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Posts Tagged ‘Reformers’

Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Charismatic Indulgences

I am enjoying facilitating a class at our church on the Protestant Reformation.  I love to read and study history; especially church history.  The characters, issues, and drama make for some very interesting reading under the craft of a good historical scholar and writer.  Admittedly, under a good scholar but bad writer, it can also be absolute drudgery!  However, there a plenty of great historical story tellers that make history come alive to those interested.

One of the aspects of studying history that always amazes me is how much we do not learn from it.  As much as I would like to believe that humankind is on an ever evolving incline of knowledge and understanding, a study of history shatters that delusion.  Knowledge and technology have not made us any better.  I like to repeat a quote I heard years ago which asserts that “to suggest humanity is better off because of technology is to suggest that a cannibal is better off with a knife and fork.”  Instead of progressive improvement, we seem to be in a constant cycle of enlightened discovery and abject stupidity.  Nevertheless, this is what makes studying human behavior and history fascinating and entertaining at the same time.

For instance, one of the abuses of the church the reformers wanted to purify from the Church was the abuse of indulgences.  Some Reformers did not want to do away with the practice of indulgences all together, but just correct their abuses.  Others, such a John Wycliffe and Martin Luther, could find no biblical warrant for their practice and wanted the practices of indulgences done away with completely.  The reformation tradition follows Wycliffe, Luther, and others in their assertion that any church tradition and practice must be established solely upon biblical evidence.  This assertion is one of the main reasons why Protestant churches emphasize Scripture – translation, study, and knowledge – above all else.

The practice of indulgences was long practiced in the Catholic Church.  It is still practiced today.  It is closely tied to the Catholic theology of Purgatory.  This is another doctrine that Protestants and Reformers rejected because of lack of Scriptural evidence.  A broad explanation of indulgences proposes that the good works of Christ and the saints have been deposited in heaven for all Christians in the treasury of merit.  These merits may be applied to the sins of Christians at the approval of the pope and applied to individuals by archbishops, bishops, and priests.  The application of these merits enables one to avoid paying further for their sins in purgatory.  Extreme abuses preceding and following Martin Luther’s time allowed these indulgences to be bought with money.  Thus, sin became a really money maker for the church.

Aside from the biblical and theological problems that indulgences and purgatory pose for biblical Christians, the Protestant Reformation recaptured the New Testament doctrine of God’s grace displayed and applied through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s son.  Martin Luther, studying Romans and Galatians, came to the conviction that God’s grace cannot be purchased or earned.  It can only be received as a free gift.  Both the temporal and eternal forgiveness and salvation human longed for and needed was only available through faith in what Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross and in the resurrection.

As much as the Protestant Church would like to think that it is free from the influence of such doctrine and practice, one needs only to watch or listen to the selling of God’s grace in today’s Christian marketplace.  While salvation may not be up for sale, the grace of God to work miracles, provide, give guidance, and heal surely is in today’s popular Christianity.  It can be purchased by sending in an offering or purchasing a book or other materials.  At such a low, low price, God’s grace for healing and wealth will be released.

The Protestant Church has its own forms of relics too.  By purchasing prayer cloths, anointing oils, Christian jewelry, and other such items, and extra measure of God’s grace will flow in blessings to the believer.  All types of shamanistic items are sold to the unwary in hopes that the favor of God can be purchases instead of appropriated through simple faith.  It seems, in coming so far in history, we have not gotten very far.

The same grace that is made available through faith in Christ’s work that brings salvation is also available for all the other blessings of the Kingdom.  Why do we think they be can bought or sold?  They are given freely by grace.  They are “charismata” – grace-gifts given to us out of the love of the heavenly Father and his son, Jesus.  They are made available to everyone.  There is no need for a mediator – priest or televangelist.  We are asked, individually and communally, to come in faith believing “that he is a rewarder of those that diligently seek him.”

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Pink Rose in Bloom, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The Charismatic and Pentecostal stream of Protestantism is particularly caught in this trap of heresy and unorthodox practice.  Perhaps what is needed is a new reformation or a new “protest” that rebukes those responsible for such abuses.  Not only do they mislead the faithful.  They are profiting just like their Catholic forefathers upon the misery and sinful conditions of people who are needy and vulnerable.  Instead of selling them “a bill of goods” that will not profit their followers, they should be pointing them to the grace that is in Christ Jesus for every blessing.

Unfortunately, the same problem that caused the faithful 5oo years ago to fall into this trap and error is still prevalent today.  It is a lack of knowledge of the Word of God and its basic doctrines.  Unlike 500 years ago, however, the Bible is available to us in our own language.  We can read it and study it for ourselves.  We have learned teachers and preachers who are proclaiming the truths of the Scriptures.  What seems to be lacking is an attentive audience.

This sort of reminds me of the church Jesus chided when he revealed himself and his plans to the apostle John.  It seems that even though we live in an age where we can see, we are still blind (Revelation 3:17).  We live in a country that is rich with the teachings of God and access to biblical truth, and yet we are so poor.  It appears that Western Christianity is clothed with beautiful religious garb, but we are really naked.  Perhaps we do not know how wretched we really are if so many of the faithful in our Protestant, Bible-believing churches can fall into such error.

A start for all of us might be to study our history.  We need to rediscover what was lost and then found in the Reformation.  Some of the Reformers and Protestants paid for the discovery and practice of these truths with the ultimate price.  Perhaps then we would appreciate more fully today where we are in human history and the opportunities we have around us by way of Bible teaching and tools.  Most importantly, hopefully, we would refuse to fall back into the errors from which the Church in large measure was rescued.  Like Martin Luther, maybe we need to take a hammer and nail and post them in a prominent place so we will not soon forget.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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