Sunday, January 31, 2010

Have Evangelicals Gone Beyond Luther or Are They Running the Opposite Direction?

Within certain sectors of evangelical-land "Catholic" is a four letter word. It's thought of as just about the worst thing you could possibly be. It is an insult that is intended to frighten people away from certain teachings and practices.  Most evangelicals still confess a belief in the Trinity, the death and resurrection of Christ, and other things that Roman Catholics also teach. But many other teachings are dismissed simply because of their association or perceived association with the Roman Catholic church.

There are many within the broad landscape of evangelicalism (and other churches) who have some appreciation for Martin Luther but think that he did not go far enough. They think that Luther was still too Catholic and maybe if he had lived longer he would have come to some of the same conclusions that these evangelicals have. Laying aside the fact that Luther himself wrote against many of the ideas that modern evangelicals are promoting with lots of Scripture to back it up and no sign of changing course, let's consider what it is that modern evangelicals throw away in the name of being too Catholic and what they retain.

What exactly was Martin Luther writing against? It started with the dispute over indulgences. Neither Lutherans nor evangelicals sell indulgences or claim to have the power to grant them. The Roman Catholic Church no longer sells them, but still claims to have the power to grant them. However, both evangelicals and Roman Catholics tend to promote tithing and usually use the same passages from Scripture. Tithing and indulgences are not exactly the same thing but they are often tied by both evangelicals and Roman Catholics to a transactional relationship with God. Tithing is seen as a way to manipulate God. They both make use of the passage from Malachi and tell people that if they are not being blessed its because they aren't tithing and so you better give your 10%. Both groups fail to notice that tithing is not something that the New Testament church is commanded to do. Tithing was done to support both the government and the priesthood under the Old Testament theocracy and actually added up to closer to 30%. In regards to tithing evangelicals are more "Catholic" than Lutherans are.

Both Roman Catholics and evangelicals tend to be big on transactionalism. Evangelical books and preachers like to talk about life principles and make claims about how if you do 'a' then God will do 'b.' Evangelical movies are most often about someone who was not a Christian and was an alcoholic or was a in a bad marriage and having all kinds of bad things happen to them. Then the character says a sinner's prayer and everything starts working out for them. He no longer has a desire to sin and everything is hunky dory. They talk about leading the victorious Christian life. This is in stark contrast to theology of the Scriptures and Lutheranism. Both Lutherans and the Scriptures teach that becoming a Christian often means a harder life in which you will face persecution. You will come to know your sin more and more as a Christian but will not become sinless. In this case, evangelicals have not gone farther than Lutherans but have run past Rome in the opposite direction.

One of the errors of Roman Catholicism is its teaching that the law is doable. This is the same error at the Pharisees taught and the same error of many evangelicals. Most evangelicals will say that man cannot save himself but post-conversion, the believer is treated to sermons in which the law passages in Scripture are presented as something that is doable. This is not a progression beyond Luther but a move back to Roman Catholicism. Paul refers to this as preaching the law unlawfully. There is great variety in evangelical preaching and there some variety in Roman Catholic preaching but generally speaking if you were to randomly select sermons and compare, they are actually very, very similar. The difference is usually that the Roman Catholic sermons tend to mention Jesus more. The Roman Catholic sermons generally just set Jesus up as an example but at least they speak of Him more often. Confessional Lutheran sermons are focused on Christ's work for you, most Roman Catholic sermons are focused on Jesus as moral example, and most evangelical sermons are focused on Biblical principles derived from Scripture. So in this case as well evangelicals have not gone beyond Luther but have run the opposite direction passing up Rome.

Many evangelicals are not opposed to all images of Christ. They like the one where Jesus looks a little effiminate and is looking off into the distance. But they are opposed to crucifixes. Evangelicals absolutely hate them. At first glance this would appear to be a way in which evangelicals have gone beyond Luther because Luther did not go far enough. But why do evangelicals hate the crucifix? Usually the answer that they give is that we worship the resurrected Christ. Laying aside the fact that an empty cross is still the symbol of crucifixion and not resurrection, this also shows that they are running in the opposite direction of Luther (and St. Paul). Evangelicals don't like the crucifix because it draws attention away from the victorious Christian life. Following Jesus is supposed to make your life happy and successful. But that's not the message of the crucifix. St. Paul said that all he preached was Christ crucified. Roman Catholics have crucifixes and have historically remembered especially those martyrs who have died for their Christian faith. But Luther realized that the problem in the church of Rome is not that it is too focussed upon the cross but that it's not focussed enough. In the Roman Catholic Church "taking up your cross" could mean a variety of different things that were not mandated by the Scriptures and those things were viewed as ways to gain merit with God. Luther took the focus off of the crucifixion of the self and put the focus back on the crucified Christ. So once again, the removal of the crucifix is not a way to run away from Rome and pass up Luther. It's a way to run away from Luther and pass up Rome.

What about the liturgy? Evangelicals haven't just cleaned up the liturgy like Luther did, they've completely done away with it so certainly they must have advanced beyond Luther, right? Not really. Luther recognized the value of the historic liturgy. From its earliest days, the Christian church has been liturgical. Jewish worship was liturgical, and Christians modified the liturgy, first by adding baptism and the Lord's Supper. The liturgy developed in such a way that everything pointed to Christ and His work and ended with the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Over time, unbiblical ideas that distracted people away from Christ and what He did worked their way into the liturgy. So Luther purged those false ideas out of the liturgy. In a very superficial way you could argue that throwing the liturgy out entirely goes beyond Luther but in reality it's another case of running the opposite direction. Luther purged out those things which distracted us from the work of Christ. The evangelical throws out the liturgy and usually replaces it with 19th century (or newer) hymns or modern praise and worship songs. In either case the focus of the songs is generally on the worshiper and not on Christ. "We bring the sacrifice of praise" and all that. So we once again find evangelicalism running in the opposite direction of Luther.

And instead of the Lord's Supper, at the end of the service we more frequently find the altar call. There is no altar call in Scripture. Luther believed that the Lord's Supper should be celebrated more frequently than it was being celebrated in his day. So less frequent celebration means running in the opposite direction of Luther. The Lord's Supper is all about Jesus giving His body and blood for me. The altar call is all about me having an emotional experience. The altar call was developed by Charles Finney in the 19th century. He believed that the Holy Spirit was unnecessary for conversion and that given the right emotional manipulation you could convert anybody. At least the Roman Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit must get the conversion process going.  The altar call has less Scriptural support than praying to the saints and the practice is much newer. The altar call is an example of running as far away from Luther as you possibly can. You're running so fast at this point that the Roman Catholic church doesn't even see you whiz by and you find yourself sitting next to Pelagius and other rationalists.

What about what the Lord's Supper actually is? Lutherans hold to that crazy Roman Catholic idea that you receive the body and blood of Christ in communion. Haven't evangelicals gone beyond Luther and rejected this crazy Roman Catholic teaching? Although Lutherans teach that the body and blood of Christ is really present in the Lord's Supper, they do so for different reasons than the Roman Catholics. Roman Catholic dogma in regards to the Lord's Supper is based on Aristotelian metaphysics. The Lutheran position is based on what Jesus said the Lord's Supper is in Scripture. So in order for a group to go beyond Luther they would have to base their position on what Jesus said even more. But instead they run the opposite direction. Jesus couldn't possibly have meant what He said. Jesus never says "This symbolizes my body."

But what about baptism? Those crazy Lutherans believe that people's sins are actually forgiven in baptism and that babies can be baptized just like those crazy Roman Catholics. Surely, baptism is an instance where evangelicals have gone beyond Luther in this instance. But once again, Luther based his position on Scripture. So in order to go beyond Luther you would have to get more Scriptural. We never read in the Scripture that baptism is the believer's first act of obedience or any of the other jargon that gets thrown around. The Bible says that baptism is for the remission of sins. But what about babies? The Bible never says to baptize babies. The Bible doesn't specify ages at all. Households were baptized and certainly Jews would operate under the assumption that if circumcision was administered to babies so would baptism. Babies are part of the nations that Jesus said to disciple by baptizing and teaching. Babies are people to. When the Bible says "Thou shalt not murder" you can't say that it doesn't apply to 37 year olds. But baptism is a work and we are not saved by our works. Baptism is not our work. Baptism is never said to be an act that we do to ourselves. God baptizes us. We get baptized. The Bible speaks of the preaching of the Gospel, baptism, and the Lord's Supper as being for the remission of sins. Most evangelicals would have no problem with the idea that the preaching of the Gospel is for the remission of sins but for some reason they don't think that baptism and the Lord's Supper can possibly be for the remission of sins.

There are a variety of issues that Lutherans and evangelicals would agree that the Roman Catholic church is wrong about. But the Romaphobia of Evangelicalism seems to strangely cause them to embrace the actual teachings of Roman Catholicism. Several statements by Billy Graham make it clear that he had a very Roman Catholic understanding of salvation. Many evangelicals are convinced that Roman Catholics believe that we are simply saved by our works. The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that we are justified by faith formed by love. Is that any different than when Rick Warren says, "Faith is not enough. You need transforming love too"?


Hermit said...

Strange as it may seem, but, being an Evangelical minister, I would agree with most of the points. I myself have preached against "altar calls" and "the sinner's prayer". And not only me: Paul Washer, for example (he is a Southern Baptist pastor), makes it a big issue. As for the tithing, many times I have suggested that the very word is tabooed in my congregation. Some will agree, the others would not, but the thing is that Evangelicals, as well as Lutherans, are not that homogeneous.

Chuck Wiese said...

I was painting evangelicals with a rather broad brush based on my own experience with and in evangelicalism. I'm sure that there are many self-described "evangelicals" who do not do all of these things. Lutherans are not homogeneous but we do have the Book of Concord. There are certainly many who go by the name "Lutheran" who doing things that are contrary to the Book of Concord but when they are doing this I can say that they are not acting like Lutherans. I'm not sure that the same is true with "Evangelicals." What objective criteria is there that if someone were charged with being an evangelical they could be found guilty aside from self-identification? If there is a wide-range of beliefs on soteriology within evangelicalism, what is the point of someone identifying themselves as such? I used to be a Southern Baptist, but it seems rather strange to me. There is so much diversity among Southern Baptists on soteriology and lots of other issues. What is the basis for unity? Believing you shouldn't baptize babies? Although Paul Washer does speak against altar calls and say that people should be directed to Christ, if you read the whole message that's not what he actually does. He's calling people away from placing their assurance of salvation in a single objective moment of subjectivity and directing them to a daily introspective life of subjectivity. He's telling people that they cannot know they are real Christians unless they see sanctification happening in their lives. Anyone who is honest with themselves will realize that the more they look within themselves, the more they notice sin hiding in every nook and cranny. Whereas the Scriptures treat the baptized as Christians, Paul Washer believes it is wrong to do so because Washer is constantly directing us away from the objective and turning us to the subjective. Paul Washer constantly confuses law and gospel and is pretty sloppy with his exegesis. Matthew 7 is dealing with how to recognize false prophets. Verse 21 is dealing with the false prophets who do miraculous things in the name of Jesus but do not do the will of the Father. The will of the Father is that they believe that it's all about Jesus (vs. 24-27). These false prophets are constantly pointing to their works. The sheep do sheepy things without even realizing it. They are too busy looking to Christ to be getting the sanctification ruler out. May the Lord have mercy on us for the times we look to anything but Christ hanging dead on the cross as proof that we have been saved by Him.

Andrew said...

Good article. I just said that about Matthew 7 and Paul Washer to my Baptist father last week. I am glad to see that I am not the only one who noticed.