RLST 270, Vered Arnon
B. Word Count: 824
Luther had a very rigid and serious view of Christianity. He understood Christianity as a ‘priesthood of all believers’ based on the infallibility of unambiguous scripture and he believed that people are sinful and unworthy of salvation, have no free will, but are ‘justified by faith through grace alone’. His view of Christianity was individualistic, egalitarian, anti-hierarchical, and functional, minimalistic in a German sort of way, straightforward and blunt. He believed that the Bible was not ambiguous at all, any anyone who read it and comprehended it would understand the same message from it and he didn’t think there were ‘different interpretations’. He believed that God was just by virtue of being God, and he viewed human nature in an extremely negative way, maintaining that it was impossible for humans to be anything but sinful without necessary grace from God, and someone who did good because they were a recipient of God’s grace was merely acting through God’s impulse and not one’s own.
Luther would have viewed the liberal Protestant theologians of the 19th century such as Schleiermacher and Harnack as heretical and not even justified in calling themselves Christian. He wouldn’t have recognised ‘their religion’ as anything related to his own. While Luther stressed the transcendence of God and the mystery of God and how unfathomable God was to the human mind and how God could not be measured by human or natural standards, the liberal Protestant theologians stressed God’s immanence, how God was revealed through nature and directly in and around and permeating the universe in a loving merciful forgiving sort of way. The liberal Protestant thinkers were so focused on humanity that Luther would have deemed them unworthy of calling themselves Christians. They didn’t retain any trace of ‘justification by faith through grace alone’, and while Luther saw salvation as the difference between ultimate eternal life and death, damnation and hellfire versus heaven, the liberal theologians wrote about happy humanistic love and kindness and ‘finite merging with infinite’ and so on, salvation as a beautiful unity with a benevolent all-merciful universal force. Luther wouldn’t even have recognised their notion of God as his Christian God.
And Luther would have considered the human-centred approach extremely vain and proud and presumptuous and heretical. He would have felt that it was impious, lacking humility, sinful. He thought man was extremely lowly, not even deserving of God’s grace, yet a few chosen ones would receive it. The liberal Protestant view makes grace available to everyone, and elevates man up to the level of God to such a point that man doesn’t even seem to need grace, the whole notion of grace and justification becomes incoherent as far as Luther would try to understand it. Luther would consider it just plain wrong.
Luther would also have felt that the emphasis on the ‘historical Jesus’ and the focus on Jesus’ ‘humanity’ revealed in the scriptures was an inherent misunderstanding of the bible texts. His doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ would not be compatible with the liberal notion that self-knowledge leads to knowledge of God. He believed that humans WERE metaphysically corrupt, and their final authority could not be self because humans did NOT as far as he believed have an inner notion of right and wrong at all. He would have opposed the liberal stress on the humanity rather than the divinity of Jesus, he believed that redemption came from grace and not from ‘following Jesus’ example and having the sort of piety that Jesus had’. He would have considered such a notion disgustingly vain and sinful and wrong. Luther would have considered liberal Protestant theology a sort of idolatry of humanity and an attempt to replace God with man.
Evangelicalism, however, Luther would have viewed differently. He would have had a much more positive accepting view of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism embraced the same notion of ‘sola scriptura’ as Luther did, taking the bible literally and considering it the final authority rather than human intuition, and Luther would have approved of this. He would have approved of the individualistic anti hierarchical character of evangelicalism that still placed all authority in scripture and viewed God as transcendent and Jesus as divine. He would have approved of the way that evangelicalism still maintained a notion of ‘justification by faith through grace alone’, he would have considered the evangelical notion of a ‘transformative experience with perceptible impact changing one’s life’ a parallel to this notion of receiving grace, he would have been able to relate this ‘transformative’ notion to his own experience of rejecting Catholicism. He might have viewed evangelicalism as somewhat misguided and not strict enough about the doctrine of ‘justification by faith through grace alone’, but he most likely wouldn’t deny that the doctrine was still there and regarded with proper importance. He would have considered evangelicalism a reasonable development of his Protestantism, he would have viewed it as an acceptable historical continuation of the religious position that he advocated.
D. Word Count: 1175
The character of Christianity does indeed fundamentally change after the late eighteenth century. Not that it becomes “impossible to be Christian without” as the quotation says, but rather that it becomes “acceptable to be Christian merely by” accepting a vacuous message or radically changed content that is nominally ‘Christian’. Prior to the late eighteenth century, Christianity was basically characterised by a view of God that was transcendent, ineffable, mysterious and elevated far far above man. God was huge and great and all-powerful, man was tiny and weak and utterly dependant. Very much a view of two opposite things. Salvation was entirely in God’s hands, and man had to do all that he could to attain God’s grace, and even then it wasn’t in his control. Jesus was basically another word for God prior to the eighteenth century, he was ‘God made human’ but the focus was always on his divinity, Jesus’ death on the cross was what enabled people to be saved, his sacrifice and his position as the Son of God was the primary focus in people’s minds.
After the late eighteenth century, new philosophies and theological perspectives emerged, and the shift of paradigm resulted in a ‘watering down’ of Christianity that took out its fundamental components and steadily diminished the gap between God and man until it could almost be said that man was becoming God or replacing God. In some cases the new ‘Christian’ message was vacuous, or it was a sort of idolatry of humanity. In response to this, a new sort of Christianity also arose which was fundamentally different from pre-eighteenth century Christianity because it had to focus on ‘righting the wrongs’ and restoring the balance. Finally, in the twentieth century theologies with radically different content arose that called themselves Christian.
One example of the change in Christianity toward vacuousness and idolatry-of-man is Schleiermacher’s work ‘On Religion’. He talked extensively about the fundamental essence of religion as an intuitive comprehension of the nature of the universe, and that nature was of infinite God permeating everything, and finite man attempting to become one with infinity. All notions of grace and mercy and redemption became irrelevant in this view because God was not something incomprehensible far far above man whose whims could not be understood and whose grace was an act of pure mercy without possible explanation. Rather man was ‘part of’ God in some inherent way, and God was part of nature and natural law itself was, under this view, a manifestation of God in the world. The world itself was a manifestation of God! This perspective was heavily influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and the shift in perspective from viewing man as metaphysically corrupt to viewing man as having an inherent understanding of right and wrong. The liberal Protestant theology is nothing at all like pre-eighteenth century Christianity. Everything definitively Christian seems to have been stripped away, leaving something that is universalistic and only nominally Christian. Christians prior to the eighteenth century, if presented with liberal Protestant theology, would not have recognised it as a variation of their own religion. God became defined in terms of man and the difference between God and man so played down that an accusation that this sort of ‘Christianity’ was really an idolatry of man could be very easily argued and supported.
An example of a response to this that was also fundamentally different from pre-eighteenth century Christianity was Karl Barth’s The Word of God and the Word of Man. He was reacting to this vacuous message and idolatry, and he presented a very complex dialectical view of Christianity. Prior to the late eighteenth century, theology had been more focused on the specifics of the bible and various dogmas and doctrines. Barth’s new form of Christianity was characterised by a very sophisticated philosophical analysis, and an advocacy of accepting that humans cannot find answers. Prior to the late eighteenth century Christianity sought answers in the bible and from the church elders etc, and firmly held that there were definite answers that could be found if one had enough faith and understood the bible etc properly. (For example Thomas Aquinas). Barth sought to restore the imbalance created by liberal Protestant ideology’s vacuous/idolatrous message by rejecting all answers and promoting a view that the only way one could be Christian and give glory to God was to accept that God was far beyond any sort of human comprehension or ‘knowledge’, that to say man was the answer like the liberals were doing was wrong, but to say that God was the answer was wrong too because even that was bridging the gap between God and man in a presumptuous and spiritually impossible way.
Finally, the character of Christianity changed most drastically with the rise of liberation theologies that radically changed its content yet still held on to the name ‘Christianity’. An example of this is black liberation theology, which redefines Jesus as ‘symbolically black’ and defines ‘black’ as symbolic of oppressed people, and explains the message of Christianity as a message of hope for freedom from oppression and claims that to be a good Christian is to fight the oppression. One black liberation theology writer writes about destroying the property of ‘white oppressors’, even ‘white’ is redefined as ‘oppressor’, and these things are not equivalent to skin colour, skin colour is merely symbolic… Jesus is viewed as a hero who provided a means for his people to be liberated from oppression. Notions of ‘justification’ and ‘faith’ and ‘grace’ are gone entirely, a coherent theological picture of God and what Jesus’ relationship to God is or what the human relationship to God should be seems entirely irrelevant. Christianity has been stripped of Christianity and its form, its shell, is used as a conduit for a political message entirely unrelated to any traditional understanding of Christianity. Black liberation theology doesn’t only redefine Christianity, it seems to attempt to redefine language itself, radically changing the content of Christianity via replacing the traditional Christian message with a message about the oppressed being freed from oppression, and radically changing EVERYTHING via linguistic redefinition, making not only the character of Christianity new and unrecognisable as Christian, but even the notions of ‘black’ and ‘white’ become changed and unrecognisable as their traditional meanings.
But, as I said, while I agree with most of the quotation, I do disagree with the statement that the changes made it ‘impossible to be a Christian’ without accepting a vacuous message or radically changed content. After the late eighteenth century it was still just as POSSIBLE to be a Christian in the traditional sense, it just became possible to ‘be a Christian’ in ways not recognisably Christian. An example of how it was possible to still be a Christian in the traditional sense is evangelicalism, which holds on to the doctrine of ‘sola scriptura’ through literal interpretation of the bible, and maintains the traditional distance between man and God in its adherence to the notion of faith in God and Jesus as fundamentally essential to being a true Christian.