Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. Continue reading


Christology and Reformation

I finally stopped ripping him off, and I decided to just come out and co-author a paper with Peter Escalante.  We were energized to take on the recent misuse of Christology in anti-Calvinist polemics.   The paper is over at the Credenda Agenda site now.  

The paper will read like inside baseball to a lot of y’all, and I apologize.  We felt that we needed to get down and dirty with a few points for the sake of those most intrigued by modern (and postmodern) “Christology.”  The thesis is actually pretty basic though- The traditional history is actually pretty close to correct when it comes to Christological theology.   The Reformed knew about this stuff and weren’t just poking their hands in the sand.

And most importantly, Christology should be about messiah and salvation.  Whenever other interests take up the majority of your interest, you’re misusing the categories.

More on Frankfurt

Thomas Noble’s Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians looks quite good.  A significant portion of it is available on googlebooks, and I’ve looked over as much of it as is available.  His treatment of Frankfurt is very helpful.  He notes that Frankfurt was:

1) A long time coming.  Alcuin and then Theodulf composed lengthy theological writings on the issue of images.  It was seen as authoritative for the churches within the Frankish empire.

2) Not wholly dependent on the faulty translation of Nicaea II.  Though they did use the portion on “adoration,” this was not all there was to their case.  It merely seemed the most outrageous statement among many bad statements, and the translation they were working with was the official one for the West.

3) Inconclusive for the West’s future.  The Pope was pro-icons, but, in the words of Noble, he “agreed to disagree” with the Franks.  He knew that they had very different views, and he knew better than to directly rebuke them.  The Franks, likewise, did not wish to wage war against the papacy at this time.  This compromise did, however, effectively state that Nicaea II was neither “universal” nor “ecumenical” in the Western mind.

A Few Patristic Sources Against Icons

The early church is a complicated place.  The Reformers all claimed an antique heritage, truly believing that the original Christian doctrine was their own.  Now of course, anyone who reads deeply into the fathers knows that this claim is easier said than done.  Many times the record is mixed, but the Reformers used that very point to show that the controverted doctrine was not truly catholic.

The liturgical use of icons is one of the disputed points which has a mixed foundation in the early church.  Most people are familiar with the 2nd Council of Nicaea, which demanded the veneration of icons, citing it as apostolic.  Not as many people, however, know the opposing patristic voices.  To help counter-balance this, I have given just a few below.

Tertullian explains how the bronze serpent and the decoration on the ark of the covenant do not violate the 2nd commandment. Continue reading

History and Apologetics

Some of the contributing factors to “conversionitis” come from a false view of history.

Many fundamentalists have a skewed narrative, assuming some sort of “great apostasy of the Church” after the death of the last apostle.  The true religion was, according to this story, recovered at the time of the Reformation.  The presupposition here is that what “really counts” is a correct systematic formulation or perhaps purity of morals among the Church’s ministers.

RC and EO traditionalists have their own narrative, of course.  They presuppose that there has been a drastic falling away at some point in history, but the first five to eight centuries (depending on who you are talking to) indeed represent the apostolic Church.  The assumption of correct systematic formulation is about the same as the first group.

Liberals also tell their story.  They find discontinuity all around, and thus they assume that there is no united Church, or at least no such thing as “orthodoxy.”  Again, the assumption of correct systematic formulation is retained, only its absence serves as conclusive proof.

All of these historical narratives are false.  Continue reading

Richard Field on the Development of Purgatory

In explaining how many of the medieval Roman errors came into being, Richard Field relies on men like Jean Gerson and William of Ockam.  He also displays a strong grasp of the patristics in his own right.

Regarding the subject of purgatory, Field states that the idea that the Pope, or anyone else for that matter, could dispense extra merit to advance the soul from purgatory to heaven was a totally unheard of notion.  Tied as it is to the larger Roman soteriological system, Field is confident in his assertions of Rome’s fraudulent claims to antiquity.

But regarding the actual history of purgatory, Field admits the story is more complicated.  This is where many evangelicals are easily confused, by the way.  They have certain assumptions about “the early church,” and in the event that something appears in the early church, in “seed form” as Newman would say, they assume that the later development is thus vindicated.  In this instance of purgatory, however, this cannot be the case.  Field explains:

But if we speak of a declination from the sincerity of the Christian faith, it is certain it began long ago, even in the first ages of the Church.  Of this sort was the error that the souls of the just are in some part of hell till the last day, as Tertullian (De Anime, c. 55) , Irenaeus (Contra Haereses v.31), and sundry other of the ancient did imagine (Sixtus Senens. Biblioth. lib. vi. annot. 345); and that they see not God nor enjoy heaven’s happiness, till the general resurrection, which was the opinion of many of the fathers.

That all catholic Christians, how wickedly soever they live, yet holding the foundation of true Christian profession, shall in the end, after great torments endured in the world to come, be saved “as it were by fire.”  This was the error of sundry of the ancient, who durst not say as Origen, that the angels that fell shall in the end be restored: nor, as some other, mollifying the hardness of Origen’s opinion, that all men, whether Christians or infidels: nor, as a third sort, that all Christians, how damnably soever erring in matter of faith, shall in the end be saved: but thought it most reasonable, that all right believing Christians should find mercy, whatsoever their wickedness were (Hieron. in comment. in Esaiae lxvi.; Aug. de civitate Dei, li. 21, cap. 24, 25, 26, 27)

~Of the Church, Bk. III Chpt. 9 p 176

Purgatory used to be Hell, from which men were eventually redeemed.  Though some teachers could maintain universalism (Gregory of Nyssa comes to mind), many could not, and the doctrine “developed” fairly drastically.

This sort of reading of Church history is not of much comfort to the recent ex-fundamentalist.  In rejecting the “great apostasy” theory of their forefathers, they earnestly hoped to find some sort of respectable pristine “early church” upon which they could base their theology.  What they will actually find is much messier.

Of course, in rudiments and genealogy, we all come from the “early church.”  However, when it comes to systematic theology, there is an awful lot of water under everyone’s bridge.

You can read all of Field’s Of the Church here.

Calvin on the Tradition of the Fathers

In his preface to the Institutes, addressed to the king of France, John Calvin gives his own view of the patristic tradition and how it relates to the situation prior to the Reformation.  Both admiration and critique can be seen in Calvin’s outlook.  He writes:

4. It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours.  While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin. Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves.

It is not without cause (remark our opponents) we are thus warned by Solomon, “Remove not the ancient landmarks which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28). But the same rule applies not to the measuring of fields and the obedience of faith. The rule applicable to the latter is, “Forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house” (Ps. 45:10). But if they are so fond of allegory, why do they not understand the apostles, rather than any other class of Fathers, to be meant by those whose landmarks it is unlawful to remove? This is the interpretation of Jerome, whose words they have quoted in their canons. But as regards those to whom they apply the passage, if they wish the landmarks to be fixed, why do they, whenever it suits their purpose, so freely overleap them? Continue reading

Pope Gregory XIII on Queen Elizabeth I

Basilica, though moving slowly, is attempting to address the various positions on Church and State that existed in the Reformation times.  One thing that many people do not realize is just how radical the Roman Catholic position was regarding civil authority.  They taught that all civil authority (every “human creature” as Unam Sanctam says) must submit to the bishop of Rome.  In the event that this did not occur, the civil authority was considered to be null.  Pius V declared this of Queen Elizabeth of England.

This position became more extreme as powerful monarchs left the Roman church.  Assassinations were ordered and carried out (Henry of Navarre comes to mind, as well as the Gunpowder plot in England), and this was a consistent product of the Roman doctrine.  It is important to note that this was not some accidental phenomena carried out by confused followers, but rather it was the Roman position on civil authority.  Here is a quote from the Cardinal of Como, speaking on behalf of Gregory XIII’s papacy, written to the papal ambassador in Spain and meant to inspire Spanish hostilities against England:

Since that guilty woman (Elizabeth) … is the cause of so much injury to the Catholic faith… There is no doubt that whosoever sends her out of the world with the pious intention of doing God service, not only does not sin but gains merit, especially having regard to the sentence pronounced against her by Pius V of holy memory.  And so, if those English gentlemen decide actually to undertake so glorious a work, your lordship can assure them that they do not commit any sin.

This is a breathtaking quote, but quite understandable within the Roman system.  This also shows you something of how the Reformation actually occurred and definitely explains why King James thought that the militant Presbyterians were Romanizers.

This Gregory was the same pope who celebrated the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by ordering a Te Deum to be sung in its commemoration.

Empire and the Early Church

Peter Heather, in his The Fall of the Roman Empire, describes the way in which the Christian Church came to enjoy its role as a public institution. He notes, “After Constantine’s public adoption of Christianity, the long-standing claims about the relation of the state to the deity were quickly, and surprisingly easily, reworked” (123).  Heather is going to refute many of the claims of Edward Gibbon, those that assert Christianity had a violent effect upon the empire.  This will also contradict the lesser known claims, though important to my ecclesiastical community, of Rushdoony in his The Foundations of Social Order. (It really is a terrible book.  Perhaps one day I will take the time to refute some of its claims myself, but for now I will simply say that it could hardly be farther from the actual way history unfolded.)

Heather describes the instillation of Christianity quite succinctly, and I will be happy to simply quote some of his best lines.  Heather writes:

At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity thus made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God’s vehicle in the world…

This ideological vision implied, of course, that the emperor, as God’s chosen representative on earth, should wield great religious authority within Christianity.  As early as the 310s, within a year of the declaration of his new Christian allegiance, bishops from North Africa appealed to Constantine to settle a dispute that was raging among them.  This established a pattern for the rest of the century: emperors were now intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s administration.  To settle disputes, emperors called councils,  giving bishops the right to use the privileged travel system, the cursus publicus, in order to attend.  Even more impressively, emperors helped set the agendas to be discussed, their officials orchestrated the proceedings, and state machinery was used to enforce the decisions reached.  More generally, they made religious law for the Church– Book 16 of the Theodosian Code is entirely concerned with such matters– and influenced appointments to top ecclesiastical positions.

The Christian Church hierarchy also came to mirror the Empire’s administrative and social structures.  Episcopal dioceses reflected the boundaries of city territories (some even preserve them to this day, long after they have lost all other meaning).  Further up the sale, the bishops of provincial capitals were turned into metropolitan archbishops, enjoying powers of intervention in the new, subordinate sees.  Under Constantine’s Christian successors, the previously obscure Bishop of Constantinople was elevated into a Patriarch on a par with the Bishop of Rome– because Constantinople was the ‘new Rome.’  Very quickly, too, local Christian communities lost the power to elect their own bishops.  From the 370s onwards, bishops were increasingly drawn from the landowning classes, and controlled episcopal successions by discussions among themselves.  With the Church now so much a part of the state– bishops had even been given administrative roles within it, such as running small-claims courts– to become a Christian bishop was not to drop out of public life but to find a new avenue into it.  If the Christianization of Roman society is a massively important topic, an equally important, and somewhat less studied one, is the Romanization of Christianity.  The adoption of the new religion was no one-way street, but a process of mutual adaptation that reinforced the ideological claims of emperor and state.


This imperial character of the early church cannot be overestimated.  This is how we came to have “ecumenical councils.”  This is why some councils won out over others.  This would be why there developed “Eastern” and “Western” branches of the Church, and this civil character of ecclesiastical organization is also why there could come to be “Byzantine” Christianity or “Frankish” catholicism.

This is also why the Protestant Reformation could happen.  Different in so many ways, Martin Luther and Henry VIII both understood the role of princes in church polity.