We have reached the traditional 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation–there is much to celebrate and lament. Roman Catholics, including the current Pope, admit that the Reformers were a catalyst behind much needed change. Protestants such as seminary professor Timothy George concede that the Reformation was a “tragic necessity.”
“The tragic side of the Reformation is obvious to those who care deeply about the unity of the church and who feel keenly the dys-evangelical impact of a fractured Christian community and its muted witness in our world today,” Mr. George writes. “All Christians repeat Jesus’s prayer for the unity of his church, and yet who can deny the open scandal of the followers of Jesus excluding one another from the Lord’s Table, all the while proclaiming ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.'”
When we discuss the tragedy of the Protestant schism, it is important not to ignore the justifiable reasons that it occurred. In the early 16th century salvation was literally being commodotized through the selling of indulgences and the sacrilegious proliferation of (false) relics, simony infected all corners of the Roman Catholic Church, theologians inspired by the scholastics were teaching that exacts amounts of years could be wiped off Purgatory through certain penances, the dissemination of the Scriptures was intentionally limited, the Lord’s blood was withheld from the laity, and more of the sort. It was a time of profound darkness.
For those living at the time, reform within the Roman Catholic Church looked like it was nowhere in sight. Even those of us with the hindsight of history would at first glance agree with their assessment. Without Luther, the problems plaguing the Roman Catholic Church looked like they were unlikely to change any time soon. After all, the rather theologically tame Jan Hus was burned at the stake for making relatively modest criticisms of Rome (when compared to Luther or his contemporary Wycliffe).* What chance would a serious reformation within Roman Catholicism have within such an environment?
*For what it is worth, the Orthodox Church takes a high view of Hus today. “Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, died for the undistorted faith, for the pure faith of Christ—that is, for Orthodoxy,” said Metropolitan Christopher (Archbishop of Prague) in an interview. “Therefore we are completely justified in canonizing them as saints. This has already been confirmed by the Church of Cyprus and the Greek Church.”
Suffice it to say, Luther honestly assessed the situation and surmised that if he went silently into the night, the abuses would have continued. He decided to stand and fight. Luther’s refusal to submit, combined with the paradigm-shifting use of the printing press, led to the Protestant schism. Much was gained and much was lost. Being that God works all things for good, Luther’s biggest critics must concede that his intellectual movement in any event was tragically necessary.
But, is “urgent necessity” in of itself justification for his schism? Being that this is an Orthodox website, deriding a schism of a schism is little different than shooting a dead body in the head. It really does not accomplish anything. For this reason, I do not want to condemn Luther the man, or even the Reformation itself.
Rather, I want to tell a (very) short story about another man who lived during a time where it seemed like there was no hope for change. This is a story about a man we all know and love–Saint Athanasius:
The fourth century was a terrible time. Arianism, the fatal heresy that Christ is not really the uncreated God, appeared poised to overtake the entire Christian world. By all appearances Saint Athanasius was on the wrong side of history. Having attended the Council of Nicea as an assistant to the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, he personally witnessed what appeared to be the heresy’s death blow…But then it wasn’t.
Men very close to Rome’s first ever Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine, convinced him that the doctrine of Nicea was not inconsistent with their own doctrinal views. Furthermore, they repeated a rumor that Athanasius was planning to withhold much needed grain shipments from Egypt to Constantinople. Convinced, the emperor consented to having Athanasius exiled from Egypt to Germany.
Constantine’s son, Constantius II, proved to be no better than his father. He banished Athanasius again. Looking for protection, Athanasius fled to Rome where Constatius’ brother (the aptly named Constans) agreed to protect him. After the brothers agreed to resolve the issue at Serdicia in a council, things went against the Arians and Constantius had his Bishops withdraw from Serdicia. Those Bishops then excommunicated Athanasius and Constantius II issued the death penalty.
Athanasius waited a couple years and military necessity led to Constantius relenting so that he could receive support from his brother. In triumph, Athanasius returned to Alexandria and resumed his post as Bishop, rightly teaching the word of God. This he did for the next ten years, until the wind hit the Arians’ sails once again.
Constantius, up to his old machinations, again pounced looking to destroy the Orthodox teaching of the consubstantial Trinity. His brother Constans was assassinated. Constantius II was now the undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire. He hatched a new scheme. This time he saw to it that Athanasius would have nowhere to escape.
Constantius pre-empted Athanasius by attaining the support of the Papal Legates in approving the pro-Arian Council of Arles. He then arrested Pope Liberius. Liberius was tortured into signing an Arianized creed (see Chapter 41) and he condemned Athanasius. A council was again convened, this time in Milan, where about 300 Bishops from the west likewise joined in a condemnation of Athanasius.
Arianism now no longer was a plague of the east. It had taken over the west. Athanasius could not escape to Rome, where formerly the support of a rival emperor and the city’s Bishop protected him. While a few notable Bishoprics (in Milan and Jerusalem) held out against the Arian onslaught, they were few and far between. It looked like there was no hope. It was Athanasius contra mundum.
With nowhere to run, he fled to the Egyptian desert. There Athanasius kept the faith. Instead of starting a new church movement to remedy the situation, he simply wrote a book defending himself against charges of cowardice and bravely ran away, trusting that in time God would vindicate him. Instead of writing with vitriol against those who betrayed him and enlisting the laity to form a popular rebellion against their apostate Bishops, he wrote in defense of Pope Liberius. So humble was this man, he asked that his readers be understanding of Liberius’ weakness due to his age and the cruelty of the tortures. We must remind ourselves, Liberius’ and later Milan’s condemnation effectively made Athanasius a dead man.
In a fashion typical of how God always acts in redemptive history, victory was snagged by the jaws of defeat in a nic of time. When all appeared lost, suddenly Constantius II died of an illness. He was not replaced by a devout, Orthodox emperor. Rather, he was succeeded by a man of the exact opposite persuasion. Julian the Apostate. An avowed pagan, he used the muscle of the state in varying attempts to crush Christianity in all corners of the Roman Empire.
It would seem that Christianity, after a few decades of toleration, was back in the shadows. Doomed. However, a glimmer of light could be perceived at the end of the tunnel. Ironically, it was now the Arians who were easy to liquidate. The Orthodox had become acquainted with hiding. Athanasius’ Arian replacement in Alexandria was executed. Athanasius then returned to Alexandria and rightly received back his Bishopric.
Like a medicine that kills the disease quicker than the patient, Julian the Apostate proved devastating to the pandemic of Arianism. By the grace of God, before he was able to irreversibly destroy the fortunes of all Christians throughout the empire, he was killed in battle. The result was a complete reversal–Arianism was shattered, never regaining the momentum it once had. In two decades time, the Eastern Church definitively settled Trintarian theology at the Council of Constantinople, only months after the issuing of the Edict of Thessalonica (which Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire.) Orthodox Christianity had prevailed only a short time after it appeared bound to disappear of the face of the planet.
The moral of the story? Athansius was faithful to the Christian faith in more ways than simply teaching correct doctrine. He showed faith in God by running for the hills! He chose to run and risk death rather than start another church. He hoped for his own restoration, waiting for time and inertia to go his way. His patience was rewarded.
That is not to say that patience always has its reward, however. For every Athansius that “waits it out,” there’s a cooked goose like Jan Hus. God does not reward every faithful churchman with vindication in his own life. It is with this understanding we must sympathize with the Reformers. If Luther would have died “doing what was right,” his death would have seemingly been a waste.
However, this would have not been the case. No life, lived well but ended shortly, is a waste. The Church has always affirmed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The blood of martyrs is never wasted.
Sure, Luther may have been forgotten if he chose the path of Athanasius. He would have died on the run somewhere or even worse, have his executors catch up with him. Luther would be just another dissenter in the annals of history. He would not have been remembered as the hero of perhaps the most significant event in the last 500 years, the Protestant Reformation.
Reflecting upon all of this, I cannot help but feel that Luther is more of an antihero than a saint. Saint Athanasius is a testimony to how one man against all odds prevails by maintaining faithfulness to God. His refusal to compromise his ideals eventually had its reward and vindication.
The story of Luther is one of compromise and impatience. He proved to be more of the pragmatist–a man built in the modern mold who is not always limited by stuffy idealism, but embraces a more utilitarian approach. The end justifies the means. In less than two years from making his disagreement public, he was already advocating schism and enlisting allies to his cause. The sheer force of his personality led to him prevailing.
He is a reminder to us of how someone may begin with the right ideals, but then he employs questionable means to attain them. Luther was a man who decided not to stand against the world, but instead adapted to it. We may forgive him for being corrupted by the circumstances and people surrounding him. He did not play as dirty as his own enemies, after all. Nevertheless, instead of trusting in God to make things right, he put matters into his own hands and employed all intellectual and political means to attain to his ideals.
The result? He lived to see his church schism and planted the seeds of an anthropocentric triumphalism where we now all believe that a single man can shape the destiny of the world. Luther, as biographer Martin Marty pointed out, was the first true modern man. Being the first modern man made him our first modern hero against “evil.”
As a result, our heroes are no longer known for their extreme piety (like Francis of Assisi) or perseverance (like Athanasius). Rather, our heroes are true Ubermensch, supermen who with sheer force of will and brilliance make a lasting mark on the world. They are not passive, waiting upon God. They are men of action. Not surprisingly, these are the sort of behavioral traits that Western society now encourages. A truly great man grabs the world by the horns and makes his own destiny.
Hence, the Reformation is ultimately the story of how in one corner of Christendom, the religion of man prevailed. We have had 500 years of the Reformation to watch these seeds germinate. The Enlightenment, Existentialism, and ultimately Nihilism were the logical consequences of man taking the wheel. Sadly, Luther’s legacy will ultimately not be remembered by his good intentions, but the fruits of his actions. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether too many of us have bought into the underlying premise of the Reformation–the ability of individuals to play such a pivotal role in religion.
Craig, the article is great, but to put in in a more simple terms: “But even if we or an angel out of heaven should preach a gospel to you contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let him be accursed! ” (Galatians 1:8)
Saint Paul seems to acknowledge that even he might preach a wrong Gospel. So could the protestant apologetic not be as simple as:
“Christ founded the church, but after some years (idk) the bishops went nuts and proclaimed man made doctrine, which we can judge by looking at the Gospel. Thus, their God given authority ceases here.”
This does not imply there was never a church, and what about per-reformers: Jan Hus, John Wycliffe.
Example of case could be the Eastern Orthodox church, they have apostolic succession, right? Or if you are Orthodox, the Catholic Church then.
I wait for your response, thanks and God bless!
Orthodox. Question for you, do you think the orthodox teach another Gospel?
Craig, I don’t wish to bring fear to your life, and as a warning I tell you: my life is not perfect, so please don’t put to heart what I’m about to say. I am a little frustrated I was born in this church and it’s not that easy to leave, for some cultural reasons. But if you are so kind, judge my answer with a good heart:
I was born and raised in the Romanian Orthodox Church, with some friendly, family ties to a Old German Lutheran Church.
I always find us (the ortodox) to be pelagian. It seems to me the lutheran theology can be summed up in a hymn “We all believe in one true God” with the verses “by who’s death and cross are we, rescued from all misery ”
While in my church the heart of theology is: You need to fast, repeat that prayer 100 times, go trough 2 hour of liturgy (most churches don’t have seat places, need to stand). It seems to me that Christ and his cross don’t really matter, what really matters are rituals, cannons of Saint X who said that you can’t have sex with your wife because it’s a fasting day. Really? What the hack does that have to do with Christ?
It’s all about the clergy and their authority, and about the saints that we are sooo far far away from, especially about monasticism.
Lutheranism with it’s priesthood of all believers seems to make the husband and the wife as dignify as the monk.
So yes, I do believe that’s another Gospel. And by the way, the Gospel doesn’t even mather… the Philokalia, now tahts the real Gospel! Everything from the east is good, everything from the west is bad.
For me that sums up the eastern church. Please forgive my harshness.
Orthodoxy loses cradle Orthodox because they do not understand the faith IMHO. Orthodoxy does not stress instruction these days so they have themselves to blame. Have you actually read what Orthodox teaches write about justification? https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2017/03/22/popular-orthodox-observations-on-the-doctrine-of-justification/
Tremendous grammar mistakes, sorry for that too!
It seems to me that the article presents a nice view on that ‘s clean and nice, similar to the Lutheran one!
But I know this: How an orthodox gets to heaven? Theosis! Becoming ‘like God’. That means perfectionism, similar to the puritans or Wesleyanism, you are only worthy of heaven when you no longer have any urge, unclean tough, deed… That is so different from simply saying: I recognize I’m a sinner, Lord have mercy on me, I’ll strive to do my best, forgive me when I will fall, because I will fall, let me not forget you send you Son and that trough his bitter life, suffering and death I am reconciled to thee.
Again orthodoxy has the lives of saints who all they did was repent and cry about their sins and they got to heaven. Theosis is attained by authentic repentance not the quality or duration . Being that most of us don’t die right after we come to have faith in Christ or after baptism the authenticity of our repentance is something we work out tHeoughout a lifetime . The quality of this repentance pertains to our heavenly enjoyment in Christ because God rewards every good work . So through the sacraments and right doctrine orthodoxy teaches what is right about justification and how one oughtto live the Christian life . And if you read the writings of Paul and what Jesus Christ himself said the episodes of holinessof life is apparent . There is nothing un biblical with orthodoxies approach to justification and theosis .
Saints who repented that’s obviously the Christian life and model.
But what about literary strange cannons:
– don’t have intimate relations with your own wife/husband only Tuesday and Thursday
– don’t take communion if you have your period (…for women)
– don’t even enter the altar if you are a women
– fast more that half a year, summed up (you tell me that’s not trying to earn your way to heaven)
– speak next to nothing about western saints
– icons of St. Joseph are heretical (because… why not)
– father confessor is big daddy (you have to ask even for permission if you want to change him, which is kind of… you get the idea)
You just change the subject matter so do you find orthodoxies doctorine of justification acceptable now
Hey Dan, here’s a response to you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDDqp8t26HY
I believe that both Ignatius and Irenaeus early on speak of schism as anything less than an unquestioning loyalty to one’s bishop. But, of course, Athanasius isn’t loyal at all. For to do so would have been to cooperate with his Arian tormentors, the very usurpers of his valid authority. If I remember right, during his final exile, he sets up court right outside of Alexandria, acting as bishop in his own right, fomenting “schism” in terms of the established episcopal leaders. In essence, starting up his own church.
Catherine of Siena might be a better example of working within the system, getting the pontiff to admit his error and repent therefrom.
Most of us, nonetheless, judge Athanasius innocent of schism because he was in the right theologically. Purity and unity (purity of doctrine, unity of fellowship) form a sort of hendiadys, flip sides of the same coin, inseparable. Schism is any affront to unity, any rending of the fabric of communion, whether from the inside or the outside. Sheep can be illegitimately excluded from the flock or ostracised from the flock by unworthy shepherds. Thieves can violently steal sheep or surreptitiously lure sheep away. Sheep can also wander astray of their own volition.
In the end, we know which side is in schism by evaluating which side is theologically incorrect. The sheep know His voice, and they know when His voice is being merely imitated.
Council of Nicea said other bishops cannot interfere in each other’s jurisdictions. The Arians did that to Irenaeus. He was the Metropolitan of Constantinople, the 2nd most important Bishop on Earth. THe Buck stopped with him. He was not disloyal nor schismatic.
No, Craig, they did not INTERFERE. They DEPOSED him (several times) at synods in Tyre, Antioch, and Milan. Plus, he was banished by the emperors Constantius, Julian, and Valens.
He was no longer a bishop according to the “official” church (i.e., the church in power).
Later, when the Nicene Party was restored to power, the Arian bishops were deposed. Did the Nicene Party thus INTERFERE according to you? You need to be consistent.
In Luther’s day, bishoprics were bought and sold. Corruption, by itself, does not make the possessor of a see illegitimate. Not according to the Church of Rome. But in God’s eyes?
Athanasius was well within his rights to oppose the Arian bishops as Luther was within his rights to oppose bishoprics obtained by simony.
Again, Canon Law states that they cannot interfere with the internal affairs of another Bishop. He did not somehow lose the sacrament of ordination. Being that he did not revolt against the Arian that replaced him, but merely waited for his time to return, is much different than Luther.
It is my understanding that Athanasius did not “merely wait,” but acted as a bishop for like-minded Nicene believers.
Luther merely continued worship much as before in the exact same church buildings. In essence, his prince deposed the Catholic hierarchy and installed Luther (and Melanchthon, etc.) in its place.
This is getting silly, Luther 1. was not a Bishop, and 2. lobbied to forcefully remove his opposition from power and 3. replaced that opposition with people with no succession. Hence, Luther by his own admission was a schismatic. Athanasius was a rightfully ordained Bishop, was forcefully removed from his see, and simply waited to return. He did not somehow lose his ordination. Your comparison is a real grasping at straws.
No, Craig it doesn’t look like straw. Luther was a doctor of theology made so by the Church, also he was a priest. So the fact that we was not a bishop, would be like saying: “Well… Athanasius was not a patriarch,, so who the hack does he thick he is? He must be wrong”
He was a patriarch.. my fault, still.. he was not patriarch of Jerusalem, or Constantinople, which is ‘first among equals’, so if you are going to make an argument for authority, I guess you could still find people in higher positions that he, or at least at the same position and more numerous and say he should have been silent and obedient.
Well, ALexandria was the second greatest see in the world traditionally.
Athanasius was a Patriarch… ALexandria had independent jursidiction according to a Canon universally agreed upon during Nicea. Dan, I am sure you are aware that Bishops have peculiar authority that simple priests do not have.
I’M being silly?? Luther was without peer in the Lutheran Reformation. If that doesn’t put him on par with a bishop, nothing will. Athanasius lobbied energetically to get his opposition removed from power, as well. And I’m not at all sure the leaders appointed by Luther were not considered to be within the legitimate succession. I’d have to go back and look. I do know that Swedish Lutheran bishops consider themselves to be in Apostolic Succession (as do Anglican orders, of course).
Luther considered the pope to be the Antichrist. How can one be in schism from the One True Church by splitting with demons?
Deposed bishops, by the way, have no legitimate power. And I’m pretty sure I have read that Athanasius DID NOT simply wait but interfered within the confines of the diocese.
More power to him. He did the right thing. Standing on ceremony is not noble or godly in such a situation.
Again, Athanasius was still ordained a Bishop. He did not set up a parallel Church with parallel appointments. He merely tried to negotiate his way back to his rightful Bishopric. I find it strange you cannot concede the difference.
But you’re missing the point. Athanasius was the “rightful bishop” in your eyes only because his theology has been judged (in retrospect) to be orthodox. At the time, the rightfully ordained Arian bishops were legitimately in charge.
And if he did set himself up as a parallel bishop–which I believe he did–then he did set up a parallel church, however small it might have been. (But again, he would have been correct to have done so.)
What if 500 years of Arian control had gone by? Should Athanasius’ descendants of Nicene faith still work WITHIN an utterly and hopelessly corrupt system?
Maybe you could clear things up for me by explaining how on earth Luther could have worked within the system to reform things (without compromising his conscience).
Again athanasius did not set up a parallel church and kept intercourse with bishops in good standing that recognized him
Better to stand and die then schism
Well, I agree with you that schism should be avoided at all cost. But what is schism?
Some might characterize Bonhoeffer’s joining of the plot to kill Hitler as high treason. But most would categorize it rather as heroism, humanitarianism, even German patriotism. “My country right or wrong” is not the motto of true patriots.
If what Luther taught soteriologically and sacramentally was God’s own truth, then the Roman Church was apostate. What theological loyalty does one owe to an apostate institution?
The Arians were heretical by nearly everyone’s account. What loyalty did Athanasius owe them? Are we indeed called to be unified with heresy? Is separating ourselves from it “schism” in any meaningful sense?
A few more things:
1. Individuals have often played an extraordinarily significant role in the history of Christian thought. Some of them long before the dawn of Renaissance humanism. Catholic theology to this day rides primarily on the shoulders of two men: Augustine and Aquinas.
2. At times, the “blood of the martyrs has been the seed of the church.” At other times, Christendom has been all but blotted out in certain regions. Japan, for example. North Africa with the coming of the Muslim hordes. Iraq in current times. Waiting was all well and good for Athanasius. It worked out for him.
But God has sometimes used less than stellar human motivations to bring about his will. Strong arm politics was part and parcel of a number of the early Ecumenical Councils. Theologically-challenged emperors and bishops often playing a huge role.
The takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by conservatives back in the ’80’s was less than gentlemanly. But it worked, and there have been tremendous spiritual benefits, as a result. Waiting would have just allowed the “moderates” to entrench and win. The Missouri-Synod Lutherans forcibly restored their flagship seminary in similar fashion. In every case I know of, where a denomination sat back and “waited,” the liberals have won. I’m not so sure we’re supposed to play “nicey-nice” with infidels. (And in case you haven’t noticed, Catholicism and Orthodoxy are getting swallowed up by modernists–and postmodernists, for that matter–as well.)
3. A delayed Reformation may have been far more chaotic and heretical. It was going to come. It was just a matter of when. God may know timing better than we do. Just maybe.
4. Blaming the hubris of the Enlightenment on the Reformation is an example of “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” Existentialism and Higher Criticism did not arise out of Pietism, in general, but out of individual Pietists (Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher) in particular. Not only that, but they had plenty of Catholic sources, as well. For example, Richard Simon’s contributions to the erosion of biblical authority predates Schleiermacher by 130 years! (He was a French priest.)
You are making too many unrelated pointa. First, schism is rejecting those authorities ordained by God (even if they stink) and setting up yourself or someone else not ordained and imn communion with the Church as an authority. Second, who knows if things in the west would be “fixed” or not without schism. We are called to be faithful to God and leave to Him the consequences.
When all of the authorities stink, there is no way they are ordained by God. They are ordained by men…and bad men at that.
You have made a idol of unity and sold doctrinal purity downriver.
Who decides which authorities have been ordained by God? Should I take your word for it? Should you take mine? Don’t we need to determine the validity of authority by checking how closely each church’s claims correspond with Scripture, history, and reason?
So, in the final analysis, your answer to the question “How does a man of God reform the church?” is one of the following:
1. He waits.
2. He stands and dies.
Heaven forbid that he disrupt the unity of a demonstrably man-centered “church.”
Yes, that’s the answer!
Totally silly, not plausible scenarion, but:
What if a ‘evil’, unjust bishop excommunicates you, doesn’t welcome you back by any means. Say for some reason he hates you, say you scratched his car. Are you then damned to hell and there’s nothing you can do? Since you are outside the church
In that event, I would be like Athanasius. If I am faithful to God and do everything in my power to commune in the Church, then God would not hold this against me. The Orthodox Church has never taught otherwise, as we have saints that have had this issue (but usually over heresies, not scratching cars.)
Craig, a more sad example is of a local priest of mine (EO) who was a pretty interested in his ministry and did pay some attention to us (high school students at that time), only problem was his wife was unfaithful and left him, thus resulting in the annulment of his holly orders. To be honest the celibacy does in fact seem to grant better pastoral care, and less problems. But that’s not the issue for now, the issue is that a good, faithful servant of God seem to went away for things beyond his power (now I don’t know, nor do I desire to know what happened at the deep of this divorce, but let us presume he was innocent and loved his wife as he should)
It sounds like you are saying that the wife left the priest, can he lost his order. Something does not sound right here. EO has ecclesiastical divorces so priests can become bishops. It’s rare, but it happens. So, something is not adding up in this scenario.
hello. My name is Vera. I agree with ur article. Thanks for the wisdom with whuch u wrote it. I became pentacostal believer when I came To USA. Thru a lot of seeking the truth I came accross Athanasius , The incarnation…”.about year ago and was completely taken by the truth. I was never taught about orhodox christianity. Now there r few not too many charismatics who teach what Athanasius does as a new revelation for today and my life because of the truth has been transformed very quickly from ignorant believer to free believer by seeing real Love and character of Trinity . I have catholic friends and they never heard of Athanasius. I m conviced that if Athanasius would be read the apostolic or orhodox christianity or THE TRUTH would not be lost and there would be no need for all the havoc christianity has been going thru. or need for reformation. I dont think that Luther ever read Athanasius because if he did than his statement “just shall live by faith would not be just new revelation” but way of life way of life for Luther , because Athanasius life and his teachings came out of reality that “just shall live by Faith”. I see there r no new revelation but there is discovering the truth that has been available for 2000 years.