“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men.”
(Aragorn, in J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994. Print.)

The murder of 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX has already gained notoriety as the deadliest massacre in a house of worship in the U.S. (More information on this is available here and currently tops the news programming of most news outlets).

The motives behind this appear to be as senseless as can be imagined. Apparently this was an “intra-family feud” involving a man described as “deranged”, in which the intended victim wasn’t even there.

Words can ill-express my shock and horror on behalf of the victims as well as all of civilized humanity. Our prayers go out to all who have been affected by this tragedy.

In a recent article in “Cracked”, author Kristi Harrison laments the “4 specific things you lose when you leave Christianity“. The author describes her own de-conversion experience from faith into agnosticism, which began with a disbelief in angels. “Once I realized I didn’t believe in human-shaped beings from Heaven who could appear on Earth to pass along Godmail before hightailing it back to Heaven, a domino chain of disbelief was set in place.

Having made the leap of faith into unbelief, she now identifies four things she really misses. We might turn the emphasis around to say that there are some specific things you gain when you enter the Christian faith. Here are the ones mentioned Ms. Harrison:

1. “Getting High on Worship”: The author found worship to be an “addictive and engaging” experience. She noted a CNN article reporting that “Religious thoughts trigger reward systems like love, drugs”. She concludes by saying “You lose your sense of self and feel like you’re blending in with the Universe or feeling God’s presence, depending on your cultural background and what you’re going for. If that’s not getting high, I don’t what is.”

2. “Culture and Community”: You have an organized support system that is like a family.

3. “Magic”: “The hook of Evangelical Christianity is that believers have access to the creator of Universe just by asking for it. You don’t have to be rich, literate, clean, pretty, smart, or a non-murderer to talk to Him. God is for everyone. The idea of a personal God who can take away disease and reunite you with loved ones after death is intoxicating. … The ability to hand over your deepest problems to someone else is Christianity’s killer app, one that has absolutely no equivalent in the secular world.”

4. A cosmic “Best Friend”.

Ms. Harrison stops there. Here are some more that we might add:

5. Health: People of faith are healthier, and this is seen in countless studies. Relevant Magazine opines “If religious faith could be packaged in a pill, the stock price of drug companies would soar. Religion, not merely spirituality, is a profound predictor of health. Spiritual practices can reduce blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, and help stave off some effects of mental illness about as well as many drugs on the market.” (The article is entitled “The Surprising Link Between Faith and Health“). You can be a Christian and still die (we all do), but even in facing death and calamity, studies show that you will have more peace and less anxiety.

6. Truth: I don’t just mean that Christianity reveals truth about the universe, human nature, and our ultimate destiny. These are “truths” with a little T, many of which are unknowable and could only be revealed by a behind-the-scenes Creator (their relevance depends on accepting the premise that God is real and has “spoken though the prophets”). I mean to speak of “Truth” itself–with a capital T. Christianity emerged out of the only ancient culture where truthfulness had a religious basis. Christianity’s chief personage stated “I am Truth.” It could be argued that the truthfulness we expect of ourselves and others in society, while it has pragmatic value, is nevertheless also a hangover from prior generations dominated by Christianity and the “10 Commandments.” It is not universal.

Furthermore, arguments can be made that truth requires us to presume something at the outset of seeking it, something that inexorably implies some kind of God. To trust our senses and mental capacities to understand the universe is to assume God (see the design argument in Robert Taylor’s Metaphysics).

Additionally, the fact that the universe exploded into being from a point in time and space makes little sense without an eternal Godlike being that exists outside our universe–you can say, “uh-uh” all you like, but the alternative is some brand of spontaneous generation, which to accept is to embrace illogic and to mar truth at its intellectual foundation, and on a cosmological scale at the very origin of everything.

7. Meaning: Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche and others have known and expounded on the lack of ultimate meaning and significance in a life free of God–you gain freedom to write your own rules but lose that sense of meaning. Their powerful writings have prodded many a Christian’s de-conversion experience (very nearly my own at one point, when I was a college student). I believe their thesis on this point. It is intellectually dishonest to cling to meaning after ejecting God from your life, and people really know this, deep down inside, in their moments of disquiet, which they try very hard to suppress. You have a choice to believe the Shakespearean line that our lives “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, or to believe that our lives have a higher meaning. We have written of this here. In the absence of clear proof, do you choose to embrace a dark story, or a beautiful story?

8. An answer to the “Problem of Evil” (Of course you get the “Problem of Evil” also): The dagger into the heart of Christianity is the problem of how God can be all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow suffering and evil. However the alternative, to dismiss suffering and evil as simply part of the human condition, is not very satisfying. Christianity gives you a God of love who deeply cares about you and wants your best. Most astoundingly of all, you have a God who suffered also, more than anyone can imagine. This brings us to Love:

9. Love: Above all, Love is the ultimate thing we gain when we embrace Christianity–Love on a cosmic scale that is simultaneously deeply personal. The Bible says that “God is love.” God’s love for us is a costly love, and its most powerful moment is the sacrifice of the Heavenly Father’s own Beloved on a cross of wood. God’s love is not cheap!

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

All Souls Day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church on the day after All Saints Day. Historically it has been viewed as remembering the faithful departed who yet have time to serve in Purgatory, and are on their way to future heavenly blessedness. Observance tends to focus on family members. In Anglican churches, it is an extension of All Saints Day, merely remembering the faithful departed.

Lord God,
you are the glory of believers
and the life of the just.
Your son redeemed us
by dying and rising to life again.
Since our departed brothers and sisters
believed in the mystery of our resurrection,
let them share the joys and blessings
of the life to come.

(You can find this prayer in the context of “The Office for the Dead” here).

So opines an article by Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a variety of issues, the two camps have moved closer together theologically (see, for example, our article “Protestants and Catholics Celebrate Agreement on Justification”). Protestants have warmed toward some of the church’s historic liturgies and practices (such as the increasing popularity of observing Lent). The Roman Catholics have had their own internal reformations both in response to Luther in the 1600’s, and more recently with the reforms instituted by the Vatican II council.

Catholics have by and large embraced what might have previously been considered distinctly Protestant practices, like the use of vernacular languages in worship, personal Bible study (again, in the language of the reader rather than Latin), congregational singing of hymns, etc; and they have shed some of the more egregious practices that rankled Protestants (and also internal critics), such as the selling of indulgences. And as the article points out, “Moreover, virtually all Christians have abandoned some of the more unsavory habits of thought and deed they once shared, from aggressive anti-Semitism to active state-sanctioned persecution of “heretics.”

Today, the real divide is within denominations more than between them. “The difference among Christians these days tend to break along a left-right rather than a Catholic-Protestant spectrum,” says Kilgore.

The NY magazine article quotes Atlantic writer Emma Green, who observes the same shifts in an essay entitled “Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation?“.

Historian Mark Noll of Notre Dame notes that Catholics and Protestants have come closer together. “In my lifetime, there has been a sea change in Protestant-Catholic relations, opening up an unimaginable array of cooperation.”

Yet these denominations are beginning to fracture over LGBTQ issues and more fundamental disagreements between traditional Christians, especially in places like Africa, and the intellectual elites in the west who embrace a more worldly and progressive stance. In reaction,

A growing number of Christians are organizing themselves based on ideological convictions, rather than a shared confessional tradition. “As a lot of denominational traditions are experiencing pressure and even fracture,” said Noll, “so also [is] interdenominational cooperation amongst like-minded people growing in leaps and bounds.”

Luther, on trial for his life at the Diet of Worms, refused to recant his writings. Here is the famous conclusion of his speech, as determined by Reformation Scholar Keiko Olbermann:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”

(Luther is often quoted as saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” While stirring, this is felt by most Luther scholars to be spurious).

See Christianity Today article “What Luther Said“.

Portrait of John Wycliffe, 1828, by Thomas Kirkby (1775–c.1848)

Known as the “morning star of the English Reformation”, Wycliffe undertook to translate the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into Middle English. His radical ideas on the papacy, transubstantiation, prayer to saints, and monastacism foreshadowed later Protestant developments.

He was born in 1320s in Yorkshire, and made his way to Oxford by 1345. He completed his Arts degree at Merton College in 1356, was named Master of Balliol College in 1361. By 1372, he obtained a doctorate in theology, and was in that year part of a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI some points of disagreement between the king and the pope.

Wycliffe began writing treatises advancing his theories on church reform, including an advocation that the church divest of property and that high secular offices not be held by clergy. These positions brought him into conflict with church authorities, but he had a strong protector in the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. He was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London, but essentially a brawl broke out and he was spared censure. A papal bull criticizing him was published by Pope Gregory in 1377, but Gregory died before much action could be taken. Furthermore, this was a time when in England the common people and royalty alike took a somewhat dim view of the papacy.

Wycliffe continued his work, and in 1380 became involved in efforts to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into Middle English. Simultaneously his position began to erode as the new Archbishop of Canterbury took action against him. His works were condemned at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, in 1382, and his writings were banned at Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth, where he was already rector of the parish church of St Mary (since 1374). There he wrote copiously until his death in 1384. He suffered a stroke while saying mass on Dec 28. About 30 years later, in 1415, he was posthumously condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance, and his remains dug up and cast into the river Swift.

His followers were known as Lollards, and were aggressively persecuted in the 15th century. Many went to the stake, and the movement went underground. “A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the ‘Lollards Pit’ in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk, where men are customablie burnt.” (Wikipedia). The movement was later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.

Wycliffe advocated a number of positions that would later be labelled “Protestant”:

  • Criticized the Church of his day for its wealth and abuses of power.
  • Criticized the practice of indulgences (remission of time spent in purgatory)
  • Criticized monasticism and advocated dissolution of the monasteries.
  • Became increasingly disenchanted with the pope, even likening him to anti-Christ by the end of his life.
  • Taught that the Bible is the supreme authority.
  • Taught that the church is the invisible community of the elect, predestined by God, in contrast to the visible institution of the Church.
  • He rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but are instead spiritually infused with God’s presence.
  • He declared the right of every Christian to know the Bible.
  • Emphasized the importance of Christ alone as the sufficient way of salvation, without the aid of works.

His most enduring legacy is the English Bible. He was personally responsible for translating much of the New Testament. The revision of this work, after his death, has become known to history as the Wycliffe Bible.

He is commemorated by the Anglicans on December 31.

On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)

The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.

The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:

The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:

“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.

Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:

“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).

A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”

On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,

“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.

Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):

“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading: