The Cyclical Nature of Reformation
So, you’re sitting in a church service, chafing against your uncomfortable clothes, tired of sitting in that pew. The minister is droning on in a language you can’t understand. This whole sin/forgiveness/grace thing has you confused, if not depressed, and you’re tired of being asked for money every time you come in the doors. The minister has nicer clothes than most of the people in the audience before him, and you’re sure that the profit from the items for sale out in the foyer goes at least partially to buy those fancy clothes. You feel resentment and anger toward the minister, and toward the church – and even toward God. But what can you do?
This first paragraph could apply to a Catholic service in early 1517, or to an old-time Southern Baptist church service in modern times. The language (Latin or that conservative theology-ese that you’ll hear from conservative pulpits) is foreign to most modern ears; whether it’s the language itself or the notion of self-discipline that is antiquated, at least in our own time, is a matter for a different paper. The rage with which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses, or objections, to the practices of the Roman Catholic church in 1517 is related to the reactions that range from anger to apathy in the dissatisfied churchgoer today. All of these feelings are directed toward the dichotomy between the church leadership as authority figure and the church leadership as a body of servants.
The 1500’s were not a time when the masses were bedeviled by superstitions; Martin Luther did not emerge during the Middle Ages. Instead, the world stood at the outbreak of reason. Not only were the intellectual and cultural developments of the Renaissance. Instead of a helpless being surviving at the whim of God and His favor, man became the arbiter of his own fate, according to thought of the day. This was a major shift from the philosophical standpoint of the Roman Catholic church and that held by the mainstream during the Middle Ages and the time before. In Catholicism, the priests stood as the representative of the people before God. They could dispense forgiveness, opening the gateway to heaven; they could also excommunicate, barring that gateway for all eternity (Hillerbrand 77). The priests performed their services in Latin, which none of their communicants spoke or understood. The shifting intellectual winds of the day brought about a change in the pews throughout Catholicism – a change that would become an uproar, as many Catholics wanted a larger hand in their own destinies.
The idea of the “priesthood of the believer” may well have been the most resounding objection throughout all of Martin Luther’s disagreements. According to Catholic thought, the believer could not communicate directly with God; all communication had to go through the priest. Luther disagreed mightily, avowing that the individual believer not only had the right to address God as one of His creatures, but might be a more appropriate person to communicate with the Lord, because of the corruption inherent in the clergy of the day (Hillerbrand 112). This idea that any believer could approach God directly – that any unbeliever could pray and receive forgiveness from God immediately – took a sledgehammer to the pinions on which the Catholic Church’s hammerlock on most of Europe rested. If you or I can go to God directly and request forgiveness, the need for confession (now called reconciliation in some Catholic congregations) and penance has vanished. The Catholic system was based on control, in many ways; the system proposed by Luther is firmly based on the individual.
The abuses that the priesthood had rained down on its communicants rankled Luther to no end. Not only would mendicant priests travel Europe selling enough pieces of the True Cross of Christ to build a neighborhood for the twelve disciples (and possibly the forty who were named in Acts), but these priests also sold items that had a much more sanctified pedigree: indulgences and church positions. Indulgences were certificates indicating papal forgiveness of sins and were available for purchase. No matter the level of sin, you could buy a certificate saying that God had forgiven you. The practice of simony involved the selling of positions of church authority, such as priesthoods and bishoprics. With money changing hands for such ecclesiastically inappropriate purposes, it was only a matter of time before the collective intellect of the Catholic faithful would object most strenuously to these two practices. With humanity believing in its own dignity and in its own ability to shape history, the condescending corruption of the selling of indulgences and church offices were bound to meet contradiction.
Flash back to the megachurch movement in modern times. Worship services require only casual attire. Instead of having to drag out that inconvenient hymnal, you can just sing using the words displayed upon the giant screens. If you can’t make the Sunday morning services, many of these facilities offer Friday and Saturday evening services. The speaker comes out and uses, instead of a pulpit, a Lucite podium. He might have a Bible with him, but he won’t pick it up and gesture with it. The sermon will have a Bible verse, but it may only refer to it tangentially. Those tough parts of the Bible, such as those found in the Old Testament, will never be a sermon focus (Guinness 28). The sermons themselves are focused on specific day-to-day needs of the clientele/congregation and, if they do instill guilt or even a sense of much obligation, only do so quickly, before ending with a positive association.
Guinness, Os. Dining with the Devil: The Megachurch Movement Flirts with Modernity.
Nashville: Baker Books, 1993.
Hillerbrand, Hans. J. Christendom Divided: The Protestant Reformation. London: Hutchinson,