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Posts Tagged ‘church history’

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We’ve been reading through the letter of James in staff devotions at iServe Africa and a particular cluster of questions has arisen in our minds a number of times – How does this relate to the Reformation? Didn’t Luther hate James? Isn’t the great rallying call of the Reformation – ‘Justification by Faith Alone’ – against what James is talking about? Did the Reformation neglect the big New Testament emphasis on good works?

Three fairly brief thoughts on this and then a more extended quote:

  1. This was precisely the accusation at the time – by those from within the Roman church – that the Reformers were against good works. And it was answered numerous times by the Reformers, just as Paul had needed to answer the accusations against him that claimed that he was against the Law and good works (Romans 6-7). To give one example, in the Augsburg Confession (1530), the Lutheran theologians begin Article 20 (On Good Works), “Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding good works” and close the article, “Hence it may be readily seen that this doctrine [faith] is not to be charged with prohibiting good works, but rather the more to be commended because it shows how we are enabled to do good works. For without faith human nature can in no wise… call upon God, nor expect anything from God, nor bear the cross, but seeks, and trusts in, man’s help. And thus, when there is no faith and trust in God all manner of lusts and human devices rule in the heart. Wherefore Christ said, John 15:5: Without Me ye can do nothing.”
  2. Luther did indeed dislike the letter of James. But a large part of the reason for that was that he thought it flatly contradicted Paul on justification. He could see no way that ‘faith justifies’ and ‘faith does not justify’ could be harmonised (Table Talk, 1532). Behind this seems to be an overly simplistic logical-grammatical-literal view of language. While Luther’s straightforward approach to the words of the Bible was brilliant for dismantling the linguistic gymnastics, subversions and allegories with which the scholastic Roman church had been torturing Scripture (see particularly Luther’s devastating On The Bondage of the Will), the same approach sometimes made him somewhat insensitive to the subtlety and variety of human language took him to some strange positions (e.g. his refusal to accept that ‘This is my body” could mean anything other than that the bread was Jesus’ body). In the case of James and Paul, Luther seems to assume that ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ have identical meanings across all Scripture rather than exploring whether James and Paul might mean rather different things by both ‘faith’ and ‘justify’ (cf. the use of ‘flesh’ by John and Paul).
  3. In fact Luther had a strong place for good works in his understanding of the life of faith. In one place, which I can’t locate, he speaks of the gospel taking the Law from being a stick to beat us to being a staff in our hand to help us walk along the way. In his commentaries and lectures Luther tracks the New Testament pattern of looking first to Christ as our substitute and then as our example; first gospel doctrine as the foundation, then good works built on top as the beautiful superstructure. Read for example his commentary on Galatians 5 or his Preface to Romans. In the latter, speaking of Romans 6, he says: “it is a freedom only to do good with eagerness and to live a good life without the coercion of the law. This freedom is, therefore, a spiritual freedom which does not suspend the law but which supplies what the law demands, namely eagerness and love.” And on Romans 12: “These are the works that a Christian does, for, as I have said, faith is not idle.” Sounds quite a lot like James.

Some Luther historians have noted a shift in Luther’s emphasis from an early tight focus on faith alone and sovereign grace to a later concern to address the antinomianism tangent of some of his followers and to assert more strongly the need for holiness. Perhaps that is true, but it should be noted that even his early works often had a strong (and beautiful) doctrine of good works. Here is a passage from a very helpful article in the Grace Theological Journal by church historian James McGoldrick:

“In his treatise The Freedom of a Christian (1520) Luther stated, “a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” At first glance the above propositions may appear to be irreconcilable, but Luther found them fully harmonious-correlative truths. He explained by citing the dictum of St. Paul, “though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor 9: 19 NIV). Luther held that genuine Christian faith always produces love, for faith must be active in love. Faith ascends to God, and Christian love descends to one’s neighbor and renders service to him as a fulfillment of the believer’s calling. The Christian does not need to work for his salvation, as the Romanists contended, so he is free to invest his life in the service of his fellow men. In the ultimate sense, one can do nothing for God, for he is utterly self-sufficient. Man, however, who has been created in the image of God, is constantly in need of spiritual and material assistance.

Luther stated it beautifully, “Faith is truly active through love. That is, it finds expression in works of the freest service, cheerfully and lovingly done, with’ which a man willingly serves another without hope of reward; and for himself he is satisfied with the fulness and wealth of his faith.” Good works performed in faith do not bring benefit to God or to one’s self. They bring benefits to one’s neighbor. Although believers and unbelievers may perform exactly the same outward deeds, the works of the latter are not truly good.

In Luther’s understanding of the Christian life the believer’s self image as a servant is a fundamental motif. In the reformer’s words, “a Christian lives not in himself but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love” (Freedom of a Christian). To those who claimed to possess saving faith but failed to demonstrate an active concern for their neighbors’ needs Luther issued a warning about the “illusion of faith.” He insisted that emotional responses to the gospel are not necessarily evidences of genuine faith. Active love, expressing itself in good works, is the only reliable external index of faith. Such love, Luther held, would extend to sharing one’s earthly goods with a neighbor in need. Just as Christ emptied himself when he left heaven to become man (Phil 2:5), believers should sacrifice their possessions for the benefit of those in need. When illness strikes Christians should aid the sick, even at the risk of contagion to themselves. Luther did so himself by remaining in Wittenberg to minister to the sick and dying during an epidemic of bubonic plague.” (McGoldrick, Luther on Life Without Dichotomy)

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Augustine of Hippo is a towering figure in church history and theology. All agree that he was born a Berber in what is now Algeria. But there is quite some debate about how African Augustine really was. Some of this surrounds the question of how dark his skin was – something that was almost irrelevant to the understanding of ethnicity in the Ancient world (ethnicity was understood much more in terms of place, language, customs and kinship). Some have suggested that since Roman north Africa was part of the Roman empire and since Augustine was skilled in Latin rhetoric, spent several years in Italy and was heavily influenced by the classical philosophers, he is more Roman than African.

Four points in answer:

  1. Augustine clearly understood himself to be an African. He talks of “Pontitianus, our countryman so far as being an African, in high office in the Emperor’s court” (Confessions, Book 8, emphasis added). Admittedly, when Augustine talks of ‘Africa’ (e.g. four times in his Confessions) he is almost certainly speaking of the Roman Province of Africa – central, coastal North Africa excluding Morocco and Egypt and certainly not including sub-Saharan Africa. However Roman ‘Africa’ was a distinctive place in the Empire, one that Augustine identified with and where he spent most of his life serving as a presbyter, preacher and overseer of the church.
  2. No culture is sealed. There is no pure indigenous culture. Every culture has come from somewhere else, is a mixture of influences from different places and is gradually (or speedily) in the process of change. North African cultures had clearly been greatly impacted by the coming of pagan-classical Roman rule and then, a few hundred years later, by the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. But Roman Africa would have been a very different place from Roman Britain or Roman Italy. As recent post-colonial theorists and anthropologists have discovered, colonialism (ancient or modern) does not create monolithic cultural hegemony but rather a complex patchwork of hybrid cultures as different places interact with the colonising culture in different ways. At the same time, the colonising culture turns out to be equally complex, changeable and undergoes its own hybridisation. The fact that Africans like Augustine and Pontitianus were working in Rome, not as slaves but as free men, teaching rhetoric to the elite, shows a different side to the Roman Empire than the one we often see in films like Gladiator, where the only Africans coming into Rome seem to be slaves to be slaughtered in the Colosseum. The Roman Empire was highly multi-cultural. That could be seen in an African man with a Roman name, following an eastern mystery religion (Manichaeism), with a professorship in classical rhetoric in the heart of the Empire and being prompted by tales of Egyptian monastics (especially Anthony) to consider a Palestinian religion (The Way) which has been adopted by the Roman state. The Roman world was highly diverse, interconnected and mobile with people like Augustine and his family quite able to make trips between Italy and Africa. So let us give up the idea of distinct, hermetically sealed ‘African’ and ‘Western’ cultures, either in history or today.
  3. When Augustine describes his family (in Confessions, Book 9) there are some quite African-sounding cultural details. His maternal grandfather, when a baby, was carried on the back of a young village girl “as little ones used to be carried on the backs of elder girls.” Augustine’s mother Monica (a Berber name) was brought up largely by a maid who was very strict with her, including making sure she didn’t drink too much water, a discipline to prevent intemperance. And as Monica comes close to death, Augustine notes how his brother tries to encourage his mother to keep going on the journey back home (from Italy to Africa) “wishing for her, as the happier lot, that she might die, not in a strange place, but in her own land.” Quite an African sensibility.
  4. Despite the complex influences upon him, ultimately Augustine was neither captive to his African culture nor Roman culture because he came to encounter the culture-transcending God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the pages of Scripture. At first the words of the Bible were repulsive to him: “they seemed to me unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of [Cicero]; for my swelling pride shrunk from their lowliness, nor could my sharp wit pierce the interior thereof. Yet were they such as would grow up a little one [child]. But I disdained to be a little one; and swollen with pride, took myself to be a great one.” (Confessions, Book 3). Augustine’s polished classical education prejudiced him against the rough bluntness of the Bible’s language while his pride, and perhaps also his African upbringing which would no doubt have emphasised the importance of transitioning from boy to man, prejudiced him against a reverse rite of passage – transitioning from man to little child. But, despite the cultural offence, he describes how he was slowly, agonisingly, irresistibly drawn by the saving power of God and through these same Scriptures was brought to Christ, crucifying his old nature and putting on Christ. And how then the Scriptures came alive to him, especially the Psalms: “how was I by them kindled towards Thee, and on fire to rehearse them, if possible through the whole world, against the pride of mankind” (Confessions, Book 9). It is these Scriptures which gave Augustine his strong doctrines of the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man – doctrines which are foolish and offensive to the natural man. It is these Scriptures which gave his mother Monica an increasing awareness of the surpassing goodness of the Future Land prepared for her such that by the time of her death she was no longer concerned to be buried on her ancestral land. It is these Scriptures which are the only hope for people from all nations.

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Just doing a bit of research on monasticism and came across this great quote from Benedict’s Rule (530 AD) which is instruction to the abbot of a monastery but reads like good wisdom for pastors and Christian leaders:

Once in office, the abbot must keep constantly in mind the nature of the burden he has received, and remember to whom he will have to give an account of his stewardship [Luke 16: 2]. Let him recognize that his goal must be profit for the monks, not preeminence for himself. He ought, therefore, to be learned in divine law, so that he has a treasury of knowledge from which he can bring out what is new and what is old [Matt. 13: 52]. He must be chaste, temperate and merciful. He should always let mercy triumph over judgment [James 2: 13] so that he too may win mercy. He must hate faults but love the brothers. When he must punish them, he should use prudence and avoid extremes; otherwise, by rubbing too hard to remove the rust, he may break the vessel. He is to distrust his own frailty and remember not to crush the bruised reed [Isa. 42: 3]. . . . Let him strive to be loved rather than feared. Excitable, anxious, extreme, obstinate, jealous or oversuspicious he must not be. . . . Instead, he must show forethought and consideration in his orders.
(Rule of Benedict trans. Timothy Fry quoted in Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, Baker)

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