Posts tagged ‘Roman Catholic Church’

The Reformation of the Church

Luther95theses

Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872

Tomorrow, many corners of the Christian Church will mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  And though the Reformation of the Church was larger than any one event and any one man, the beginning of this grand theological and historical watershed is traditionally traced to October 31, 1517, when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, outlining his grievances against some of the abuses that were rampant in the Roman Catholic Church of his day.

At the heart of Luther’s protest was the Church’s sale of indulgences.  Indeed, in his 95 theses, Luther uses the word “indulgence” some 45 times!  An indulgence was a partial remission of punishment for sin, issued by the Church, and could be used either to lessen a person’s future penalties in purgatory, or to shorten a deceased loved one’s current intermediate period in purgatory.   Indulgences took both the form of personal good works, such as pilgrimages and acts of devotion, as well as the form of a payment to the Church by which, it was said, one could have some of the good works of one of the Church’s canonized saints imputed to him to counterbalance his sin.

In Luther’s day, a preacher named Johann Tetzel shamelessly peddled the second type of indulgence, claiming that paying for an indulgence could breezily and easily excuse a sin for which one would otherwise have to suffer terribly in purgatory.  With clownish flamboyance, he declared:

Consider, that for each and every mortal sin it is necessary to undergo seven years of penitence after confession and contrition, either in this life or in purgatory.

How many mortal sins are committed in a day, how many in a week, how many in a month, how many in a year, how many in the whole extent of life! They are well-nigh numberless, and those that commit them must needs suffer endless punishment in the burning pains of purgatory.

But with these confessional letters you will be able at any time in life to obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed upon you …

Are you not willing, then, for the fourth part of a florin, to obtain these letters, by virtue of which you may bring, not your money, but your divine and immortal soul, safe and sound into the land of paradise?

According to Tetzel, one sin buys a person seven years of suffering in purgatory.  If a person commits only one sin a day, which, according to Tetzel himself, who invites his hearers to ponder “how many mortal sins are committed in a day,” is an unrealistic underestimation, this would mean that, for one year’s worth of sins, a person would spend 2,555 years in purgatory.  If a person lived to be 75, they would have to endure 191,625 years of suffering in purgatory.  But, Tetzel continues, “for the fourth part of a florin,” one can purchase an indulgence letter, which allows the bearer to “obtain full indulgence for all penalties imposed on you.”  A florin was an Italian gold coin worth around $144 in today’s currency.  A fourth of a florin, then, would be worth around $36.  Thus, Tetzel’s message was this:  for $36, your sins can be taken care of, and you can enter effortlessly into paradise.  What a deal!

The problem with Tetzel’s deal, of course, is that, ultimately, he cheapened both the penalty and the payment for sin.  As harrowing as 191,625 years in purgatory may sound, the true penalty for sin is even more terrifying, for it is not a finite time in purgatory, but an infinite eternity in hell.  And the true payment for sin that rescues us from this eternity in hell is certainly more than a measly $36.  The true payment for sin is nothing short of priceless.  As God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Without money you will be redeemed” (Isaiah 52:3).  The true payment for sin is nothing less than the priceless blood of Christ.

The truth Luther rediscovered is that the penalty for sin is much steeper and the payment for sin is much deeper than an indulgence preacher like Johann Tetzel ever let on.  And this is the truth that launched a reformation of the Church.

Tetzel passed away in 1519, only two short years after the Reformation began.  By this time his ministry had been discredited, and he had been accused of fathering an illegitimate child.  When Luther heard that Tetzel was near death, he wrote his old theological sparring partner a kind note, begging him “not to be troubled, for the matter did not begin on his account, but the child had quite a different father.”

Luther was known for preaching grace as a theologian.  It turns out that, for all his protestations against and sometimes harsh critiques of the Catholic Church of his day, at times, he was also gracious as a person.  And grace is better than any indulgence.  This was Luther’s message – and, most importantly, this is the gospel message.  And that’s a message worth celebrating, which is why the Reformation is worth celebrating, even 500 years later.

“Indulgences are in truth the most insignificant graces when compared with the grace of God and the piety of the cross.” (Martin Luther)

October 30, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Abortion, Absolution, and Pope Francis

francis

In a letter dated Sunday, November 20, Pope Francis announced that any woman who has had an abortion can now be forgiven for that sin by a priest.  This move toward priestly absolution for abortion began a full year ago when the pope announced a “Year of Mercy.”  Before this special year, only ecclesiastical higher ups could absolve someone of an abortion unless a particular region gave special disposition to its local priests to absolve this sin, which the Catholic Church in the United States had already done.  The pope’s announcement of a Year of Mercy gave this right to priests worldwide.  And now the pope has extended this right into perpetuity.  In his missive, the pope explained:

We have celebrated an intense Jubilee Year in which we have received the grace of mercy in abundance. Like a gusting but wholesome wind, the Lord’s goodness and mercy have swept through the entire world. Because each of us has experienced at length this loving gaze of God, we cannot remain unaffected, for it changes our lives…

Lest any obstacle arise between the request for reconciliation and God’s forgiveness, I henceforth grant to all priests, in virtue of their ministry, the faculty to absolve those who have committed the sin of procured abortion. The provision I had made in this regard, limited to the duration of the Extraordinary Holy Year, is hereby extended, notwithstanding anything to the contrary.

When the pope first announced his Year of Mercy, The New York Times ran an editorial by Jill Filipovic titled, “The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”  In her piece, Ms. Filipovic decries the idea that those who had obtained an abortion should need forgiveness.  She writes:

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

At issue for Ms. Filipovic is the fact that abortion would be classified as a sin at all.  For her, forgiveness for an abortion is neither needed nor desirable.  What is needed is a wholehearted endorsement and promotion of abortion itself.

The biblical position on abortion and forgiveness undermines both the Roman Catholic Church’s strange view of absolution, especially before this recent papal pronouncement, along with the secularist’s cynicism toward the sinfulness of abortion.  The secular view of abortion and forgiveness is inadequate precisely because the emotions of “shame and guilt,” contrary to Ms. Filipovic’s assertion, should be the affective outcome of any sin, including abortion.  Our sin should make us feel bad – at least if we take what God commands seriously.  Only God’s gospel can remedy our shame and guilt as it releases our sins to Christ on the cross.  Abortion cannot be excused and explained away.  It can only be forgiven.

Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on abortion and forgiveness also will not do.  The now former restriction on priestly absolution for abortion seems to have been largely meant as a threatening deterrent against particularly grievous sins, as is explained in the Baltimore Catechism:

The absolution from some sins is reserved to the pope or bishop to deter or prevent, by this special restriction, persons from committing them, either on account of the greatness of the sin itself or on account of its evil consequences.

This restriction overlooks the fact that, theologically speaking, every sin is an affront against all divine law, therefore making any sin damnable.  It also overlooks the fact that to make forgiveness difficult to obtain via a barrage of ecclesiastical red tape takes what is meant to be a gift from God and perverts it into a work of man.  This makes the forgiveness spoken of here antithetical to the gospel rather than the center of the gospel, for the gospel is never about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us here:  if you are a woman who has had an abortion, there is hope beyond shame, release beyond burden, and wholeness beyond brokenness.  Not because there shouldn’t be any shame, any burden, or any brokenness.  And not because you can somehow claw your way out shame, burden, and brokenness by a work, even if that work is a work of self-debasing sorrow before a bishop or a priest. No, there is hope and release and wholeness because of Jesus.  After all, He suffered death to conquer death, which means, even if a life has been lost to abortion, that life can be recovered too.  And your life can be made new.

That’s the promise abortion needs.

November 28, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Common Question: What’s the Deal with the Apocrypha?

Apocrypha 166 books. That’s how many books are in the Good Book.  At least, that’s what I had always been taught.  But then, a Roman Catholic friend of mine in high school claimed there was more to the Bible than the 66 books I had read since I was a little boy.  There were actually 73 books, he explained.  And these additional books had strange names like “Maccabees” and “Judith” and “Tobit” and even “Bel and the Dragon.” As he showed me these books, I was flummoxed.  “Why hadn’t I ever heard of these books?” I asked myself.

These mysterious books to which I was introduced in high school are widely known as the “Apocrypha,” a Greek adjective meaning “hidden.”  And though many Christians do not regularly read these books, they are indeed a part of the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture.  In fact, one of the questions I often receive as a pastor is, “Why do Roman Catholics have ‘extra’ books in their Bible?”

Because the Apocrypha is a source of a lot of confusion, I thought it would be worth it to offer a brief history of these books along with an analysis of them from a Lutheran Christian perspective.

The books of the Apocrypha were written between the close of the Old Testament in 430 BC and the beginning of the New Testament.  These books include historical accounts, supplements to famous Old Testament books such as Daniel and Esther, and wisdom books akin to the Proverbs.

From the beginning, these books were never fully embraced by the Church as inspired Scripture. Paul Maier, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, explains:

The Apocrypha … were not included in the final canon of the Hebrew Bible, which was debated by rabbis at Jamnia (near Jerusalem) in AD 93. Thus they were also not included among the very 39 books that comprise the Old Testament in Christian Bibles today …

Early on … churchmen such as Origen of Alexandria noted a difference between the Apocrypha and the Hebrew Scriptures.  Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome also drew a line of separation between the two, using the term Apocrypha for the first time in reference to these writings.  To be sure, Jerome included them in his Latin translation if the Bible, the Vulgate, but advised that the Apocrypha should be read for edification, not for supporting church dogma.[1]

Jerome’s warning against using the Apocrypha as a basis for Christian doctrine is especially important. His doctrinal concern is perhaps best illustrated by 2 Maccabees 12:44-45 when the Jewish liberator Judas Maccabeus prays for some who have died, seeking to make atonement for the sins they committed while they were still alive.  From these verses, the Roman Catholic Church derives its doctrine of Purgatory, a place where deceased believers undergo a final purification from sin that readies them for the bliss of heaven.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the doctrine of Purgatory thusly:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death the undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.[2]

This teaching runs contrary both to the broad teaching of canonical Scripture, which declares that a person enters either paradise or hell immediately upon death (e.g., Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43), and to the gospel, because it adds to Christ’s perfectly purifying work on the cross our own work of purification in Purgatory by which we may “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” By adding our achievements to Christ’s achievement, the doctrine of Purgatory belittles and undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.  Thus, the universal Church does not treat the Apocrypha as divinely inspired.

Interestingly, the Apocrypha was not even fully embraced by the Roman Catholic Church until the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent in 1546.  In this session, it was declared:

But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.[3]

With this decree, the Roman Catholic Church effectively erased the distinction between ancient books that should be read for private edification and inspired books that should be appealed to for Christian doctrine – a distinction that Jerome, the very one who translated the Latin Vulgate, which Rome was here declaring to be its official translation, had made!  Thus, Rome took Jerome’s translation, but disregarded his distinction. And the Church has been the worse for it over the years.

All of this is not to say that the Apocrypha should be altogether disregarded. Maier notes that “Clement of Alexandria, Polycarp, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian, and Augustine” cited heartily from the Apocrypha.  These books give us much valuable historical insight into this time period and chronicle for us the origins of the religious parties we meet in the New Testament, such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.  Thus, the Apocrypha is worth our time and study.  We need to know about these books.  Indeed, Martin Luther superscribed the books of the Apocrypha like this: “Books that are not be regarded as the equal of Holy Scripture but are nonetheless profitable and good to read.”[4]

If you’re looking for a good book, then, pick up the Apocrypha.  If you’re looking for a divinely inspired book, however – that book still has only 66 books.

__________________________

[1] Paul Maier, “Foreword,” The Apocrypha:  The Lutheran Edition with Notes (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 2012), xv-xvi.

[2] See Catechism of the Catholic Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1994), §1030-1031.

[3] The Fourth Session of the Council of Trent (April 1546).

[4] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, Ewald M. Plass, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), 1512, n. 20.

April 7, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Is Cremation Okay?

From time to time, I receive questions concerning the practice of cremation.  After all, cremation certainly has its benefits:  it is less costly than a traditional burial and, if someone desires, he can keep a loved one’s ashes in his home rather than shipping them off to a cemetery.  But some people are reticent about the practice though, oddly enough, they often do not know why they have reservations.  When asked about cremation, I have heard more than one person say things like, “I heard the church doesn’t like cremation,” or, “Doesn’t the Bible teach against cremation?”  The responses to these statements are “no” and “no,” though these responses do come with some qualifications.

Cremation became increasingly popular in the nineteenth century because of a growing fear that one could be accidentally buried alive.  Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University, writes about this phobia:

Newspapers regularly featured stories of individuals, given up for dead, waking up from trances just before being lowered underground.  And witnesses to exhumations testified repeatedly about finding corpses that had turned on their sides, gouged out their eyes, and even fractured their bones in what one medical encyclopedia termed “desperate struggle for escape.”[1]

The thinking went that it was better, if one was accidentally pronounced dead, to be quickly burned to death in a crematorium than to be slowly suffocated to death in a coffin.  Nevertheless, cremation, though widely touted in the secular society of the nineteenth century, was not universally embraced – especially by those in the church.

The Christian emperor Charlemagne elevated cremation to the level of a capital crime in 789 because it parroted the practices of ancient pagans.[2]  The Roman Catholic Church prohibited the practice in the 1917 Code of Canon Law which read, in part, “The bodies of the faithful must be buried, and cremation is reprobated. If anyone has in any manner ordered his body to be cremated, it shall be unlawful to execute his wish.”[3] In 1963, however, Pope Paul VI lifted this ban, noting:

There has been a change for the better in attitudes and in recent years more frequent and clearer situations impeding the practice of burial have developed. Consequently, the Holy See is receiving repeated requests for a relaxation of church disciplines relative to cremation. The procedure is clearly being advocated today, not out of hatred of the Church or Christian customs, but rather for reasons of health, economics, or other reasons involving private or public order.[4]

The prior ban on cremation by the Roman Catholic Church seemed to stem from a rationalistic rejection of the resurrection of the body on the Last Day by some heady antagonists and not from a theological objection to the practice per se.   There were some who used cremation as a way to defy Jesus, saying He could not raise a body from death upon His return if that body had been incinerated.  This is why even today, The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body.”[5]

Silly protestations against the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day aside, there is no demonstrable theological reason to reject cremation.  Scripture never explicitly addresses the practice and, for those who would be foolish enough to believe that Jesus could not raise a body burned to ash, they would do well remember God’s curse on Adam:  “Dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).  If God can raise Adam from death on the Last Day long after he has decomposed into dust, God can raise a cremated person from death on the Last Day long after he has been incinerated into dust.  And the Christian church has known this – and taught this – from her earliest days.  Felix, a Latin apologist from the second century, writes, “Every body, whether it is dried up into dust, or is dissolved into moisture, or is compressed into ashes, or is attenuated into smoke, is withdrawn from us, but it is reserved for God in the custody of the elements.”[6]  Even when our bodies return to the elements from which they were formed, Felix says, our God nevertheless retains custody over these elements and will reconstitute these elements into perfected and glorified bodies on the Last Day.

What is the upshot of all of this, then?  Each family must make their own decisions as to how to best honor a loved one after his or her passing.  Cremation is an option, as is a traditional burial.  There is no need to fret over either option theologically, for both are acceptable in God’s sight.  What God concerns Himself with is not how a person is buried, but how that person who believes will be ultimately raised to a life of eternal bliss with the Lord and with other believers.  And God’s concern should be our hope!


[1] Stephen Prothero, Purified by Fire:  A History of Cremation in America (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2001), 72.

[2] Cf. Lucy Bregman, Religion, Death, and Dying (Santa Barbara:  Praeger, 2010), 13.

[3] 1917 Code of Canon Law, Canon 1203.

[4] Pope Paul VI, Piam et constantem, 3366.

[5] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2301.

[6] ANF 4:34.

August 20, 2012 at 5:15 am 3 comments


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,080 other followers


%d bloggers like this: