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Martin Luther and My Theological Formation: An Old Catholic Priest talks about Luther’s Influence on his Life

The Luther Rose: When they stand under the Cross Christian Hearts turn to Roses

“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” Martin Luther

When a young Priest and Theology Professor at the University of  Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg it changed the course of Western as well as Church history.  He also changed mine.

Martin Luther was the first of a series of theologians that helped make me what I am now. When my Church History professor Dr. Doyle Young and Systematic Theology professor Dr. David Kirkpatrick introduced me to Luther’s writings and his “Theology of the Cross it was earth shaking.  It was his Theology of the Cross brought me to an incarnational understanding of the Christian faith because it is only through the Cross that we come to know God in a truly Christian sense of understanding.  For Luther the Cross was central to understanding the humanity’s relationship to the Trinity, and stands against Calvin whose understanding of God’s will and predestination from before time began tends minimize the Cross, for Calvin it is a mechanism but for Luther it is the most profound and personal revelation of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnational and Trinitarian found in the Theology of the Cross also opened for me essential nature of the Eucharist to the Christian faith and which helping bring me to a catholic understanding of the faith.

The relational aspects of the Theology of the Cross were personalized in the Three Solas; Sola fides by faith alone, Sola Gratia by grace alone and Sola Scriptura by scripture alone. These became the hallmarks of the Reformation and without getting into the weeds to dissect all the ramifications for the Church and the world impact the way that many Christians practice and express their faith to the current day.

The Catholic in me tends to discount Sola Scriptura because Luther himself was such an imperfect practitioner of this. I find that the Anglican and Old Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is a more Biblical way of understanding what we can understand of God as well as in bearing witness of the self revelation of God in Christ in our world than is Sola Scriptura.

The Reformation which began when Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Schlosskirche broke the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe brought about many changes. It was the watershed moment when western church unity was fractured forever. As the years passed this increasingly fractured and diverse church in the west and helped end the primacy of the Church over the State.  The Reformation was also essential to the future Enlightenment as educational institutions, philosophers, historians and scientists gained the freedom to operate free from the all pervasive reach of the Church.

In the beginning when he walked up to the Schlosskirche to post his theses Luther intended nothing more than reforming and curtailing abuses in the Catholic Church and how the Church saw grace, faith and scripture.  Instead he changed the course of history in ways that most modern people, especially conservative Christians fail to comprehend today.  If they did they would not be embracing such heresy as the Dominion movement and it’s Seven MountainsTheology.

I did a lot of study on the Lutheran Reformation in and after seminary. In 1996 while stationed in Germany as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain had the privilege of organizing a series of Reformation tours to Wittenberg, Worms and Heidelberg.  We went to Wittenberg on Reformation day where we attended the Reformationstag service at the Schlosskirche.   I led a walking tour of the town that day.  One of the parishioners from the chapel asked me if I had been toWittenberg before because I seemed like I knew every place in the town.  I had to tell her that I had not been there in person but because of my study had imagined it so many times that I knew every place by heart.  When we went to Worms where Luther on trial before Charles V was told to recant his writings it as the same, except that in Worms the town hall where the Imperial Diet met was destroyed long ago.  However a stone in the pavement marks the spot where Luther concluding his defense before the Emperor Charles V and the assembled Princes and prelates with these immortal words:

“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” It is legend that Luther said the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!”  These words were probably only added later by someone else to make the story more interesting as they do not appear in the council notes.  Not that Luther would have objected.  The film version is linked here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0tk_EvWXQQ&feature=player_embedded

Likewise Luther’s debate with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburgcolloquy regarding points of doctrine was significant for me. It was held that they might unify their separate reform movements. They agreed on all points except the Eucharist where Luther enunciated a very catholic understanding of the “Real Presence.”  Zwingli argued it to be a symbolic memorial though he conceded that it might have some spiritual component.   Luther would not budge and to each of Zwingli’s arguments pulled back the tablecloth to reveal the words “This is my body, this is my blood” which he had carved on the table.  They departed without achieving unity, something that has plagued Protestants to this day and when Zwingli was killed in battle when leading the militia from Zurich to fight the approaching Catholic Army.  When Luther heard about the Zwingli’s death he commented Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’ [Matt. 26:52]. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule.” (Table Talk #1451) When I visitedMarburg with my friend Gottfried in 1997 I stood in the room where the men met and standing at that table I imagined Luther arguing with Zwingli.

Martin Luther helped begin the journey to the Priest that I am now. Others similar to Luther, the Catholic theologian and reformer in his own right Father Hans Kung who was able to do what Luther couldn’t do, make a case for Luther’s theology as part of catholic theology.  Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has brought Luther’s theology to the modern world and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who showed me an example of how to live out the incarnational message of theTheology of the Cross in a world gone mad.  Kung’s book On Being a Christian, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and The Crucified God have being influential in my theological formation. Bonhoeffer’s contribution was how that theology is important in standing up to oppression in all forms, his writings including The Cost o Discipleship, Ethics Creation Fall and Temptation, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison.  All of these men helped me in my transition following seminary to a moderate Anglo-Catholic to an Old Catholic faith that places a high place to Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and Reason in interpreting and living out the faith.

Of course there are others that have influenced me, the early Church Fathers, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Henri Nouwen, Father Andrew Greely  and Bernard Häring to name but a few.  But even so I have always had a special place in my heart for Luther even with all of his flaws which were many.  Luther was earthy, spoke his mind often in a direct and coarse way and had no problem with having fun or good beer.  I relate to him a lot and am in his debt because he helped me become who I am today.

Peace

Padre Steve+


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Holy or Maundy Thursday….Pausing to Reflect on Communion

Today is Holy or Maundy Thursday, a day where many Churches and Christians take the time within their theological traditions to reflect upon in their worship, the institution of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.  Today for me is always special, though the past couple years I was not doing well do to PTSD and other stuff.  This year is different in the sense that I have began to recover that sense of mystery and awe that comes in this celebration.

I grew up in kind of an eclectic faith tradition as a Navy brat. My family was Methodist and I was baptized in my parents and grandparents home church, Southside Methodist Church in Huntington West Virginia.  However living on the West coast we went to Navy Chapels or local civilian churches of various denominations.  During my dad’s time in Vietnam it was a Roman Catholic Navy chaplain who showed us the love of God when many civilian churches made military families unwelcome.  I owe my vocation and faith to that man who took care of our Protestant family.  I remember attending the Holy Thursday Mass at the little Naval Communication station in 1971. There was a sense of mystery and holiness in that service that stayed with me.  When I was in high school I went to a Conservative Baptist church where communion was not observed in the same manner but the Pastor, Reverend Ron Lundy made it special. There was a sense of holiness and thankfulness that I have seldom seen in Evangelical churches since.

When I went to seminary I was attending a non-denominational evangelical/charismatic church.  It was a good church but little emphasis was placed on communion and apart from Easter Sunday no attention was paid to Holy Week. However as a seminary student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1988-1992 before the great purge of moderates I had a number of professors, but in particular my Church History professor Dr Doyle Young took the time to look at how the major traditions within the Christian faith viewed the Eucharist or Holy Communion.   I was acquainted with most in a fairly rudimentary manner Dr Young brought out the really important theological aspects of each in the context of how each view came about.  I always had a sort of Reformed or Presbyterian view of Holy Communion in that unlike most of my Baptist and Evangelical friends I really believed that there was a “spiritual” presence of Christ in communion as opposed to it being a symbolic memorial.  That changed as I was taught the Roman Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Eucharist but was nailed down as we studied Martin Luther, his understanding of the Eucharist and the discussion between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy.  It was Luther’s argument from Scripture “This is my Body, this is my Blood” with which he responded to every argument posed by Zwingli that convinced me of the reality of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist in more than just a spiritual manner.  I could not ignore Scripture and that was the watershed in bringing me to an Anglican or Anglo-Catholic understanding of faith and the Eucharist.

My purpose here is not to argue for my theological view but rather to encourage Christians to take advantage of the communion that we have with Jesus and through him with the Father and the Spirit as well as the communion that we share with each other.  Though I may believe my understanding of the Eucharist fits best with Scripture and the earliest teaching of the Church I will not use this to attack those who have different viewpoints.  Instead regardless of the theological perspective I hope that my readers will be able to renew their faith tonight as we celebrate this holy evening where Jesus met with his disciples before he was betrayed a Luke the Evangelist wrote:

“When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it* until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, ‘Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” Luke 22:14-20

And Paul to the Corinthians

“ For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for* you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

And Saint John’s comments in the Gospel bearing his name:

“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:50-51

It is important that no matter whether we view this as a Sacrament or a symbolic memorial that we take this feast of God’s love for us seriously for he comes to us in Word, Sacrament in this moment where we take the time to spend with him and his people as we prepare to celebrate the “Mystery of Faith” “Christ has Died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again.”

My prayer is that we all find God’s peace and life during this Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday as we walk with Jesus and his disciples through that tumultuous time.  Lent is ended, our seasonal penitence is done so let us take the time to pause remember and reflect of the remarkable depth of God’s love for us in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” As Martin Luther said “For here in the sacrament [Communion] you receive from Christ’s lips the forgiveness of sins, which contains and conveys God’s grace and Spirit with all his gifts, protection, defense, and power against death and the devil and all evils” (The Large Catechism — p. 98).

Another feature of Holy Thursday is the enactment by the clergy of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet. This is important in a world where power and fame is sought after over service to one another, even in churches.  The call of Christ is that we are to be servants of all.

In a world wracked by so much division including Christians who cannot agree on exactly what is going on when we come to the Altar or to the Communion table it is imperative that Christians even given their longstanding differences regarding this would be good to acknowledge their dependence upon God and one another.  If while acknowledging our differences we can at least share in the love and communion of God in Christ even if our individual churches will not share communion with one another. After all in the end it really is about the Lord and his relationship with his people and their relationship with each other and the world that he came to save.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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