has come out of it was Luther’s fault. If only he had been guided by the Church’s living Tradition…
4 But how could Luther have been guided by the Church’s living Tradition?
Where could he have found it? Where could he have seen it? In the west it was so covered with accretions that it was almost invisible. Luther had read some of the eastern Fathers, but without experience with the living Tradition they are easily misunderstood. (I read Father Schmemann’s For the Life of the World before I was Orthodox and was perplexed by parts of it. After I had been Orthodox for a year, I read it again and suddenly it came clear.) And in Luther’s time the Orthodox Church in what had been the Orthodox eastern empire was behind the “Turkish curtain” and for the most part inaccessible, and Russia may as well have posted signs at its borders: “Visitors not welcome”. Even if he could have traveled east, Luther would have found the Orthodox Church under the Turks barely hanging on, unable to teach or proclaim the Gospel, and our bishops being turned into agents of the state. Luther rediscovered the Holy Scriptures but how could he have had access to the full living Tradition of the Church?
In 1576 some Lutheran theologians initiated correspondence with Patriarch Jeremiah I of Constantinople, hoping to find some support. Finally the Patriarch concluded the correspondence: “Please do not write to me again”, explaining that Orthodox did not want to be reformed by giving up prayers for the dead, devotion to the Theotokos and the saints, and icons, let alone adopting “Sola Scriptura”, “faith alone” and the like. And that was that till modern times.
5 The Big Mistranslation and Luther’s misunderstanding
I mentioned in Part 1 that the passage from Galatians (2:16-20) that turned Luther’s life around contained a mistranslation. Saint Jerome’s Vulgate and (I think) every western translation since has read like this: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ.” But the New Testament Greek says: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of (πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ. (I notice online that a few Protestants are daring to notice this even now.) Some Orthodox English translations use the same words “faith in Jesus Christ” – even our Antiochian Epistle book and the online English of the Greek Archdiocese! Why? Little words can mean lot, as we shall see.
But first, to understand this better, let’s look at the word “justified”, δικαιολογείται, from the Greek word δίκαιος, which in the Orthodox understanding means to “make righteous”, to be changed into the good, holy righteous persons God created us to be, made over into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Western Christians have understood the word “justified” in legal terms, to be “declared righteous or innocent” as in a law court. The problem was we are sinners, and in this world always are and always will be guilty. So how can we be declared innocent? Because, as Luther understood it, Christ stepped in, payed the legal penalty of our guilt on the Cross, and so God the Father declares us “not guilty”. Thus we escape the just punishment of going to hell. (I think this doctrine is found nowhere in the Scriptures.) I still hear exactly this on the Lutheran Hour here in Milwaukee: “Christ paid the penalty of our sins by dying on the Cross, and so we escape hell and can go to heaven.” All you have to do is put your faith in Jesus Christ and you’re “out of jail free”, so to speak. In the Orthodox view this from beginning to end is a complete misunderstanding of what justification is all about.
A man once told me, “Here’s what we do in our church. When someone visits we ask, ‘Do you want to be sure you’re going to heaven?’ If they say yes, we say ‘Just repeat this statement: I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior’, and you’ll be saved.” He asked me what I thought of it. I was so startled I could barely reply, “Well, that isn’t how we do it here.” I hasten to report that the man is now safely Orthodox!
Here is what Saint Paul is really telling us: The key to “becoming righteous” is to gain the faith of Jesus Christ, the total faith in his Father that Jesus had from the beginning to the end of his earthly life, through good times and bad, leading up to that horrible moment when he felt abandoned by his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he would not “come down from the Cross”. He had faith in his Father’s love and will for him.
How we get “the faith of Jesus Christ” is the same way he did, in terms of his earthly life. He immersed himself in the Tradition of Judaism: the Scriptures, the community, the prayers, the worship, the people, the stories of holy men and women, the moral life, and all else that went with it. And it rubbed off on him, so to speak, and became part of him. We attain that faith of Jesus Christ by doing what he did, by immersing ourselves in the holy community, the Church, the new Israel: the Scriptures, the prayers, the worship, the people, the stories of the saints, the moral life, and all else that goes with belonging to his Church. Above all the sacramental “mysteries” where in the Holy Eucharist Jesus literally pours himself and his faith into us. And so we gain the faith of Jesus Christ, and our life becomes his life, so that by his faith we can follow him through life and death and with him into Glory. It is good, of course, to have faith in Jesus Christ, to trust him, to follow him, to obey him. But that’s not what Paul is telling us here.
Saint Paul had made great progress in gaining the faith of Jesus Christ, for he dared to conclude like this: “I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
But Luther was trapped in the legalism of his time and couldn’t get beyond it: the penalty of our sins must be paid. This was not his fault. Almost all of us accept the common misunderstandings of our own times. Future generations, if the world endures, will look back at us in the early 21st century and wonder, “How ever could they all have believed that?”
6 The Splintering of Christianity
Luther had a choice to make: submit to the Roman Catholic Church and its perversions of the faith (and other things), or follow his conscience. Apparently he always hoped that what he had done would result in the “reformation” of the Church. But for centuries it caused Roman Catholics just to “dig in” and Protestants just to “protest”.
In his lifetime Luther was horrified to see that there were many differing interpretations of the Scriptures, and how others easily accepted the idea that any group of Christians could declare themselves “church”.
But so they did and so they do, till now there are thousands of Protestant denominations. In Wisconsin today there are three major Lutheran churches, none in communion with the others, and one which forbids even table prayers with other Lutherans. Before the Reformation there was The Church and all knew what it was. Now there are thousands of “churches”, small and large, liberal and conservative, each saying “We have the true understanding of Christianity.” Now it’s “cafeteria Christianity”. “Which ‘church’ should I choose?”. There is the story of an African tribal chief back in colonial days who wouldn’t let Christian missionaries in, saying, “I believe in Christ. But my people are now united. If I let you Christians in we will be torn apart.”
I was raised Protestant. I also had to choose – couldn’t avoid it. It was a quarter century process. I chose to go back to the Fountainhead, the Holy Orthodox Church, and let her teach me the Faith.
Next Week: Michael and Gabriel and all the Bodiless Powers of Heaven