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ruleBackground

Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

August 3, 2008

Consider the source

On the whole, I am in favor of the Reformation. That's what you'd expect a Protestant to say.

I have to admit, though, the more I learn about it, the more mixed feelings I develop. These days, I'm taking the Reformation with a grain of salt.

I got to thinking about the Reformation as I prepared for and then took a trip to Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. I read “travelers’ histories” of the countries, looked through the guidebooks for things to see on my trip, and read the book, “Reformation,” by George Mosse. That, and what I saw on my trip, got me to thinking about that period of church history.

As a Protestant, you're taught to believe that the Roman Catholic Church was so corrupt in the 1500s that something had to happen to right things. We learned that the reformers were heroic men who stopped the abuses, stripped Christian theology of its layers of church additions and got it back to biblical principles, opened up the church to the common people, and so on. True enough.

What we don’t hear about too often is that the Reformation developed its own theological innovations, abuses and consequences. It isn’t usually pointed out that the reformers were men of their times whose agendas didn't always stop with the best interests of Christ's church. Just like today, the issues of the world around them shaped the views of the reformers. In the midst of their lives, the reformers pondered and wrote down their theological views and biblical interpretations—systematic ways of thinking about the faith, the Bible, the world, and the Christian's place in it that Protestants still adhere to today.

Have you ever taken a step back and thought about where your denomination’s distinct beliefs come from? I don’t think we Christians do this nearly enough. Before we sign on the dotted line to a theological position, it’s a good idea to read the fine print about the life of the person who first espoused it, the times in which they lived, the issues of their day, and what they were trying to accomplish.

*****

Today, a good portion of Protestantism follows the detailed theology of John Calvin, one of the reformers from the 1500s. Reformed Christians believe his ideas such as predestination, limited atonement and irresistible grace are the most correct framework from which to view the events of scripture. Yet Calvin's theological views were part and parcel of his political ambitions and the world he was trying to create. He did not tolerate dissent well, and played a key role in the burning at the stake death of Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian. Calvin wasn’t a particularly nice guy.

Does that matter?

Different people will come to different conclusions. To me, it matters a great deal; I believe strongly that Christian leaders and theologians should live lives that reflect Christ. There’s another point of view, though, that says we should separate the theological work from the personal life.

My point, though, is that if you are going to follow Calvin, there are some things you need to know about him first. Then you can judge the man and his work and draw your own conclusions. Does it matter that Martin Luther was terribly anti-Semitic? Yes, you need to keep it in mind when reading what he wrote and judging what he did. Would I take John Wesley’s advice on dealing with women and marriage? Not on your life! He was a miserable failure in that department.

It’s not just the reformers and those who came after them who we should get to know in this way. It’s any Christian leader, anywhere in history. Take Augustine, who lived in the latter 4th and early 5th centuries. His "just war" theory, which stipulates conditions under which the Christian may participate in or approve of war, was born out of his own experiences trying to deal with the Donatist movement, which often resorted to guerilla warfare tactics. Augustine is also noted for other widely accepted theological positions that have affected the church down through history. Take his view that humans are stained with the original sin of Adam and Eve (specifically Eve!) and are therefore utterly depraved creatures from birth.

Some people, such as Pelagius, opposed this. He thought that while humans had marred the image of God within us, at heart his good image remained. Pelagius taught that Christ's victory at Calvary rescued us from our sin and released our true, God-given nature. Augustine worked hard to have Pelagius and his views declared unorthodox, and eventually he succeeded in having him declared a heretic. It makes you wonder whether we have been seeing things Augustine's way because he was correct, or because he was skilled enough politically to win his battles.

*****

I am not suggesting we throw out the theology on which we've been raised. I do believe we should understand where certain pieces of our theology come from, and what were the life circumstances of the men who came up with them. We also need to remember that non-essential beliefs are not the Gospel. They are interpretations of the Gospel that made sense first to an individual and then to his community at a certain point in time. A number of them have proven useful enough through the centuries that they are still with us today. But we need to see them clearly for what they are.

If we were more informed about where these kinds of beliefs came from, we might be able to hold on to them more lightly and realize that—after all—they are theories about how things work. This would help us be more generous to our fellow Christians.

Once I took a class in quasi-Christian religious movements. We spent a good deal of time on the Mormons, learning their history and what they believe. I remember how shocked I was to read about the life of Joseph Smith, who founded their religion. It seemed clear to me he had made the whole thing up, and then changed portions of the belief system when he felt like it, for his own purposes. Smith and his followers were chased out of community after community. He was killed by a mob while imprisoned in a jail for ordering the destruction of a local newspaper.

Wow, I thought, all you would have to do is ask Mormons to look at the life of the founder of their religion, and any thinking person would have to conclude he was a fraud.

My professor explained that this would not work. Mormons are taught never to question Joseph Smith, and one of the main ways to offend a Mormon is to cast doubt on him and what he claimed were revelations from God.

Other prominent religions protect themselves, in part, with similar taboos against speaking ill of their founders. As Christians, we should never be afraid to allow our leaders, past or present, to be held up for scrutiny. Jesus certainly can hold up under examination, and his followers should not be afraid of it either.

Instead of blindly accepting whatever we’re handed, let’s have the gumption to consider the source.

Next: Some lasting consequences of the Reformation.

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The Bereans... received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
—Acts 17:11