Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Eric Metaxas on Martin Luther

 

October, 2017 is a big month for Christians, as we remember the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to a Wittenberg church door, kickstarting the Protestant Reformation.  In a secular world, where spiritual topics are often taboo, talk of Martin Luther can be a great conversation starter for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox… even with unbelieving friends, co-workers and family members. Luther is big everywhere. Even though Germany is mostly nominally Christian now, Luther is still recognized as a national hero. For Westerners in general, Luther is a prominent historical personality, regardless of one’s religious identification (or lack thereof).

But, if you are clueless about Martin Luther, where do you start to learn more?

Eric Metaxas is a popular Christian author and talk show host. He is a type of public intellectual, who keeps things down on “the bottom shelf.” Plus, he is funny. As author of bestselling books on William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas writes in a very accessible style. His latest book, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, would be a good introduction to those who look upon the Protestant Reformation as an unfamiliar, foreign country. Though I do not agree with everything Metaxas writes, his popularization of scholarly research is nevertheless very engaging.

Roland Bainton’s 1950s classic, Here I Stand, is still my favorite biography on Luther. But if I get a chance to dip into Metaxas’ new book, I might revise that. In the following video, Eric Metaxas, who comes from an Eastern Orthodox background, gives a talk summarizing his new book on Luther, at a recent National Religious Broadcaster’s meeting. As Metaxas says, Luther “rediscovered God and changed the world.” For a cheery take on Luther, please enjoy!

 


Imputation: The Chocolate Chips in Luther’s Theological Cookie

Martin Luther (1483-1546), by Cranach (credit: Wikipedia). “Imputation” was the core theological concept behind Luther’s thinking. So then, what is “imputation?”

Imputation. Have you ever heard of that word? We do not use it in normal conversation. But in the 16th century, imputation became a battleground idea for the Reformation. This crucial theological concept helps us think through a true understanding of the Gospel, even today.

Theologian Michael Horton, one of the scholars interviewed in the film documentary This Changed Everything, about the Reformation, likens imputation to a cooking analogy. If you try to make chocolate chip cookies, but leave out the chocolate chips, then you have pretty much left out the main ingredient. Likewise, many Protestants would argue that if you talk about the Gospel, but leave out imputation, then you end up with a chocolate-less cookie. Before we get at the definition of imputation, let us see why this might be so important. Continue reading


Does the Roman Catholic Church Still “Sell Indulgences?”

Johann Tetzel, 16th century indulgences promoter, and “used car salesman.” Tetzel never visited Wittenberg, Germany, seeking to avoid the direct barbs of Martin Luther’s scathing critique (credit: Wikipedia)

When the German Dominican friar, Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), began to travel across Europe, urging people to contribute to the church fund for building St. Peter’s basilica, it fired up the indignation of one monk, Martin Luther. Many have quoted Tetzel’s couplet, that appeared to endorse the idea that the medieval Church was “selling indulgences.”

“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

The idea here is that Tetzel was encouraging almsgiving to the Church in exchange for offering more “time off” for loved ones in purgatory. Luther’s protest soon brought the Christian world into turmoil. But were Tetzel’s actions merely an abuse of the teachings of the medieval Church, or did they signal a deeper, more fundamental problem with the Church’s theology?

When Martin Luther first nailed up his Ninety-Five Thesis to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, it may not have been clear to him as to how to answer that question. But as Luther began to receive more and more pushback from Church authorities, he began to think that Tetzel’s “used car salesman” tactics were more that just an abuse of an otherwise, acceptable doctrine. Rather, the whole theology of indulgences was based on a dangerously false interpretation of the Bible.
Continue reading


On Robert E. Lee Statues, the Reformation, and The Danger of Forgetting History

Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a New Orleans monument (credit: Scott Threlkeld/ AP)

Having recently returned from a trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I am all too aware of the tragedy of racism, and its intermingling with the story of Christianity in the American South. But I am left with a question: how are we to remember our history?

Headlines have been popping up this year, with various cities across the South, such as New Orleans, and Charlottesville, Virginia, that have been removing or planning to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army general, and an evangelical Christian. As might be expected, white supremacist groups, who seek to have Lee fit their agenda, are protesting such statue removals. On the other extreme, counter-protestors deface such monuments. Like the Confederate flag, such symbols mean different things to different people, and their meaning can be hijacked out of their historical context, for good, or for ill.

As long time readers of Veracity know, we regret how the Bible has been misinterpreted and misapplied to justify slavery and condone racism. Efforts to correct tragic misunderstandings of the past, by retelling forgotten stories, are essential. However, I am bothered by this recent trend of dismantling historical monuments.

A June essay in the Atlantic magazine, by journalist Adam Serwer, seeks to justify such monument removal. Robert E. Lee, Serwer argues, is not the hero or saintly figure that many defenders of Lee’s heritage seek to admire. In some ways, Serwer is correct, hence, the KKK’s ill-informed effort to make Robert E. Lee into a god. But it would serve Mr. Serwer better to take a closer look at R. David Cox’s The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee, a book on my “to-be-read” list, for hopefully a more in-depth look at Lee’s Christian spirituality, that grew from a type of nominalism; that is, Christian by name only, to a more mature evangelical faith, later in his life.

In a rejoinder essay in The National Review, Dan McLaughlin modestly, yet rightly, observes that Serwer’s efforts to attack Robert E. Lee, are more about the present, than they are the past. Robert E. Lee was far from being perfect, and though I greatly respect Lee’s example of Christian faith, I am also painfully aware of the man’s shortcomings. We should be doing more to balance the story, adding historical context, and listen to forgotten voices. But does this mean we should diminish such characters as Robert E. Lee, even with their flaws?

How quickly we as humans are prone to forget.

I see no need to explore the politics of all of this, except to say that it seems like there is a cultural trend towards trying to erase painful memories of our past.

Martin Luther statue, in Washington, D.C. Beloved Protestant Reformer, but promoter of an anti-Jewish tract, later in life. Should his statue be removed next? I hope not. (credit: Wikipedia)

I even wonder what will happen later this fall, when people begin to talk more about the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses, to the church door, that triggered the start of the Protestant Reformation. Surely, some press outlet will release an essay informing of us of Martin Luther’s horrid antisemitic statements he made, late in his life. Luther’s tract, On the Jews and Their Lies, was used by 20th century Nazis as a propaganda tool in their efforts to eliminate Europe’s Jews.

Not only that, but in 1525, Martin Luther infamously urged the German princes to brutally put down a peasants revolt, that left thousands of impoverished people dead. Luther’s ill-guided rhetoric, which he later regretted, helped to fuel the indignant imagination of Karl Marx years later, who described religion as being the opiate of the people, which led to other forces of extremism and violence, closer to our own time.

Could it be possible then, for people to start demanding the dismantling of Martin Luther statues, in response to Luther’s shortcomings? Where does the removal of monuments, that recall the dark side of our history, stop?

May I suggest that the Bible offers some help here.

When reading the Bible, we learn about a whole of host of people whom God used, to help introduce the world to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 11, many of these names are celebrated in the “Hall of  Fame of Faith.”  However, all of these figures were tragically flawed. Abraham, the father of Israel, pimped his wife. Moses, who led the people out of Egypt, was a murderer. David, the greatest king in all of Israel, committed brazen adultery, arranged the death of the woman’s husband, and sought to cover up the whole matter.

Yet what strikes me about the Bible is that there is no attempt to cover up the flaws of these wayward sinners. Neither the Jews, nor the Christian church, have sought to revise the Bible, in attempt to remove the unsavory character on display. God saw fit to preserve the memory of those whom he used to achieve His purposes, including those parts that we would probably rather forget.

We live in an age where we desperately want heroes. However, unflawed heroes are hard to find. In our anger, we find it easy to point out the failures of others, particular of those in the past, but we all too conveniently ignore our own failures. The Bible gives a reason why this is the case: We are all sinful human beings, in need of a Savior (Romans 3:23). Jesus Christ, and Christ alone, is the one who can set things right. Sadly, contemporary society has a hard time recognizing the all-too pervasive impact of sin on all of us. So, we are all too willing to shove those uncomfortable things, like our own sin, under the carpet.

So, while there is a trend to remove those aspects of our history that either embarrass us, shame us, or even remind us of our shortcomings, the Bible has a lesson to teach us. Let us remember, as the Bible teaches, not only the good things that God does through human beings, but also those things that remind all of us, how much we all need a Savior, who can heal and redeem us.

For a fascinating, albeit disturbing history behind the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, you should read Brandon Wolfe’s essay.


Idols and Images: Ten Commandments, Yes, But How Do You List Them?

Moses and Aaron, with the Ten Commandments: Aron de Chaves (1674)

I received a little pushback offline on a previous post about dream catchers. I kind of expected that.

Christians have long struggled with the relationship between idols and visual images. Much of the controversy stems back to how Christians read the Ten Commandments, or more to the point, how various Christians read the Ten Commandments differently. An often ignored consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation illustrates the difficulty.

The Ten Commandments are derived from two passages from the Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, texts that are very close to one another in content. But careful study demonstrates that not every Christian identifies all of the commandments in the exact same manner. However, contrary to some misguided assertions, there are no mainstream Christian traditions that have “changed” the Ten Commandments. Rather, the problem is in how different traditions have grouped the various commandments together.

An obvious question to start off with would be, so why “Ten” commandments? Well, we have three passages in the Bible that directly tell us of “ten words” given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4).

However, the Bible was not divided up into a verse numbering scheme until the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century. Therefore, in the early church, there was no intuitively clear way to group the Ten Commandments together. Even the Jews have had their own unique pattern of grouping the “commandments,” and it has not matched 100% with any Christian version. Continue reading


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