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Medieval Mistakes
Founders Journal ^ | Winter 2002 | Sinclair Ferguson

Posted on 07/31/2008 4:22:05 AM PDT by Gamecock

Although provoked by the indulgences peddled by Johannes Tetzel, the very first proposition which Luther offered for public debate in his Ninety Five Theses put the axe to the root of the tree of medieval theology: "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said 'Repent,' he meant that the entire life of believers should be one of repentance." From Erasmus' Greek New Testament, Luther had come to realize that the Vulgate's rendering of Matthew 4:17 by penitentiam agite ("do penance") completely misinterpreted Jesus' meaning. The gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind-set and an equally deep transformation of life. Later he would write to Staupitz about this glowing discovery: "I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek!"

Is it not true that we have lost sight of this note that was so prominent in Reformation theology? We could well do with a Luther redivivus today. For a number of important reasons evangelicals need to reconsider the centrality of repentance in our thinking about the gospel, the church and the Christian life.

One of our great needs is for the ability to view some of the directions in which evangelicalism is heading, or perhaps more accurately disintegrating. We desperately need the long-term perspective which the history of the church gives us.

Even within the period of my own Christian life, the span between my teenage years in the 1960s and my forties in the 1990s, there has been a sea-change in evangelicalism. Many "position" which were standard evangelical teaching are now, after only three decades, regarded as either reactionary or even dinosauric.

If we take an even longer-term view, however, we face the alarming possibility that there may already be a medieval darkness encroaching upon evangelicalism. Can we not detect, at least as a tendency, dynamics within evangelicalism which bear resemblances to the life of the medieval church? The possibility of a new Babylonian or (more accurately, following Luther) the Pagan Captivity of the Church looms nearer than we may be able to believe.

Consider the following five features of medieval Christianity which are evident to varying degrees in contemporary evangelicalism.

1. Repentance

Repentance has increasingly been seen as a single act, severed from a life-long restoration of godliness.

There are complex reasons for this--not all of them modern--which we cannot explore here. Nevertheless, this seems self-evident. seeing repentance as an isolated, completed act at the beginning of the Christian life has been a staple principle of much of modern evangelicalism. It is sad that evangelicals have often despised the theology of the confessing churches. It has spawned a generation who look back upon a single act, abstracted from its consequences, as determinative of salvation. The 'alter call' has replaced the sacrament of penance. Thus repentance has been divorced from genuine regeneration, and sanctification severed from justification.

2. Mysticism

The canon for Christian living has increasingly been sought in a 'Spirit-inspired' living voice within the church rather than in the Spirit's voice heard in Scripture. What was once little more than a mystical tendency has become a flood. But what has this to do with the medieval church? Just this. the entire medieval church operated on the same principle, even if they expressed it in a different form: the Spirit speaks outside of Scripture; the believer cannot know the detailed guidance of God if he tries to depend on his or her Bible alone.

Not only so, but once the 'living voice' of the Spirit has been introduced it follows by a kind of psychological inevitability that it is this living voice which becomes the canon for Christian living.

This view--inscripturated Word plus living voice equals divine revelation--lay at the heart of the medieval church's groping in the dark for the power of the gospel. Now, at the end of the second millennium we are on the verge--and perhaps more than the verge of being overwhelmed by a parallel phenomenon. The result then was a famine of hearing and understanding the Word of God, all under the guise of what the Spirit was still saying to the church. What of today?

3. Sacred Powers

The divine presence was brought to the church by an individual with sacred powers deposited within him and communicated by physical means.

Today an uncanny parallel is visible wherever cable TV can be seen. Admittedly it is no longer Jesus who is given by priestly hands; now it is the Spirit who is bestowed by physical means, apparently at will by the new evangelical priest. Special sanctity is no longer confirmed by the beauty of the fruit of the Spirit, but with signs which are predominantly physical.

What we ought to find alarming about contemporary evangelicalism is the extent to which we are impressed by performance rather than piety. The Reformers were not unfamiliar with similar phenomena. In fact one of the major charges made against them by the Roman Catholic Church was that they did not really have the gospel because they lacked physical miracles.

4. Spectators

The worship of God is increasingly presented as a spectator event of visual and sensory power, rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God.

The mood of contemporary evangelicalism is to focus on the centrality of what 'happens' in the spectacle of worship rather than on what is heard in worship. Aesthetics, be they artistic or musical, are given a priority over holiness. More and more is seen, less and less is heard. There is a sensory feast, but a hearing famine. Professionalism in worship leadership has become a cheap substitute for genuine access to heaven, however faltering. Drama, not preaching, has become the 'Didache' of choice.

This is a spectrum, of course, not a single point. But most worship is to be found somewhere on that spectrum. There was a time when four words would bring out goose-bumps on the necks of our grandfathers: 'Let Us Worship God'. Not so for twentieth-century evangelicals. Now there must be colour, movement, audio-visual effects, or God cannot be known, loved, praised and trusted for his own sake.

5. Bigger means better?

The success of ministry is measured by crowds and cathedrals rather than by the preaching of the cross and the quality of Christians' lives.

It was the medieval church leaders, bishops and archbishops, cardinals and popes, who built large cathedrals, ostensibly Soli Deo Gloria--all this to the neglect of gospel proclamation, the life of the body of Christ as a whole, the needs of the poor and the evangelism of the world. Hence, the 'mega-church' is not a modern, but a medieval phenomenon.

Ideal congregational size and specific ecclesiastical architecture thankfully are matters of indifference. That is not really the central concern here. Rather it is the almost endemic addiction of contemporary evangelicalism to size and numbers as an index of the success of 'my ministry'--a phrase which can itself be strikingly contradictory. We must raise the question of reality, depth and integrity in church life and in Christian ministry. The lust for 'bigger' makes us materially and financially vulnerable. But worse, it makes us spiritually vulnerable. For it is hard to say to those on whom we have come to depend materially, 'When our Lord Jesus Christ said "Repent!" he meant that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.'


TOPICS: Apologetics; General Discusssion; Theology
KEYWORDS: repent; yopios

1 posted on 07/31/2008 4:22:05 AM PDT by Gamecock
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To: drstevej; OrthodoxPresbyterian; CCWoody; Wrigley; Gamecock; Jean Chauvin; jboot; AZhardliner; ...
GRPL Ping


2 posted on 07/31/2008 4:24:29 AM PDT by Gamecock (The question is not, Am I good enough to be a Christian? rather Am I good enough not to be?)
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To: Gamecock

The article nails it.


3 posted on 07/31/2008 6:38:20 AM PDT by Augustinian monk (You going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?- Jose Wales)
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To: Gamecock; Dr. Eckleburg; jude24
Rather it is the almost endemic addiction of contemporary evangelicalism to size and numbers as an index of the success of 'my ministry'--a phrase which can itself be strikingly contradictory. We must raise the question of reality, depth and integrity in church life and in Christian ministry. The lust for 'bigger' makes us materially and financially vulnerable. But worse, it makes us spiritually vulnerable. For it is hard to say to those on whom we have come to depend materially, 'When our Lord Jesus Christ said "Repent!" he meant that the whole of the Christian life is repentance.'

I believe the underscored with all my heart, but I also believe that it can be turned into the greatest excuse for inactivity that a pastor can come up with.

4 posted on 07/31/2008 7:21:08 AM PDT by xzins (Retired Army Chaplain -- Those denying the War was Necessary Do NOT Support the Troops!)
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To: xzins

***but I also believe that it can be turned into the greatest excuse for inactivity***

That is also true. Any truth can be distorted.


5 posted on 07/31/2008 7:23:25 AM PDT by Gamecock (The question is not, Am I good enough to be a Christian? rather Am I good enough not to be?)
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To: Gamecock; P-Marlowe

I think the “bigger” idea is partly a result of the culture. The culture is so bad that ‘family Christians’ truly are wanting their church to provide an entire culture in which to raise their kids. They want education, activities, experiences, worship, music, devotion....you name it.

To get all that you need “staff” and “cash.”

To get that you need a large body of believers.


6 posted on 07/31/2008 7:26:51 AM PDT by xzins (Retired Army Chaplain -- Those denying the War was Necessary Do NOT Support the Troops!)
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To: Gamecock
put the axe to the root of the tree of medieval theology

Maybe "medieval theology" as taught by some medieval theologians.

OTOH, the "Imitation of Christ" is probably the most famous work of medieval theology surviving today (and it was pretty famous in Luther's day, as well), and one of the choicest one-liners from the "Imitation" is "I would rather know compunction for my sins than know the meaning of the word 'compunction'." The author of "Imitation" knew all about the "life of repentance".

7 posted on 07/31/2008 7:30:39 AM PDT by Campion
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To: xzins

Which is why churches of any size should have a focus on church planting..


8 posted on 07/31/2008 8:01:25 AM PDT by N3WBI3 (Ah, arrogance and stupidity all in the same package. How efficient of you. -- Londo Mollari)
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Comment #9 Removed by Moderator

To: xzins; Gamecock
The way around the problem of churches being so huge that the result is a centralized power at its core is simply to seed new and smaller churches.

It worked for the early church. It's a good and Godly pattern.

10 posted on 07/31/2008 9:40:11 AM PDT by Dr. Eckleburg ("I don't think they want my respect; I think they want my submission." - Flemming Rose)
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To: Gamecock; P-Marlowe; Uncle Chip; fortheDeclaration; OLD REGGIE; Marysecretary; Quix; Alamo-Girl; ...
This is one of the best, most succinct threads posted in months.

The gospel called not for an act of penance but for a radical change of mind-set and an equally deep transformation of life. Later he (Luther) would write to Staupitz about this glowing discovery: "I venture to say they are wrong who make more of the act in Latin than of the change of heart in Greek!"

AMEN!

11 posted on 07/31/2008 9:44:42 AM PDT by Dr. Eckleburg ("I don't think they want my respect; I think they want my submission." - Flemming Rose)
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To: Gamecock; xzins
The worship of God is increasingly presented as a spectator event of visual and sensory power, rather than a verbal event in which we engage in a deep soul dialogue with the Triune God.

AMEN.

This is the tributary from Rome. Evangelicals need to leave that current and return to the "deep soul dialogue with the Triune God" made known to them in the word of God, according to the guidance He promised by the Holy Spirit.

12 posted on 07/31/2008 9:51:51 AM PDT by Dr. Eckleburg ("I don't think they want my respect; I think they want my submission." - Flemming Rose)
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To: N3WBI3

AMEN!


13 posted on 07/31/2008 9:52:59 AM PDT by Dr. Eckleburg ("I don't think they want my respect; I think they want my submission." - Flemming Rose)
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To: Dr. Eckleburg
Thanks for the ping, dear sister in Christ!
14 posted on 07/31/2008 10:30:02 AM PDT by Alamo-Girl
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To: sandyeggo
Wow. I think I can agree with this.

I think I need a defibrillator! (I'm joking!)

15 posted on 07/31/2008 10:56:27 AM PDT by Gamecock (The question is not, Am I good enough to be a Christian? rather Am I good enough not to be?)
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To: xzins

We have a relatively small church, in comparison to the mega-churches, but we had a vision for a Christian School and it’s now in its 25th year. Nothing wrong with wanting a good church to provide the things listed. Better than what’s being offered in the world today.


16 posted on 07/31/2008 5:54:09 PM PDT by Marysecretary (.GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL)
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To: xzins

We have a relatively small church, in comparison to the mega-churches, but we had a vision for a Christian School and it’s now in its 25th year. Nothing wrong with wanting a good church to provide the things listed. Better than what’s being offered in the world today.


17 posted on 07/31/2008 5:54:15 PM PDT by Marysecretary (.GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL)
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To: Gamecock
Now there must be colour, movement, audio-visual effects, or God cannot be known, loved, praised and trusted for his own sake.

Flashy, shiny things. Not even spiritual milk.

Not a thing here I disagree with. What happens to happy clappy when hard times come?

18 posted on 07/31/2008 7:26:24 PM PDT by Lee N. Field (Whatever that raving thug false prophet in Florida is called, I want to be called something else.)
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To: Gamecock

AMEN! I recall being very moved when I pondered #1 of The 95 Theses...so I memorized it:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said to ‘repent,’ He meant that the entire life of the believer is to be one of repentance.”

When you actually read him, how can anyone not love Luther?!


19 posted on 07/31/2008 8:56:37 PM PDT by AnalogReigns
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To: Gamecock; Campion; sandyeggo; NYer
This is actually a very good article. Frankly, if you removed the (very slight) anti-Papist veneer and changed a couple of minor details, this could have been written by a Catholic FReeper. Along those lines, let me recommend a classic The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scupoli. You may find it pertinent to the content of this article. I'm sorry to see that we have this particular malady in common.
20 posted on 08/01/2008 10:17:03 AM PDT by markomalley (Extra ecclesiam nulla salus)
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