That’s a truth that exists in my brain that occasionally gets dredged up when I’m talking about theology, but I don’t think I really know it in my heart. Not when it matters, anyway. When life gets frustrating, I lose myself to anxiety, stress, and disappointment. God’s plan may be a theory I’m aware of, but it’s not a reality I’m living into. To put it in meme terms:
It’s not all that Christian of me.
I’ve been wondering, “How can I trust more when things are going wrong?” This poem by 19th century Austrian poet Rainer Rilke told me exactly really helped me reframe things:
The Man Watching Rainer Maria Rilke
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I can’t bear without a friend, I can’t love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on across the woods and across time, and the world looks as if it had no age: the landscape, like a line in the psalm book, is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things do by some immense storm, we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us. I mean the Angel who appeared to the wrestlers of the Old Testament: when the wrestlers’ sinews grew long like metal strings, he felt them under his fingers like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel (who often simply declined the fight) went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh hand, that kneaded him as if to change his shape. Winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Gorgeous. One line that especially stands out to me: “When we win, it is with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small.” My worries are so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Christians throughout time have been subject to starvation, torture, and the threat of death, and they trusted God. Here I am, terrified about tiny things. I’m fighting over details, and that fighting makes me small. What would it take to give up my fighting and surrender to something far greater? To willingly be defeated by God and trust that it’s for my benefit?
I also love Rilke’s tone. It is, to quote the poem itself “seriousness and weight and eternity.” In contrast to so many modern preachers that portray the life of faith this carefree and delightful romp, Rainer doesn’t shy away from the challenge of faith. God will demand everything. He is the storm on the horizon. His angels will handle your sinews like strings. God is terrifying. The solution isn’t resisting the storm; it’s giving in.
We won’t be the same after the encounter. Jacob, the patriarch that he’s referencing, walked with a limp after his wrestling match. I doubt he wanted a limp, but he got one. He wrestled with the divine, and he was transformed. Not in the way he expected, mind you, but he trusted that this new self was a better self. So many of the heroes of faith were transformed through events that I can’t imagine them asking for. Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son. Noah was asked to watch a civilization-ending flood. Elijah hid while he was hunted by the authorities. Jeremiah the prophet was thrown into a cistern. Even Jesus, the grand revelation of God himself, was crucified. God’s action isn’t all sunshine and roses. It’s scary, but we have to trust that it’s good.
Rainer challenges us to trust with the full knowledge that it won’t end up the way we sinful beings would like. The only victory worth having is our own defeat. I only hope I can stop trying to squeeze out victories over tiny things and start losing the battle that matters.
I’m doing a little class about the cross at my church, and this week we’re looking at the Christus Victor model of atonement. It presents Christ’s death on the cross primarily as a victory over evil. In ancient times, it was usually tied to the ransom theory of atonement (Jesus was given over to Satan/evil as a payment in exchange for humanity), so you can find these great old stories about Jesus going to Hell and wrecking everything to save the saints.
The book we are using for the study (The Sign and the Sacrifice by Rowan Williams) mentioned one such account from the fourth-century apocryphal book The Acts of Pilate (aka the Gospel of Nicodemus). Naturally, I wanted to read it firsthand! Unfortunately, there’s no accessible copy online. The best I could find was the version in The Apocryphal New Testament by Montague Rhodes James, published in 1924, which translates everything into Shakespearean English. There’s thee’s and thou’s and all those other old words that make reading infinitely harder. I went ahead and paraphrased the translation there so it was actually readable and I thought I’d share it. This is not a translation! It’s my attempt to make the James translation readable for a modern audience. Feel free to check out the original here (at the bottom of p. 117). I started paraphrasing at Christ’s descent into Hell (about halfway through The Acts of Pilate), and I stopped just shy of the real end of the text (I ended with Jesus leaving Hell, but all of the saints give praise and hallelujahs for a few more paragraphs). This is based on the Latin A manuscript.
If you don’t know anything about apocryphal books or atonement theories, you might be asking, “Why on Earth would I want to read that” Well, it’s basically a fourth-century fanfiction about Jesus going to Hell after his death on the cross. He fights Hell (yes, Hell is a being in this one) and Satan, and he busts Adam and his friends out and takes them to Heaven. It may not be Scripture, but it’s really cool and well worth your time.
To make sure this isn’t the longest blog post ever, here’s a link:
I ran across the poet-priest George Herbert for the first time this week, much to my delight. I’d heard of John Donne (of Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God fame), but I had no idea that there was a whole group of 17th century English poets that had an interest in religious writing! Apparently, they’re called the metaphysical poets. Not all of them cover religious topics like Donne and Herbert, but a hearty chunk of them did. The idea of the poet-priest was popular in that day!
George Herbert was kind of a hotshot in his younger years. He went to school to become a priest, but ended up becoming the public orator at Cambridge, serving in parliament, and personally knowing the king. After the king died, he quietly left the political scene and finally got ordained. He served 2 rural churches and wrote poetry until his death at age 39. His poetry career wasn’t some way he secretly tried to stay in the limelight; he sent his poems to a publisher when he was on his deathbed for them print if they thought it might “turn to the advantage of any dejected poor soul.”
I’m astounded at his humility. He mingled with some of the most elite Englishmen of his era! To turn around and take a job as a rural priest where the churches are so small that you’re expected to cover two of them? That’s a massive shift. But he seems to have enjoyed it. He wrote a manual to help country priests, A Priest to the Temple, which speaks of the job in the highest possible terms:
The countrey parson is exceeding exact in his life, being holy, just, prudent, temperate, bold, grave in all his wayes.
George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple, Ch. 3
That doesn’t sound like someone that’s inwardly miserable. It sounds like someone who genuinely believes they’re doing something of the utmost importance. He may have left the world’s seat of power, but to him, the rural pastorate seemed every bit as glorious as what happened in the king’s court.
In any case, today I just wanted to look at his famous poem, The Altar. It’s been running through my head all week, and it’s really been inspiring me to think about work differently (this poem was printed in an era where the letter s often looks a lot like f, so read accordingly):
It’s a gorgeous poem. It’s rare to see linguistic and visual artistry paired so seamlessly. Different disciplines are all too often siloed, robbing us of possibilities like this. The particular line that I keep coming back to is, “sanctify this altar to be thine.” What a bold request. Obviously, it works in the context of the poem to refer to his heart, but since the poem is in the shame of an altar, it works on another level: Herbert is asking God to sanctify his work itself! He gave of himself and his time to create this poem, and now he asks God to bless it.
I don’t know how often I consider my work something to lay at the feet of God. I’m usually caught up in thinking about how many people will like it, or if it will make me look impressive or silly or whatever else. But if I sincerely give something my all and dedicate it to God, wouldn’t that be blessingworthy? Even if the world hates it, I have to imagine he’d enjoy it, and what matters more than that? No wonder George was so humble. He was serving the world, but working for the approval of an audience of one.
Back in seminary, I remember one of my friends getting frustrated about the syllabus of our theology class. It focused on 3 theologians: Augustine, Aquinas, and Kathryn Tanner. She pulled me aside and vented, “How dare they present this as theology? It’s an ethnocentric, biased, racist presentation of what ‘theology’ is.” Being a little more moderate (and excited to delve into Augustine), I responded, “Well, you’ve got more diversity there than you think. You’ve got an Italian guy from the middle ages, an American woman from today, and Augustine is ancient and from… what… like modern Algeria or something? That’s 2 genders, 3 continents, and 3 eras.” Her response was simple: “Augustine has been co-opted by white people for generations. He’s effectively white at this point. You can’t count him as a diverse voice.”
I don’t want to argue about whether the class was biased. Of course it was! There is no unbiased presentation of information. In choosing which voices to include, you always create a bias. If anything, I think the voices from that class have a more Catholic bias than anything else! But that’s neither here nor there. I’m more interested in her response: Augustine isn’t African. He’s effectively white. For those unfamiliar with him, Augustine is the father of Western Christian orthodoxy (Protestant and Catholic) and was born in Algeria when it was under Roman rule. Admittedly, I don’t know that I’ve heard a lot of people discuss him as a non-white, non-Western source. He usually makes his way into discussions as a primarily Latin-speaking, Roman source (a factor that I assume made her consider him “effectively white”).
There are reasons for that! The Roman Empire stretched across continents and encompassed multiple nationalities. Ideas about who is “white” wouldn’t have been relevant in that era. Racial stereotypes still existed, but not in the form that they take today. When we say things like, “Augustine was not white,” it’s an anachronistic statement. But still, we view the past with the lenses that we wear today. Why is it that the ancient fathers of the Church born in Africa are often seen as basically European?
Thomas Oden took a solid stab at this question in his book, “How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.” It’s relatively readable, but he is pretty bad about name-dropping. Any given chapter includes the name of 10 or more ancient theologians, most of which the average person will not recognize. I’m just going to pick three theologians that he named that are worth talking about: Augustine, Athanasius, and Anthony of Egypt. Auggie is the father of traditional Western Christianity, Athanasius is a bishop from Egypt that helped officially establish that Jesus was equally God with the Father (some people at the time were saying he was a lower-tier assistant to God, rather than the real deal), and Anthony is the father of monasticism who I’ve written about previously here. Each one of these men is African, but rarely has that aspect of their identity acknowledged.
Oden takes a solid stab at uncovering Augustine’s legitimate, non-white ethnicity:
It is likely that Augustine had a mother with Berber background from a family that converted to Christianity at least a generation before his birth in 354. Monica would not have become any less ethnically African just because she married a military officer with a Roman-sounding name. Augustine was born and raised in a remote inland Numidian town (Thagaste) with mixed racial stock. The rock carvings from Neolithic times in Numidia show occupation dating back ten thousand years. Among Augustine’s known family and friends were people who had Berber, Punic, Numidian, Roman and even Libyan names.
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, Kindle Locations 528-532
Someone with a family rooted in Northern Africa is logically probably from Northern Africa. Latinized names were gradually adopted by native populations during their time in the Roman Empire, so they certainly aren’t proof of ethnicity. Either way, a man that was born in Africa, worshipped in Africa, spoke to Africans, and died in Africa ought to be considered African. When Romans based their logic on Augustine’s theology, they were following the foremost thinker of Africa, not Europe.
Then we have Athanasius of Alexandria. Again, we have a similar situation regarding name. Athanasius’s Greek-sounding name that would have been popular in the region after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, but Greeks would have been a minority population in Egypt. The average person, even in metropolitan areas like Alexandria, was Egyptian. Greece left the imprint of their language and their philosophers, but those ideas were taken up and developed by the people who did the majority of the eating, breathing, living, and thinking across that landmass. As a bishop, Athanasius worked regularly with churches that stretched deep into modern Egypt, almost bordering modern day Sudan. This population wouldn’t have known Greek! They’d have spoken a language like the native Egyptian Nilotic. He was someone who spoke to, cared for, and related to the people of Egypt. Even some of the metaphors that he uses reflect a mind that is distinctively Egyptian! When people like Athanasius talked about eternal life or spiritual ascent, those terms were packed with meaning that were inherited from ancient Pharaonic religion. They spoke to him and the people he knew because of their cultural heritage.
And then there’s Anthony. Favorite saint of mine, Anthony. Anthony helped popularize Christian monasticism and is often considered the first Christian monk. Not only was he Egyptian, but the ultramajority of people that followed him out to the desert would have been Egyptian peasants. The academics among them may have written in Greek to make their ideas accessible, but they would have regularly spoken Egyptian Nilotic. As people throughout Europe started monasteries, they were taking on a pattern of life that was developed by Africans.
With these three examples alone, I think it’s clear that the achievements of Africans in Christian theology have been unjustly ignored. Orthodoxy flowed from the South to the North for centuries! Europeans don’t get to lay claim to these men simply because they enjoyed their work. And it’s equally unjust to say that their theological work didn’t find lasting roots in African communities. There are churches in these regions that have been active for about 2000 years. If anything, those regions have a better claim to the title “traditionally Christian” than most places in Italy, England, or France. So why is there a bias in favor of Europe when it comes to claiming ownership over Christian thought?
That bias didn’t always exist. A popular story in medieval Europe was the legend of Prester John. He was this grand king from beyond the Islamic lands that controlled an ancient and powerful Christian kingdom. There were a lot of journeys to try to find him and ask for help! Mind you, he didn’t actually exist. Maybe they meant the King of Ethiopia, who fits the bill reasonably well? Apparently when Europeans made contact with Ethiopia, they insisted on calling the King “Prester John” (much to his confusion). Whether or not the myth had any grounding in reality, Europeans were aware that there were Christians elsewhere in the world. They were wise, they were important, and they were very much alive. Christianity wasn’t understood to be a European phenomenon.
Today, the cultural legacy of colonialism lives on in how we view theology:
We can hardly find these prejudices against Africa voiced anywhere where in Christian history until we get to the nineteenth century, especially to the writings of the French Enlightenment, German idealism and British empiricism. It was not until [then] that these prejudices became so standardized that they were accepted without question by educated Westerners-and by Western educated Africans.
Ibid., Loc. 555-557
In an era where Europe was casting off the vestiges of tradition and claiming an unbiased, “scientific” worldview, real Christianity became an intellectual property of Europe. Good ideas were emphasized as primarily European. Augustine became a Latin theologian. Athanasius and Anthony were assumed to be working from their Greek intellectual inheritance. Anything good that they wrote was suppposed to have come from their Western sensibilities; any anything that was obscure or odd was a product of unenlightened, superstitious nonsense that Europeans were fighting against.
Orthodoxy was redefined and reframed to fit the presiding worldview, and some of the diverse voices of the early Christians were whitewashed.
There’s something to be gained by seeing the famous theologians of the past for the diverse people that they were. That doesn’t necessarily mean we need to completely redefine the way we read them! If we try to wrap their faith around their ethnicity, we could end up creating the same kind of ethnocentric faith that the enlightenment brought us. We might be tempted to think about Augustine in terms of how African he was, or to have conversations about Anthony as primarily an Egyptian thinker. That’s all well and good, but both men would much rather be weighed by a more important measure: in terms of the truth that they were a witness to. Oden put it well:
Orthodox Christians do not admit skin color as a criterion for judging Christian truth. Never have. Never will. African Christianity is not primarily a racial story but a confessional story of martyrs and lives lived by faith active in love.
Ibid., Loc. 545-548
The benefit to recovering the full story of these saints is seeing just how vast the workings of God have been. Europe isn’t the alpha and the omega of historic Christian faith. Christianity belongs to the whole world, and it always has.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the top 1 percent of pastors for Bible memorization. Some people out there know every verse by heart, and the appropriate chapter and verse number. Not I. I know the broad strokes pretty well, but I can easily get stumped by the smaller stuff. For example, I played an old Bible Trivia game with my wife a few months back (more fun than it sounds, I swear), and one of the questions was about Samson violating his nazarite vows by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse. I had no memory of this happening and was thoroughly grossed out (if any of YOU break a promise to God by eating honey out of a dead lion corpse, I will judge you so hard, and not just for the promise-breaking). I’d still give myself maybe a 6.5 or 7 out of 10 on the pastor Bible memory scale, but on the whole, I rely on looking stuff up rather than just knowing it.
But this… this threw me.
Did you know Peter had a WIFE??? And this isn’t some lame, click bait title that refers to some apocryphal (non-canonical) book to get to a crazy conclusion. It’s in the New Testament:
When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.
Matt 8:14-15, NIV
How do you get a mother-in-law without a wife? You don’t. You need a wife to get a mother in law. This isn’t a one-off story either. It’s also recorded in both Mark and Luke.
Another passage that seems to confirm the rumor is 1 Corinthians 9:5:
Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?
Why would Paul specifically reference Peter (the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Cephas) to prove that he has the right to get married unless Peter was actually married and traveling with his wife? It’d be a pretty poor example otherwise.
Historically, there’s only one person I’ve ever heard someone talk about Peter’s wife: my mom. She brought it up to me a handful of times when we were chatting, and I always just nodded my head and smiled thinking, “ok, mom, whatever you say…” I’d never heard it in church. I’d never heard it in seminary. It’s just not all that popular to talk about! Probably because Peter’s wife never actually appears in the Bible. She’s just referenced indirectly. Nevertheless, it seems like a pertinent detail to me! My whole mental image of Peter is changed if he had a wife!
Looking around, it’s pretty rare to see someone challenge that Peter was married. Obscure though the reference in the Gospels may be, it is largely accepted as a legitimate translation. Peter was married. The bigger question in the tradition doesn’t seem to be “was Peter married,” so much as “was Peter’s wife alive at the time of the Gospels?”
There isn’t a ton of evidence to make things clear. We have the verses from earlier, and then we have a few references from the Church Fathers. Clement of Alexandria writes:
They say, accordingly, that the blessed Peter, on seeing his wife led to death, rejoiced on account of her call and conveyance home, and called very encouragingly and comfortingly, addressing her by name, “Remember thou the Lord.” Such was the marriage of the blessed and their perfect disposition towards those dearest to them.
Clement, The Stromata, Book VII
This is where things are a bit murky. Eusebius references Peter’s wife as well, but uses Clement’s citation to do so:
Clement, indeed, whose words we have just quoted, after the above-mentioned facts gives a statement, on account of those who rejected marriage, of the apostles that had wives. “Or will they,” says he, “reject even the apostles? For Peter and Philip begat children; and Philip also gave his daughters in marriage. And Paul does not hesitate, in one of his epistles, to greet his wife, whom he did not take about with him, that he might not be inconvenienced in his ministry.”
Eusebius, Church History III.31
Eusebius’s source is of especially poor quality, not only because it’s a secondary reference, but also because he references Paul having a wife. Paul directly writes that he is unmarried in 1 Corinthians 7:8. Certainly not a slam-dunk of a source, which leaves our primary patristic source as Clement.
Clement is a relatively controversial source to have. He was the teacher of Origen, a wildly popular Christian teacher and theologian in the early church, but he was anathematized (declared no-good) after his death for a variety of theological oddities, such as the belief in the existence of human souls before human birth and belief in potential of souls to be saved and fall again after death. The Alexandrian school of the early church was famous for their thinkers, but they were also heavily influenced by native Greek philosophy. They adopted its best pieces to develop their theology, while publicly rejecting other popular pieces that they saw as competing with the Gospel. It’s only natural that Alexandrians like Origin and Clement thought in ways that seem jarring to us today. Clement was also venerated in the Roman Catholic church until the 16th century when he was removed from the calendar by Pope Clement the VIII for being too controversial (or because he wanted to the top Clement in Church history and he had to dethrone this guy to get there). Either way, Clement is famous enough to have clout, but also controversial enough to raise an eyebrow.
The evidence for Peter’s wife being dead hinges on her absence in the Bible. If he’s married, where is his wife? Why isn’t she there? At minimum, she ought to be with her sick mother, right? Fair point. Unfortunately, it also has to contend with the 1 Corinthians reference. I regularly found the attempts to dismiss that passage clumsy. Some commentators said that “wife” didn’t actually mean wife in that context. Whenever I hear someone try to get clever with translations, I settle the matter by looking at the different translations in the most popular Bibles. NIV? Wife. NRSV? Wife. ESV? Wife. NASV? Wife. You get the picture. The lone outlier is the King James Version, which says “a sister, a wife,” which still comes across to me as a Shakespearean attempt to say “a sister in the faith aka a believing wife” given the context. In any case, I’ll take the legion of Bible translators that worked on all these versions over lone wolves that swear they have better translation skills. But there’s still the big question, “If Peter is married, why are there so few references to his wife?” That’s something I can’t answer.
I suppose the evidence could lead in either direction, depending on how you think. It’s not like this is a hill anyone really needs to die on. Peter’s marital status is not doctrinally crucial. The Scriptures were not written to illuminate Peter’s love life.
I stumbled down this whole rabbit hole last week after I found a reference to her in Martyrs Mirror (the Anabaptist martyr collection from last week’s entry). It portrayed her as an early martyr for the faith and illustrated the devotion to God that both of them had in their marriage. Personally? I love the idea. Not only is the evidence reasonable enough for my tastes, but I love the possibilities it brings to the table. It adds another woman in the apostolic era worthy of respect. It adds a married man among the disciples. They support each other in the faith, even through pain and suffering. I love it! Hopefully that excitement isn’t outweighing my logic. I totally acknowledge that the evidence is a little scarce for a figure as public as Peter. But even if I’m wrong and Peter was a widower, I think the story of Peter’s wife has so much to offer. It gives us a picture of a man that wasn’t just passionate about Jesus; he was someone who was alive! He lived! He loved! He lost! That is so human, and a human faith is one that grows deep roots in our souls. I hope that this little journey helps me share the story of the first generation of Christians in a more human way.
In a tearful, faltering, sobbing voice, the man cried out, “What should I say to my boy if I took money from you for our shame?”
Captain Snegiryov, Brothers Karamazov
Captain Snegiryov isn’t a major Brothers K. character at all. He is publicly beaten by the hotheaded Dmitri Karamazov for no particular reason and yanked around Town Square by his beard. All the townspeople laugh at the sight, except for the captain’s son. He begs the crowd for help with tears in his eyes before kissing Dmitri’s hand and begging for mercy. When Alyosha Karamazov, Dmitri’s kind brother, finds out what happened, he tries to make amends with Captain Snegiryov. The man is poor. He lives in a wretched shack. Half of his family has disabilities, and none of them are capable of working. 200 rubles would change his life, and Alyosha (who runs in some particularly wealthy circles) wants to help… but the scene ends in disaster. The captain realizes that taking money from one of the wealthy Karamazovs after his humiliation would prove to his son that the rich can do whatever they want to the poor, and justice is dictated by the powerful. In a deeply conflicted moment, he throws the money on the ground at Alyosha’s feet and storms away in tears. His integrity demands he not accept their money, but that same sense of integrity has doomed him and his family to a life of poverty.
His cry for justice resonated with me this week as I’ve been pondering how we address injustice in our churches. Anybody who’s been in a church knows that sin happens, often in a way that never gets addressed. Time passes and circumstances improve, tempting us to move on from our frustration and live into the new, comfortable norm. But should we? Does forgiveness involve letting go of injustices that will never be accounted for? Or is accepting the new post-frustration reality the equivalent of taking our 200 rubles and selling out?
A few asides before I investigate: I want to avoid the standard response of, “well, if mistakes were made in the church, you should seek out a leadership position and do your best to make sure they don’t happen again.” Churches are massive entities, often with deeply entrenched power structures, and change takes years of work to realize. Being wronged shouldn’t condemn the victim to years of work in the hope of making a difference. And what about people whose talents lie elsewhere? Should they be pressed into leadership because they were sinned against? I hope not. I also recognize that as a person in church leadership, I’ve made wrong choices. Not all of my decisions were the right ones, or even fair ones for that matter, and it definitely frustrated people. Leadership is hard. Every decision has the chance of being unpopular or erroneous. I hope the ones that I’ve made haven’t pushed anyone out of churches I’ve served in, but I am as much a perpetrator of injustice as I am a victim. I don’t get to rail against the authority, since I’m a part of it.
Onward to the question!
It’s not that sin within the institutional church is especially rare. Gobs of famous saints were persecuted by other Christians. There’s St. John of the Cross (thrown in prison), John Chrysostom (exiled), Evagrius Ponticus (anathematized after death and followers persecuted) , John Calvin (exiled, attacked), Martin Luther (exiled, anathematized, attacked)… you get the picture. Churches are supposed to be beacons of hope! The hands and feet of God! The joy and goodness of the future on Earth now! But here are some of our famous saints, beaten down by the very hands that were supposed to hold them up. Some of the frustration can obviously be chalked up to the fact that they were usually persecuted by people who didn’t recognize them as properly Christian, but that doesn’t change the fact that institutional churches (full of people that bare the title ‘Christian’) have historically caused a great deal of injustice against the very people that they now recognize as worth listening to.
What do we do with the memory of injustice after we are hurt? How do we honor our integrity while moving on?
All of this got me to go pick up Martyrs Mirror. I stumbled across this Anabaptist classic during a day of community service about 10 years back. I was assigned to washing windows throughout the town with a Mennonite lady. I wasn’t much good at washing windows. I swear I tried my best, but I was a 21 year old guy with a messy apartment and she had spent over 10 years as a housekeeper. As you can imagine we had different standards of cleanliness. I’d see a spotless window and she’d see a mess. In any case, we got to chatting as she politely redid my work, and somehow she brought up Martyrs Mirror. I told her I’d never heard of it and she insisted that every Mennonite household owned one before sharing some stories from it.
It’s turned out to be a great tool to help work through some of this. The early Anabaptists (a broad category of Christians including modern Mennonites and Amish) were pretty much killed by everyone when they first popped up in Reformation-era Europe. It didn’t matter if you were Lutheran, Calvinist, or Catholic; you probably hated Anabaptists. Martyrs Mirror is their book of remembrance. Here, they weaved together the accounts of their persecution with the historical stories of persecution from Christian tradition, both in the institutional church and outside of it. On one page, there’s someone who died for witnessing their faith in a region where Christianity was punishable by death. On the next, you’ll find someone who was destroyed from within the church for getting behind an unpopular doctrine or making the wrong enemies. They moved beyond the triumphal stories of people who won handily in the church through sheer prestige and charisma (lookin’ at you, Augustine) and sought out the stories of the wronged to find solidarity. In these pages, there’s no sense that good theology or good people will win the day. If anything, bad theology and bad people win far more often than you’d hope! Real Christians face real pain, both in the church and outside it. Faith isn’t always about thriving materially in this world, so much as witnessing beautifully to it.
The intro cuts right to the core of the work:
Most beloved, do not expect that we shall bring you into Grecian theatres, to gaze on merry comedies or gay performances… True enough, we shall lead you into dark valleys, even into the valleys of death (Ps. 23:4),where nothing will be seen but dry bones, skulls, and frightful skeletons of those who have been slain…Yet to look upon all this will not cause real sadness, for though the aspect is dismal ac-cording to the body, the soul will nevertheless rejoice in it, seeing that not one of all those who were slain preferred life to death, since life often was proffered them on condition that they depart from the constancy of their faith.
Martyrs Mirror, 10
You’re not about to get your happy worlly show. That’s right out. Instead, you’ll get something morbid: death. But this death is livelier than anything that Homer could churn out. This is the vital death of Christ that we have the privilege of living out.
The imagery moving forward is distinctly triumphal. These are heroes, fighting in glorious combat, seizing the ultimate prize. At one particularly noteworthy part, they reference “the knight of Christ” (no idea who he is) who was killed. The resulting theological poem, Accolade to a Champion, is downright Arthurian:
Climb up your golden height, champion of the band of holy souls, who followed God’s red banner of blood, in oppression and in the midst of misery; where naught but the smoke and vapor of human burnt sacrifices ascended to the clouds; yet thou, hero, didst go before them, yea, didst fight thy way through the strait gate to the wide Heaven.
Martyrs Mirror, 11
It’s worth mentioning that Anabaptists are traditionally peace churches. All violence is considered to be a sin. It’s better to die than to kill. Here, traditional heroic imagery of the brave knight is subverted to make the murdered victim the hero of renown. It’s certainly not an unheard of stylistic choice, but it seems especially powerful when it’s used by someone for whom violence was never an option. You know that at they genuinely believe, even in tremendous suffering, that “all things work together for good to them that love God,” (Rom.8:28).
There’s a million martyr stories in this book, but one that I’ve always held up as particularly awesome (and that the window washing Mennonite particularly enjoyed) is the story of Dirk Willems. Dirk got arrested for being an Anabaptist in the Catholic Netherlands. He managed to escape the prisons by making a rope out of bed sheets, and he was running across a frozen lake to his freedom with a guard hot on his heels. Dirk was so malnourished from his time in prison that he could run across the ice without trouble, but the guard had eaten well while Dirk starved. The ice broke beneath him, and he fell in, screaming for help. Dirk heard the guard’s cry for help and turned around. He pulled the drowning guard out of the freezing water. His choice to help was a costly one: he was recaptured, tortured, and burned at the stake. He saved the man who doomed him.
There’s not many stories that illustrate injustice as well as this one, but Dirk isn’t remembered because the Catholic Church must now be punished, or because Anabaptists are now obligated to create structures that somehow correct the problems that occurred in this instance. The remembrance isn’t a burden; it’s a joy. Dirk was a hero. We remember him because we hope to be like him, and ultimately, like Jesus.
What do we do with our injustices? How do we remember them? Maybe we don’t. We remember the good that was done in spite of the evil that was wrought. That’s not to say we’re barred from seeking change or finding a new community to be with if the hurt is too much to bear, but we can’t count on the institutional church to be just! It is limited by ignorance, sin, and flaws just as much as anything in this world. The only way to move forward after injustice is the hardest way of all: be the Christian we’re meant to be. Forgive the sinners. Shine with all the holiness that God offers and know that regardless of what our church did or what it does in the future, we are free to be what God called us to be: a saint.
Anthony of Egypt is one of the most meaningful Christian mentors I’ve ever had, and he lived over a thousand years ago as a poor, solitary monk in the Egyptian desert. All I have from him is a biography that someone else wrote (I mean, the famous bishop Athanasius wrote it, so, to be fair, it’s pretty good), a few letters of questionable authorship (they use some pretty technical terminology for a poor, uneducated monk), and some wise quotes from The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (a collection of wise quotes from 4th century monks in the Egyptian desert). Even though he doesn’t have the same body of work as someone like Augustine or Calvin, Anthony is so much more than his writings. He’s the holy man that drew a generation of Christians out to the desert. He’s the father of monks. He’s the originator of monastic wisdom. He’s a legend.
I love Anthony. And since January 17th was his official memorial/feast day/commemoration/whatever other name for celebrating a saint the different denominations can come up with, I wanted to take a minute and appreciate him.
Anthony, or Abba (father) Anthony, as the desert monks would have known him, offers a spirituality that’s untethered by the quest for hedonistic pleasure and self-fulfillment that modern spirituality is so often tied to. He didn’t pray because he needed a divine favor or because he was hoping that he’d get some sense of euphoria from the experience. No, this is someone who gave everything for God. He bled for God. He hungered for God. He had an uncomfortable, no holds barred spirituality that commanded that he give over everything and spend every second in service to properly live the Christian life.
If all of that suffering makes it sound like he had some weird system of works righteousness or was a wild masochist, I assure you that isn’t at all what he was like. He just loved God. He would do anything that God asked of him, regardless of the physical toll it would take. Take, for example, his reaction to the classic verse Matthew 19:21:
[Anthony] entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man Matthew 19:21, ‘If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.’ Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from the church, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers
(Life of St. Anthony, 2)
Who actually does that? It takes an iron will to legitimately actually do what Jesus said to do in that instance. We usually spiritualize it away or say that it really only applied to the specific person that Jesus was talking to in the story, but Anthony? He just… gave away everything. He didn’t even take a week to think about it! He knew what God wanted, and so he did it, regardless of the cost.
That leads to an intense war with devils and demons in the early part of his biography. The devil comes in and reminds him of his past wealth, or tries to distract him with his own lust or boredom, and Anthony responds with prayer, conquering the Devil’s temptations through the power of God. These scenes are often wildly dramatic. My favorite is when he travels into a tomb filled with demons to pray and demons show up and beat him all night. The villagers find him and take him back to town and try to heal him, but when he regains his consciousness, what does he do? Asks to be carried back to the tomb, where he screams to the horde of demons:
Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more. Nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ! (Rom 8:35)
(Life of St. Anthony, 9)
and then he starts singing some of his favorite hymns until the demons show up again in the forms of animals to resume their attack. Now, is this a literal story? Probably not. I don’t think that demons can just physically show up in the form of animals and start pummeling you (at least, it hasn’t happened to me just yet), and I can’t imagine a village of people finding you half dead in a demon tomb and then throwing you back in the next day, even if you begged them. But it’s a really neat way of expressing the spiritual journey that Anthony went on to die to this world, the temptations that he wrestled with with along the way, and how his efforts to live a holy life weren’t something that gave him any degree of physical comfort. He didn’t do it to feel good. He did it because he loved God and wanted to be closer to him. He emerges from the tomb with an ultradramatic ray of light from heaven coming down on him, showing that Anthony’s love and obedience have made him holy.
The biography might be ultra-cheesy, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in there. And his wisdom sayings are even more approachable, as found in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. My personal favorite is:
A brother said to Abba Anthony, “Pray for me.” The old man said to him, “I will have no mercy upon you, nor will God have any, if you yourself do not make an effort and if you do not pray to God.
(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 4)
Some of the other quotes are more comforting than that one, but to me, this captures the rigorous spirituality of Anthony’s life. You want to grow holy? Stop talking about it and do it. You don’t need a new book on your shelf. You don’t need the right person to pray. You don’t need some fancy new technique. You need to get up, stop making excuses, and do it. As John Chrysostom said so eloquently, “human effort is profitless without help from above; but no one receives such help unless they themselves choose to make an effort,” (Philokalia, Loc. 13,333). Anthony’s little warning to pray for yourself is one that I come back to a lot. When my spiritual life is bad and I’m frustrated, I have to ask myself, am I actually putting in time and effort? Or am I just expecting God to work magic on me while I go about my life as I choose to live it. It’s a call to repent and live life intentionally, and if there’s any lesson I hear from the father of monks, it’s that the Christian life takes effort and intention.
Here’s the prayer from the Catholic breviary (Christian Prayer, 1064) for January 17th. Whether you feel comfortable praying it or not is up to you, but I’d like to close with it either way:
Father, You called Saint Anthony to renounce the world and serve you in the solitude of the desert. By his prayers and example, may we learn to deny ourselves and to love you above all things. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen
Continuing my grand tradition of reading way too many books at the same time, I picked up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity again this week. Lewis is so easy to read. When he writes, I find that he doesn’t have to persuade me about much. Instead, it’s almost like he’s uncovering all of the things I already believed in my heart, gathering them up, and presenting them back to me in a way far more logical and clever than I ever could have managed. Don’t get me wrong. I went through a period where I hated C.S. Lewis with a burning passion. When you’re a Christian that wants to learn more about faith, he’s one of the only serious theologians that many pastors seem to be comfortable prescribing. You’d get sick of anyone if they came up that many times! But ultimately he’s prescribed for a reason: he’s phenomenally good. Perhaps the closest thing to a mutual source of authority for Protestant churches in America.
In any case, this quote particularly struck me:
I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right- leaving out the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil and redemption. Both of these are boys’ philosophies. It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple.
Mere Christianity, 40
It was such a relief to hear that a man as distinguished as Lewis had experiences with pop faith that are so similar to ours today. After all, how many people do you know that are just Christian enough to acknowledge that God exists, but can’t imagine that this God would want anything aside from their own happiness? It’s so common! The term “moral therapeutic deism” is thrown around to describe that kind of faith today, and Lewis is talking about it all the way back in 1952. That flimsy faith rarely gets further than this: God exists and he wants us to be happy. Don’t be mean, love yourself, and everything will work itself out. The best of secular wisdom is echoed back at an individual with a tint of religious nostalgia. It’s distinctly frustrating to hear for those of us that are eager to dig in to Christianity as the core of our life, and a core that continually forces us to give things up, to repent, and to turn back to the baffling God that demands everything. A faith less than that would seem frivolous to us! As the famous agnostic philosopher Julian Barnes wrote, “there seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event (apart, of course, from the normal pleasures of a weekly social event), as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything,” (Nothing to be Frightened Of, 64).
On one hand, it was self-justifying. I remembering being in seminary and seeing that the United Methodist baptismal liturgy didn’t contain the traditional question “Do you reject the Devil and all of his works?” I asked the professor about the exclusion and his answer was blunt: “Oh, yes, they replaced that with ‘evil, injustice, and oppression.’ The governing body didn’t think they would be able to get the traditional language approved by a vote.” What a loss! It’s a tragedy to throw away a liturgy over a thousand years old because we’ve fixed the language with something moderns find more comforting. That stuck in my head. I imagined myself as the bold Christian, right alongside Lewis, representing the real faith for the world.
But don’t’ worry. That spiritual cockiness didn’t make it through the week.
I’ve been working on a little project to try to understand how we can be better at Christian service. And as since I want to be better at serving in a distinctly Christian way, I have to understand what “Christian service” actually is and how it differs from other ways of serving it the world (community service, quid pro quo, etc.). It’s been a delightful adventure so far. A challenging one too! I’ve begun by recording each narrative of service in the book of Acts and then recording commonalities between the events to see what consistently comes to the top. And geeze! It’s convicting!
Two of the most common pieces of service in Acts are the invocation of the name of Jesus, and the proclamation of the Gospel. I have to ask myself, do I do them? Do I actually use the name Jesus? The name that caused scandal all those years ago because of the brash claims that accompanied it? Not really. I often use “God,” which is a name that’s a lot more culturally comfortable. It’s easy to say, causes less tension with other traditions, and is printed on all the money for maximum cultural complicity. And how often do I proclaim the Gospel apart from preaching and teaching in the church? The popular (and probably fake) St. Francis quote “Proclaim the gospel always. Use words when necessary,” suits my sensibilities so well. But is that what the apostles did? Or is it a way that I can comfortably move in a secular world without risking discomfort? I suppose none of this is “theology” in the way that Lewis meant it, but it’s certainly a way in which the faith I’m living is not like that of the Christians in the Bible. I may include the “terrible doctrines” about Hell and sin, but I exclude the terrible actions that would risk embarrassment as I move through the world.
Lewis not only believed uncomfortable truths in the comfort of his own mind, but he lived them out in the real world. And not always in a way that won him admiration! Close Christian friends like J.R.R. Tolkien thought he was too evangelistic, and more than a few promotions went to other people because he was “too Christian” for the taste of others (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 135). He’s proven himself invaluable one more time on my journey. On one hand, he gives a word that comforts. On the other hand, the same word cuts to the core. I hope my faith is never too comfortable, in thought or in deed.
Today’s entry is about a 19th century revivalist’s impact on the church. Admittedly, the 19th century is a little recent for my tastes, but I’ve been mulling over what the Church is, what its primary tasks are, and what it’s corporate existence ought to look like, and Finney seemed like someone worth engaging with.
Finney was trained as a lawyer, and after a conversion experience, decided to become a pastor. Legend has it that he showed up at a meeting with his legal client the next morning and told them, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 67) He’s certainly got some good quotes! He lived during the Second Great Awakening and worked in the “burned-over district” in New York, which was the cradle for all kinds of unorthodox and distinctly American religious traditions like Mormonism, spiritualism, and the Shaker community. In all of this excitement, Finney rose up as an incredibly popular revivalist preacher, partially because of his emphasis on choice. Americans were settling in to their new democracy and the power of personal choice was increasingly apparent. Finney acknowledged that power and urged them to make the choice to accept Jesus as their savior. Huge masses of people did just that at his urging.
One piece of his that has made its way through history are his “Lectures on the Revival of Religion.” It’s a series to to help other preachers adopt his revival techniques. A lot of it reads like any book on church growth today might, but what seems normal today was a landmark in it’s own time. Books about how to preach, set up churches, and perform worship in a way that will numerically grow your church weren’t common until around this time. This series represents a cultural watershed for the belief that pastors and churches ought to hold themselves accountable for proven practices that produce higher number of converts in their pews.
Here’s an excerpt that particularly interested me:
Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so many that cry “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” that the Church cannot maintain her ground without sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear. (Measures to Promote Revivals, 2.5)
He’s all for change! Innovate as necessary to reach more people with the Gospel. “Novelty” is your most valuable tool. So much of the modern church growth movement seems to take this kind of stance. The form of worship isn’t relevant. Adopt whatever form increases your numbers! The desirable end result is that people walk away claiming to have a relationship with God, not having followed some formula of when to sit, stand, and say the right thing. Why not have church in a pub, a coffee shop, a hiking trail, or wherever else people might show up? But I’m more than a little skeptical of Finney and his spiritual successors. Is this really the end game of the Church? And where is the fine line between reaching someone through familiar means and pandering to people?
At it’s worst, the logic reminds me a little of Odysseus and the Cyclops. You remember that story from grade school! When Odysseus and his crew were imprisoned in a cave by a Cyclops that planned on eating them, how did they escape? By blinding the Cyclops in the night, then tying themselves under his sheep. When the Cyclops let out his sheep to graze, he felt each sheep to make sure that no men were sneaking out. Sly ol’ Odysseus and his men escaped because they was hiding under the fuzz of the sheep! Are we Christians doing the same thing? Hiding Jesus under the comfortable wool of pop-culture, hoping that the general public is blind enough that they’ll let him sneak into the gates of their hearts?
When did Jesus ever try to be cool? I suppose this is where there’s some room for interpretation. You could argue that Jesus wasn’t trying to be “cool,” but he was never restricted to the traditional worship settings of his day. He reached out to people in new ways. For every Bible story set in a temple, there’s several set out in the world with random people. This approach is what the pub churches, hiking churches, and other innovators are trying to emulate. They want to reach out in new ways, just like Jesus did. I think they’ve got a point. If Jesus was following the strict religious orthodoxy of his day and emphasizing it above all else, one might expect more stories set in formal settings and more detail about official religious practice in the gospels.
Even so, I find that the Scriptures have a shocking amount laid out for what worship ought to look like, and that’s not even touching on the massive amount of stuff passed down through Church history. If we pay it any heed, it really hinders our attempts to make church cooler. For example, I’m not really one for singing. I don’t enjoy it all that much, I’m not very good at it, and a lot of times I think that the words are pretty lame. There was a period in my life where my ideal church didn’t have any singing at all because the REAL point of worship (in my mind) was being taught about the faith and responding with holy lives. Singing was just a goofy removable element.
And I was wrong. 2 Chronicles 29 shows a temple service in which song is a distinct, ordered part of worship. The psalms are a whole collection of worship songs, many of which repeatedly urge people to make music because God likes it. Colossians and Ephesians both urge people in churches to sing spiritual songs and psalms. You get the picture. Each of these instances are not only represented in Scripture; they were taken on by the people after them
Not to suggest that Finney hadn’t read all the same stuff. Heck, he probably knew it better than I do. And I’m well aware that every piece of tradition starts somewhere, and not all of it sticks around forever. Thank goodness, right? We’ve all suffered through some clumsy attempt of a pastor to make a new, awesome thing that just didn’t work, and we all rejoiced quietly when it died. Not everything is timeless tradition, that’s for sure. I guess it comes down to that question I’ve been mulling over, “what is Church?” If church is primarily about passing on and popularizing certain ideas or spiritual beliefs, there can be little doubt that Finney had it right. Cut out the older parts that don’t work anymore and add some new pieces that produce the desired results. I think I’m too much of a traditionalist for all that. Church isn’t just about making a decision for Christ; it’s transforming the self in light of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. We are the end-result of God working through centuries of people. Worship forms us as much as we form it. How could we just ditch certain elements and feel like we’ve not lost something?
That being said, I’m well aware that Finney has a point. Sometimes we’re so addicted to the form of a thing, that we don’t honor the spirit of it. He’s not wrong about novelty either! When you mix things up, people pay attention! In a religious landscape with Christianity distinctly on the wane, something that gets new eyes sounds great! But how do we mix things up, rather than water them down? How do we innovate traditionally? How to we reform with the spirit of Christians in every era, rather than pander to our personal preferences?
If you want to give Finney a read, head on over to his lectures on the revival of religion on ccel.org (Christian Classic Ethereal Library) where they have all kinds of good stuff.
I get weirdly excited whenever I read about two theology legends having a showdown. I probably shouldn’t. It almost never ends well for one of them (see anyone who debated anything against Augustine), but seeing these legendary ideasmiths meet on the field of battle feels like a larger-than-life moment. I guess it’s the theology geek’s equivalent of having an action movie with a showdown between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne Johnson; you know someone has to lose the exchange, but you’re gonna buy that ticket.
Recently, I’ve been poking around in Luther’s history and it turns out he had a showdown with the humananist scholar, Erasmus! Today, Erasmus isn’t seen as in the same league as Luther, but in his time, he was a huge deal. He was one of the most published authors in Europe, an international theological scholar, and a strong advocate for reform in the church. Little did he know, Luther would experience a meteoric rise and end up eclipsing him in each of those categories. Luther would be the author that legitimized the printing press, the scholar that would give a massive theological school it’s foundational logic, and the reformer that would kick off Protestantism.
Erasmus first heard about Luther when a mutual friend passed on a critique. George Spelatin told him that an Augustinian monk friend of his was concerned about the way that he framed works and original sin in his translation of the New Testament. At the time, Erasmus didn’t think much of it. And reasonably so! Imagine a young professor at the rinky-dinkiest community college sending a Harvard professor their critiques. That’s the modern day equivalent. But as time went on, Luther’s star rose and Erasmus’s waned. Before too long, Erasmus wrote a book attacking Luther’s understanding of free will (De Libero Arbitrio) and Luther was the one to ignore the critique. He said it was “an unlearned book from such a learned man,”(Brand Luther, p. 233) and didn’t bother to respond for five years. When he finally did respond with his own book, Erasmus churned out another response as quickly as he could, but Luther just ignored him. The once-mighty Erasmus was old news.
What happened? Why couldn’t these two fans of church reform get on the same page? And how did Luther crush him so easily?
Fans of both men paint their inability to cooperate as a matter of temperament. Luther was a bombastic, larger-than-life fighter. He was happy to verbally obliterate the church hierarchy when they were wrong, and he would fight until the end for what he thought was right. He was also always finding ways to reach out to the everyman. His bestselling pamphlets boiled down complicated theological ideas into little papers that anyone could read. He was a parish priest as well as an academic. To detractors, he was a populist demagogue, and to fans, he was a fiery prophet of the people. Either way, he was an unrelenting fighter, willing to give everything for what he loved. To him, Erasmus was a naïve coward, hiding in an ivory tower:
“[Erasmus is] not concerned for the cross but for peace thinks that everything should be discussed and handled in a civil manner and with a certain benevolent kindliness.” (Letter from Luther to Spalatin, Sept 9, 1921, as quoted in Brand Luther, 231)
Erasmus, on the other hand, was more moderate, patient, and renowned for his cleverness. He wrote big books for people that were educated enough to read them. His legendary wit was his best tool for reform. He railed against the corrupt priesthood in veiled satire, and he wrote in Latin or Greek (the languages of the educated). Even though he agreed with Luther on some points, he never entertained splitting from the Catholic Church. This was his home. He wouldn’t break from tradition and the path that the Fathers had passed down (even if things had gotten a bit muddled). To him, Luther was a tradition-killer who was willing to warp all of Christianity to his will:
You stipulate that we should not ask for or accept anything but Holy Scripture, but you do it in such a way as to require that we permit you to be its sole interpreter, renouncing all others. Thus the victory will be yours if we allow you to be not the steward but the lord of Holy Scripture. (Hyperaspistes, Book I, Collected Works of Erasmus, Vol. 76, pp. 204–05.)
Naturally, two men as different as this would come to different conclusions about the right course of action in the face of religious corruption.
There are lots of other differences between these two that could be key as well. One emphasized the power of God, the other focused on the capacity of men. One signaled an emerging nationalist sentiment, the other was an international figure. One divided the church over doctrine, while the other longed for internal reform.
In modern conversation, I’ve noticed that this showdown is heavily politicized. Liberal readers associate Erasmus with some kind of proto-secularism that emphasized behavior over religious doctrine, while they see Luther as a small-minded populist. More conservative readers see Luther as a man of integrity, standing for religious liberty, and Erasmus as a sniveling puppet of the bureaucracy, happy to speak in safe, smart circles about how he’d like change, but too cowardly to do anything that put him at risk. Frankly, both views reek of more interest in modern politics than the Christian past. Like him or not, Erasmus legitimized Luther and paved the way for the Reformation with his cries about corruption and demands for reform. Even if he never jumped ship, he was crucial. You lose a key player in the religious landscape of the time if you cut him out. And a 15th century medieval priest like Erasmus said and did things that would make a modern secular humanist cringe. A lot of his complaints were also echoed and escalated by Luther. These people are from their own times, not ours. Modern caricatures equating these two to modern political stances are almost always inaccurate and lazy.
But I suppose we all have to understand their story on terms that make sense to us. I’m still wrestling with their little scuffle myself! Strangely, I feel closer to Luther, but I imagine I’d probably get along better with Erasmus. Part of that is probably Protestant pride. Sola scriptura and all that, right? Luther’s reputation certainly hasn’t hurt him either. He’s a hero! There’s something admirable about risking your life for what you believe. Luther putting his blood on the line makes Erasmus’s scathing quill look kinda wimpy in comparison. On the other hand, it’s hard to not lament over the divisions in Christianity, and Luther decisively struck the blow that would shatter the establishment. Was it worth it? Was Rome so irredeemably corrupt that division was the only solution with any integrity? Or was Erasmus an unheard prophet for unity that the reformers desperately needed to hear?
I’m not sure where I fall in the end. I love so many of the gifts that Protestantism has brought, but I lament the divisions that came with it. Both men are heroes in their own right, even if only one made it to popular history books. Luther definitively won the day and brought so many wonderful things, but maybe Erasmus’s cry for tradition and unity needs to be heard today by the thousands of denominations that represent the children of the Reformation.
If you want to know more about these two, check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther or Michael Massing’s Fatal Discord.