Monday, October 31, 2011

The Three "Reformation Day" Ironies

Today, for most of us, is Halloween.  But a lot of Christians are disturbed by the way that Halloween seems to celebrate evil, and many Protestants choose to celebrate Reformation Day instead.  While I respect the desire to have fun without celebrating evil, I find Reformation Day to be unwittingly hilarious.  Here's why.

Irony #1: Calvinist Iconography

This made me grin: To celebrate Reformation Day, Calvinists are commemorating with John Calvin Jack O'Lanterns.  I wonder if the (quite-skilled) artist recognized the absurdity of making a Calvinist graven image.

What about Calvin's fatuous interpretation of the First/Second Commandment, that it prohibits all religious imagery?  After all, this is the same Calvin who was such a fierce iconoclast that he denounced as idolatry any images of God or His Saints.

In Book I, Chapter 11 of Institutes of Christian Religion, he wrote, “It is therefore mere infatuation to attempt to defend images of God and the saints by the example of the Cherubim [Exodus 25:17-22].” And this same Calvin oversaw the burning of the religious paintings in Geneva, and the destruction of the religious statues.

Nor is this graven image alone.  The Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland (depicted on the left) is an enormous stone monument with engraved figures of the Calvinist Reformers. Four figures: Calvin, Beza, Farel, and Knox, tower over their mortal counterparts, and form the centerpiece of the wall.

And let's be honest here.  Calvin (and the others) are being venerated in this way for the religious contributions.  If this were, say, the Apostles, or St. Augustine, instead of Calvin, Calvinists would be having a fit.

But perhaps it's okay to have Calvin engravings, because modern Calvinists aren't prone to superstition, and aren't about to start worshiping a Calvin pumpkin or statue.  That's a fair point.  Except that it's an argument that Calvin rejects: “Hence, again, it is obvious, that the defenders of images resort to a paltry quibbling evasion, when they pretend that the Jews were forbidden to use them on account of their proneness to superstition; as if a prohibition which the Lord founds on his own eternal essences and the uniform course of nature, could be restricted to a single nation.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I, Chapter 11).

So that's the first Reformation Day irony: it involves engraving images of the men who hated engraved images.


Irony #2: Reformation Day is Everything (Some) Evangelicals Hate About Christmas

This second irony is admittedly more narrow in scope.  It's specific to those  Evangelicals who are against Christmas, on account of their belief that it stems from Babylonian paganism.  John MacArthur is a good example here.  While he permits celebrating Christmas, he still thinks it's a combination of Christianity and paganism.  In a nutshell, he claims:
  1. December 25 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Catholics tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe) remained.
  3. Evangelicals denounce this as a spiritually-dangerous mish-mash of Christianity and paganism.
Many Evangelicals refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, for this reason.  Now, I suppose I should note that, historically speaking, this is mostly garbage. As Mark Shea explains, the evidence suggests the exact opposite: that it was the paganism mimicking a Christian  religious observance, rather than the other way around.

But there's no question that “Reformation Day” is an attempt to Christianize Halloween.  By their own logic, then, Reformation Day should be considered evil.  In other words:
  1. October 31 originally celebrated evil spirits.
  2. Protestants tried to turn this into a Christian religious holiday, but many of the original symbols (pumpkins, gourds, candy-eating, etc.) remained. 
  3. Yet Evangelicals like John MacArthur embrace Reformation Day.
At a bare minimum, next time you hear an Evangelical parroting that claptrap about how Christmas or Easter is warmed-over paganism, ask where their outrage is at Reformation Day.

So that's the second Reformation Day irony: many of the same people who denounce Christmas for (allegedly) Christianizing a pagan festival embrace Reformation Day for attempting to do the exact same thing.

Irony # 3: To Avoid Celebrating Evil, It Celebrates Evil

As I said above, the origin of Reformation Day was a desire by conservative Protestants not to celebrate Halloween, since it often involves folks celebrating evil.  That's completely legitimate, and an issue Catholics address as well.  Of course, it's quite possible to have fun celebrating Halloween without celebrating anything evil.

But the solution that these Protestants have taken is the saddest irony. Instead of celebrating Halloween, they celebrate Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the Door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517 (which probably never actually happened).

But they're not celebrating the Theses themselves: to my knowledge, no Protestant actually believes all 95 of Luther's Theses.  For example, you'd be hard pressed to find a Protestant claiming that:

  • inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh” (Thesis 3), or that 
  • God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to the vicar, the priest” (Thesis 7), or 
  • That power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25), and so on.

Rather, what's being celebrated is the Protestant Reformation.  That's why it's “Reformation Day,” not “95 Theses Day.”

But in celebrating this, they're celebrating the unraveling of the Church. Even for many Protestants, that makes Reformation Day morally problematic.  Why celebrate divorce?  Why celebrate the great Christian refusal to listen to Jesus' Prayer that we all remain One (John 17:20-23)?  Why celebrate the refusal to listen to Hebrews 13:17-18, which says,
Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
And finally, why celebrate the commission of many of the sins that St. Paul condemns in Galatians 5:19-21:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That's the third, and saddest, irony of Reformation Day. While it rejects Halloween for celebrating evil, it replaces it with a celebration of different evils.

16 comments:

  1. Yes Joe! I love the clever irony that you are pointing out (especially the John-O-Lantern), and as I was reading I couldn't understand why anyone would celebrate a clear breaking of the Church. You said it perfectly;

    "Why celebrate divorce!?"

    Thank you and keep the blogs coming!

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  2. I was Lutheran (ELCA) for 22 years and I never knew that the nailing of the theses on the Church door was a myth. I remember a "Reformation Day" sermon at one of the Lutheran Churches I went to in college - they had a guy dress up like Martin Luther and talk about why he nailed the theses to the door, even.

    Ironically, in my childhood Lutheran church we never celebrated Reformation Day, but we did celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas!

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  3. Thanks! And Joanna, the Reformation is surrounded by Protestant mythology, particularly in the English-speaking world. Scholars and many religious leaders recognize this, but the average believer? Not so much. I tried to correct that a bit with the Pope Leo X post, but the truth is, I could have a busy blog focusing just on Reformation myths. Michael Spencer recognized this in his list of reasons for not celebrating Reformation Day:

    "-I am becoming increasingly sure that many things in the typical Reformation story are probably mythological, or most nearly so.

    -I’m especially convinced that a lot of the typical “Luther story” is probably historically inaccurate. Not necessarily untrue, but plenty of mythology in the mix.

    -I am very sure that the humanist and Catholic contribution to the reform of Christianity has been considerably obscured in the creation of a Protestant mythology."

    Unwittingly proving his point, one of the first replies was from a Protestant name James, who replied:

    "Pathetic! You make the Reformation sound like a sad collision of accidents! The Papists LITERALLY chained the Bible to the Lectern for a thousand years, and Luther wrote it in the language of the common man. God had the printing press invented at the same time, and POW!!!!"

    Of course, these are more half-truths with large doses of mythology and error.

    (1) The Bibles were chained to the Lecterns and in the Libraries to prevent them from being stolen (being hand-written and ornately decorated, they were incredibly valuable), just like the reference section of a library today. It wasn't to prevent access to the laity. In fact, these Bibles were the only way to realistically get Bibles into the hands of the common folk in an age before the printing press.

    (2) Luther's Bible was hardly the first German Bible (Protestants routinely get this fact wrong). As Wikipedia noted, "In total, there were at least eighteen complete German Bible editions, ninety editions in the vernacular of the Gospels and the readings of the Sundays and Holy Days, and some fourteen German Psalters by the time Luther first published his own New Testament translation."

    (3) The printing press was invented by a Catholic, who used it to distribute the Latin Vulgate to a wider audience... because Catholics love Sacred Scripture.

    James views this history as part of a great salvation narrative, and that's certainly how the history of the Reformation was written by English-speaking Protestants for centuries. But the trouble is, that story is almost entirely propaganda, not history. The nailing of the 95 Theses is just one of probably hundreds of widespread myths about what the Reformation was like.

    God bless,

    Joe

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  4. Fascinating, Joe. Thanks for the info!

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  5. I remember the first time I read a book specifically about the Reformation. It was produced by the BBC, hardly friendly towards the Catholic Church. In fact, they tried to associate Martin Luther with Martin Luther King Jr, saying that they both exhibited the same revolutionary spirit which rebelled against an unjust system.

    Anyhoo...I found the book grueling. Hearing about reformers arguing among themselves...about schism and schism... It was sooooo depressing! And this was something worth celebrating?!

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  6. Thanks for a great and wonderful laugh. I think I might print this out and send it to a Presbyterian friend of mine who didn't accompany me across the Tiber. He is still lamenting my decision 10 years after the fact.

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  7. Many, many errors are overreactions to other errors.

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  8. I really liked your #2 idea.

    For your #3, I would expand on that to include the fact Protestants today have totally forgotten about the "Reform" part, and instead settled down on their own paths with no connection whatsoever to the reformation. Bryan Cross brilliantly compares it to an Occupy Wall Street movement that ends up settling down in the park, forgetting why it was protesting, and starting a new life in tents:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2011/10/reformation-sunday-2011-how-would-protestants-know-when-to-return/

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  9. Many Lutherans have not given up the idea of reform with the Reformation. I will admit that we probalby all know some Protestants that are completely ignorant of the facts of the Reformation or the reason for it. The sermon on Sunday was about Reformation Day and the constant need for reform in every church. The Lutheran Church (as I experience and see it) is still a reform movement. We are a reform movement within the catholic church, but we should still strive to be a reform movement within the Catholic church. I am sure that many faithful Catholics do not want to hear from Lutherans. I can understand how many will see Reformation Day as celebrating the divorce, which breaks my heart. It should renew Protestants and Catholics to work together for reform and possible reunion.

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  10. Rev. Hans,

    Have you read Stanley Hauerwas' 1995 Reformation Sunday homily? It sounds a similar note, and is generally quite excellent.

    God bless,

    Joe

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  11. He with/by providence nailed such to the door. It is not that all follow the Theses; but the spirit of such dissent. Christ is commemorated on Reformation Day that with him we reject and resist Rome.

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  12. Mr. Mcgranor,

    I suppose you didn't read the link to the Lutheran website explaining that he didn't actually nail the Theses to the door? And I suppose you haven't actually read the Theses either, or you'd realize that Luther's (initial) express intent wasn't to foster a "spirit of such dissent," but to better enforce what he believed the pope and the Gospel were calling for.

    As for your last sentence, we're back to celebrating divorce. The whole point of the Reformation was that it wasn't supposed to be a Rejection. Luther was even fine with the papacy, so long as it played the role he (Luther) thought it should play.

    So when you celebrate the rejection and resistance of Rome, you're celebrating the Reformation's failure, not its success.

    God bless,

    Joe

    P.S. You might also learn a bit from reading Stanley Hauerwas' homily, linked to in my last comment. Hauerwas is a pretty popular Methodist-leaning Episcopalian theologian, if you're not familiar.

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  13. What is also little known is that Luther actually believed in Purgatory and Indulgences at the time he posted the 95 - the catch was that he was protesting abuses of them, not the doctrines themselves.

    This protest opened the door for a later rejection, but it's ironic to celebrate the 95 when the 95 still affirmed Catholic doctrine.

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  14. "Reformation" should be really called "Revolt" because I guess that is really what it seemed to be. People just went hog wild.

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