The phrase “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried,” dates to the Catholic author and man of letters G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), the same G.K. Chesterton who inspired the delightful Father Brown mysteries currently available on Netflix. Chesterton’s maxim is probably correct, though he might have made an exception for Martin Luther, who “tried” Catholicism with his entire being and found it not just difficult, but impossible to fulfill. I noted in Reformation Post 30 that Luther was beyond scrupulous in his monastic observance, to the point of neuroticism.
There is no better example of the pressures of his fears of going to hell than the celebration of his first Mass as an ordained priest in 1506. This Mass, celebrated in his monastery, included in the congregation Luther’s father; the two had not spoken for several years since Luther had spurned his father’s wishes to become a lawyer by entering the Augustinian Order instead. All of Luther’s biographers concur that the monk priest experienced some powerful emotion that immobilized him at the moment of consecration, when he uttered the words that changed the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. Given his overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness and his six-hour confessions, the realization of holding God in his own hands not surprisingly created a panic or dissociation, though with the help of his confessor, Staupitz, Luther was able to finish the Mass and enjoy the communal festivities of the day.
Luther was doing everything that he believed the Church required of him to save his soul, to the point of going beyond even the austere standard life of monks to extreme works of deprivation, discipline, and exhaustive examination of conscience over his profound sense of guilt and unworthiness. He was not alone in his suffering, for the late middle ages and the early Renaissance was a time of confusion, fear, and even cynicism over the issue of salvation. A very rough division of Luther’s world would look something like this: (1) Catholics who believed that the rites of the faith were sufficient for salvation by way of the Church’s own authority; (2) Catholics who despaired that any good works of faith could save them; and (3) a growing class of cynics and men of letters who questioned the entire structure of a “saving authority” based upon the creation of man.
For all his anguish, Luther dedicated himself to his monastic life of teaching and scholarship at his university in Erfurt and other assignments given to him by his order, including a visit to Rome in 1510 for administrative matters regarding his community. If you read anything of Luther in your lifetime, you will draw the conclusion that he was profoundly scandalized by life in the Eternal City and lost faith in the Church. It is true that Leo X, a Medici pope, was a very worldly man with little interests to addressing the need for reform that many Catholics, including Luther, and Leo’s excessive spending fueled the practice of sale of indulgences.
But Luther’s experience went further than scandal over corrupt clerics. He was still able to draw a distinction between a saving Church and the corrupt hierarchy who might be disgracing it at any point in history. In fact, the Augustinian monk engaged in several religious activities on behalf of himself and his family while in Rome. While I was in Rome in 2013 I visited the mother Church of Christendom in Luther’s day, St. John Lateran. Then as now, the central relics of the majestic Church remain the [reputed] heads of St. Peter and St. Paul. I must admit to significant doubt about the veracity of this claim, but my faith has never rested upon relics.
In Luther’s day, however, this Church of John the Apostle offered many blessings based upon such questionable traditions, particularly for priests. The legend arose that that a priest offering Mass under its roof could obtain his own mother’s salvation. Unfortunately, the church was so packed with tourists and pilgrims that it was impossible for him to do so. As Eric Metaxas writes, “The very idea of it must have been disturbing and confusing; that because of the gabbling crowds, Luther’s dear mother might suffer the horrors of purgatory, or worse. What sense did it all make? But the Church was full of such mysteries, and who was this Martin, a sinful monk, to question any of it?” (Martin Luther, 2017, p. 61)
Luther then progressed to the Scala Sancta or “Holy Stairs” where pilgrims might gain relief for suffering souls in Purgatory by climbing the stairs on their knees and offering the prescribed prayers. Luther found himself lamenting that such divine intervention could not be applied to his parents because they were not dead. Years later Luther would recall that at the top of the steps “he suddenly wondered whether all he had just done so obediently would have the effect that the church so authoritatively and specifically and confidently said it would.” (Metaxas, p. 61) It was a moment of truth for the struggling monk, who observed, too, that the clerical life in Rome was in serious decline; a typical Mass could be offered in twelve minutes, and in some churches as little as nine minutes.
Luther obviously had much to think about upon his return to Germany, and his position as a scholar gave him the opportunity to reflect upon the Church and the sources of its authority. Like any good humanist of the early Renaissance, he returned to earlier sources. Needless to say, he could find nothing in St. Augustine or any other Church father from the age of the great councils on matters such as indulgences, applications of merits, or the timespan of Masses. He did not deny the reality of the Church nor the need for it, but he came to understand that in its present form the Church was not capable of self-correction, given its unnuanced claim of authority. How did a believer live in a Church that was, in a sense, “overreaching?”
If this was true, then by what measure could the Church be reformed? And perhaps more importantly, how could an individual baptized believer reach an assurance of salvation, a realization that God heard his prayers? Where could a believer turn for the ultimate truths of salvation? In post 32 on this stream we will look at Luther’s pastoral and theological breakthrough that would alter the religious experience of the Christian world.
I will be away for about five more days. In the meantime, today I am leaving a book review of another Protestant Reformer who came to prominence as Luther grew older. Enjoy!
By Bruce Gordon
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2011)
A biography of John Calvin is of necessity a history of his time. The religious landscape of Europe during Calvin's lifetime [1509-1564] was most complex in terms of grassroots pastoral piety, theological exploration, and international relations. And then there is Calvin: his own religious journey, from French Catholic reformer to Protestant patriarch. There is the corpus of Calvin's theological thought and writing, enduring and controversial to this day. And finally, there is the matter of Calvin's ecclesiology: what structural and communal body of belief and practice did he leave his followers. Bruce Gordon has produced an eminently readable and highly manageable general study of these questions in producing a remarkable introduction to John Calvin for the informed reader with at least a basic grasp of Reformation dynamics.
As Robert Bireley has narrated in his fine work, “The Refashioning of Catholicism 1450-1700,”  the spirit of church reform was not the exclusive provenance of Luther. Grassroots outcroppings of lay spirituality emerged side-by-side with wholesale reform of many existing Catholic religious orders to improve the tenor of church life by 1500. It is not surprising, then, that the young Catholic Calvin would by his early adulthood identify himself as an apostle of reform. but as Gordon observes, reformist Catholics in France had nowhere to lay their heads in the face the crown’s opposition to Luther and seminal Protestant uprisings of independence on the continent.
Calvin began his studies in theology but turned instead to law. A true humanist of the time, he immersed himself in the Roman philosopher Seneca. At some point in 1533 the Protestant conviction that the papacy was beyond repair was embraced by Calvin, though at this early time such French converts did not as yet have ecclesiastical bodies to align with. Like many of his mindset, Calvin remained a vocal and prolific voice of change within Catholicism until his writings and other agitations made his life in Catholic France intolerable. In 1534 he moved to a more affable setting in Switzerland.
Switzerland’s Protestant reform was rich in zeal but poor in unity. Each of its major cities hosted major proponents of Protestant reformed theology. The major overarching conflict upon Calvin's arrival was the significant tension between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, with the latter advocating a much more radical abandoning of traditional church life than Luther. Gordon pays close attention to the various points of contestation elaborated by such theological masters as Bucer, Oecolampadius, Melanchthon, Erasmus, and others, and he rightly distinguishes Calvin as a theologian with a long view of the future, and the realization that if Protestant reform was to survive, it must be united.
As Gordon chronicles Calvin's life, it becomes clear that Calvin cannot pull together the Christian church. But it is not for lack of trying. As is often the case with great thinkers of all disciplines, Calvin's most lasting contribution to Christianity was written in his relative youth, his "Institutes of Christian Religion." In this work, revised several times during his lifetime, Calvin outlines what might be called reformist ecclesiology for the first time. He weaves together doctrinal foundations, church structure, and personal piety. It is in this work that we come across his controversial definition of "predestination." Gordon's handling of the question is eminently clear and lucid. Calvin believed in what one might term "a double call." The Institutes sites Old Testament metaphor, noting that while Esau and Jacob are both of the chosen people, Jacob had been chosen before birth for special election. On its face Calvin's theory did not convince me, but it may have made more sense at the time of his writing when all warring Christian parties could claim the blessing of baptism but not all, at least in Calvin's eyes, were worthy of eternal election.
Calvin, of course, is historically identified with the city of Geneva. As a young man with zeal and perhaps restless disregard, he took the pulpit as a layman in the company of close and equally outspoken fellow warriors. Theological and personal conflicts led to his discharge from ministerial duties, but he would be invited back by the city magistrates a few years later. Gordon notes that upon his return Calvin was charged with creating a church order that would satisfy divergent expectations in Geneva. Calvin never "mellowed" strictly speaking, but age brought him a greater sense of his personal charism in the pulpit and his organizational role as leader.
Thus, Calvin's ministerial persona was centered on preaching. While he defended a modified sacramental system, it is very clear that the preaching of the Bible and its moral implications for personal and civil life was the fulcrum of ecclesiology and ministerial identity. Gordon describes Calvin as a highly respected preacher, whose sermons did not hesitate to address matters of public conduct and controversy. One gets the impression that he was greatly revered if not greatly loved in Geneva.
It is equally clear from the text that Calvin, whatever he might say about Catholic orders, functioned as a bishop. He fully embraced a magisterial role for the reformed church throughout Europe. This is evident in his recruitment and support of reform missionaries for work in Catholic France, for example, where many of his missionaries came to ultimate cruel martyrdom. Calvin was criticized for not joining them in France, but he defended himself on the grounds that his life was too important for the life of the church as a whole. [“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep scatter.”] Clearly, Calvin was neither a Congregationalist nor a mystic. Gordon repeatedly underscores Calvin’s identification with St. Paul—theologian and definitely churchman.
Gordon is not sentimental about Calvin, but the thought occurs that the reformed church’s first true shepherd resembles in many aspects the Catholic Ignatius of Loyola. By his straightforward rendering of the story, Gordon has made the case for the tragedy and cost of disunion.