Tag Archives: Martin Luther

Why do we have Christmas trees?


A Christmas tree in the United States.

Just why do we put these odd things in our houses?

When I have questions about church history, I often turn to one or the other of our family’s dear friends (and our older kids’ godparents) Jennifer and Edwin Woodruff Tait. So naturally, when my wife came back today from shopping for a Christmas tree (empty-handed! The trees at the only lot she could find were dried out and $75!), and I began musing over this odd tradition, I turned to an article by the Woodruff Taits that reminded me how odd, indeed, is the history of the Christmas tree:

The evergreen tree was an ancient symbol of life in the midst of winter. Romans decorated their houses with evergreen branches during the New Year, and ancient inhabitants of northern Europe cut evergreen trees and planted them in boxes inside their houses in wintertime. Many early Christians were hostile to such practices. The second-century theologian Tertullian condemned those Christians who celebrated the winter festivals, or decorated their houses with laurel boughs in honor of the emperor:

“Let them over whom the fires of hell are imminent, affix to their posts, laurels doomed presently to burn: to them the testimonies of darkness and the omens of their penalties are suitable. You are a light of the world, and a tree ever green. If you have renounced temples, make not your own gate a temple.” Continue reading

Roger Olson follows C S Lewis in proposing a “Protestant purgatory” . . . heated discussion ensues


H/t to scientia et sapientia for alerting me to Baylor prof Roger Olson’s suggestion that perhaps Protestants today should take C S Lewis’s cue and consider the possibility of a purgatory-like intermediate state between death and heaven. You’ll see a variety of responses, some quite heated, at Roger’s blog. Also, scientia links a thoughtful critical response from Dallas Seminary grad and theological educator Michael Patton.

Roger’s proposal emerges from his understanding that there are “saints” in the history of Christianity–he singles out Augustine and Calvin, among others–who did terrible, hate-filled things. Do those people (or anyone else with such extreme “baggage”) get to leap straight from their deathbeds to the presence of the Holy God? Here are a few brief excerpts from Roger’s reflection: Continue reading

Saints: The three things early Lutherans thought they could do for us


Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, pain...

I once wrote that Luther tossed the saints off of the church calendar and thus removed an important spiritual tool from Protestantism. Now I am reminded by the “Here I Walk” blogger(s) that I should have qualified that statement. The document cited in the following is Lutheranism’s primary confessional document, the Augsburg Confession.

Melanchthon gives an account of why Chris­tians should not invoke the saints in prayer (Apol­ogy to the Augs­burg Con­fes­sion, Arti­cle xxi). But he and Luther both allowed for the pos­si­bil­ity that the saints pray for us, and nei­ther of them denied the des­ig­na­tion of some believ­ers as saints in the sense of “extra­or­di­nary wit­nesses to Christ.” In fact, Melanchthon lays out three extremely impor­tant things that saints do for believ­ers that makes “giv­ing honor” to them per­fectly appropriate: Continue reading

Did either Martin Luther or C. S. Lewis understand (and appreciate) Thomas Aquinas?


For a while this summer, I dug deep in the sources to try to discover whether C. S. Lewis’s strong taste for virtue ethics, manifested both in his Abolition of Man and in his Mere Christianity (among other places) reflected an equally strong appreciation for Thomas Aquinas. At the Marion Wade Center, I pored over the massive four-volume set of Aquinas’s Summa that once resided in Lewis’s library. There were almost no annotations in that set by Lewis, but then again, many of the books he loved most were likewise unmarked.

I read through certain letters of Lewis in which he cautions his correspondent to stay away from the neo-scholasticism of Jacques Maritain and others (he identified T. S. Eliot with this movement). To Dom Bede Griffiths he wrote, “There is no section of religious opinion with which I feel less sympathy.” Lewis seems to have objected to the neo-Thomists’ insistence on certain philosophical formulations and understandings as essential to the faith: “there are some of this set who seem to me to be anxious to make of the Christian faith itself one more of their high brow fads.” This would seem to rub against Lewis’s commitment to “mere Christianity.”

Also, Chris Mitchell of the Wade Center warned me that Lewis got most of his understanding and appreciation of virtue ethics directly from Aristotle, rather than via Aquinas. So I began to worry that Lewis was in fact anti-scholastic, and that I would have a hard time using him in my Medieval Wisdom book as an guide into the passion for precise theological understanding that characterized the great scholastics. Continue reading

New monastic Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove retells monastic history


Though the following is a critical review, I want to be clear: I am deeply sympathetic with the aims and perspectives of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I just think we need to be historically responsible when we compare new and old movements.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “A Vision So Old It Looks New” in Monasticism Old and New (Christian Reflection, Baylor University, 2010 issue)

This article was adapted from Wilson-Hartgrove’s book New Monasticism: What It Has to Say to Today’s Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008).

In his introduction to this issue of Christian Reflection, Robert Kruschwitz summarizes this article : “In A Vision So Old It Looks New (p. 11), Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove explores how monasticism over the centuries has offered a powerful critique of mainstream culture. Tracing its origins from Antony and the fourth-century desert Christians, through the medieval monasteries inspired by Benedict of Nursia, to the intentional communities of radical Protestant Reformers, he shows, ‘In every era God has raised up new monastics to pledge their allegiance to God alone and remind the church of its true vocation’” (8).

Wilson-Hartgrove opens the article: “It is hard to be a Christian in America today. . . . The church in America is not living up to what it claims to be. Somehow we have lost our way.” (11) Especially he gives examples of behavior: spousal abuse, racism, hypocrisy in areas of sexuality. We ain’t that different from secular society, or sometimes worse, in many of those areas. Continue reading

“The Bible alone”? Not for John Calvin!


This reader’s comment on another post reminded me of something I once wrote, which sparked response both positive and extremely negative. Some people just can’t handle the truth 🙂 :

“The Bible Alone”? Not for John Calvin!
When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers.
Chris Armstrong

There’s no question that the Bible is at the very center of conservative Christianity in America. When tough legislation limited access to the Bible in our public schools, Christians sought creative ways around the wall, legal prosecution notwithstanding. When translators set out to “modernize” the Bible’s gender language, conservatives kicked up a storm. When lawmakers removed a Ten Commandments monument from a courthouse, Christian protesters mobbed the scene.

All of this activity hearkens back to the Reformation tradition of Sola Scriptura—the belief that the Bible should be the ultimate authority for the church, trumping all human traditions. For many conservatives, this authority is not only unquestioned within the church, but extended beyond the church to society at large. The dream of some evangelicals is a country—perhaps some day even a world—where every moral and political question is submitted to the Bible, which will provide answers both obvious and immediately applicable.

Worth asking, however, is whether we really understand what Sola Scriptura means within the church itself. Continue reading

Johann Gutenberg’s imprint on history, and God’s imprint on Gutenberg


Guess I’m feeling controversial these days. Here’s another post that wanders into contested territory: the theological interpretation of historical events. It’s my take on Johann Gutenberg.

I’m interested here not so much in the way Gutenberg changed the world with his invention of the printing press, or the way his invention really made the Reformation possible . . . That’s all textbook stuff.

But did you know that Johann was something of a huckster–and that many of the first documents printed on his press were those indulgences that so troubled Luther? Or that he pushed so hard to get his invention up and running that he overextended himself financially and lost all profit from it? Or that in the wake of this personal disaster, he seems to have turned to the begging friars–the Franciscans–becoming a lay camp-follower?

In other words, there was more to this guy than we learn in the textbooks, and I think his story provides great grist for theological reflection:

A God’s-Eye View of Gutenberg
The rise, fall, and redemption of the Father of the Information Age.
By Chris Armstrong

August 24, 1456. On or near this day, the great Bible from Johann Gutenberg’s press emerged complete from the bindery in Mainz, Germany. Few events merit the breathless statement, “and the world would never be the same!” But the creation of the first book printed with movable type is one of them. Thinking about this event and how it has contributed to the spread of the Gospel around the globe, I muse, “God surely worked through Gutenberg!”

But then I hesitate. Historians, even Christian ones, don’t like to say too much about where the finger of God descended to do this or that on earth. Continue reading

Tavern tunes in church music and “Why should the devil have all the good music?”


After I posted the Gregory piece, a friend, Michelle Myer, chimed in with the following on my Facebook page:

“You missed the bit where the dove landed on his shoulder and taught him the basics of Gregorian chant. 😉

“I’ve also heard him credited (through his adoption of Roman forms of chant for worship) as being the very first to say ‘Why should the Devil have all the good music?’ Larry Norman said it best, but maybe Gregory said it first?”

As Michelle knows, the bit about Gregory inventing Gregorian chant–dove or no dove–doesn’t have an ounce of evidence to support it (and much evidence goes against it). But since she has brought up the topic, here’s a reflection I posted back in the Christian History online newsletter days (2003), related to the origin both of the use of tavern tunes in church music–usually Luther is credited with doing this, but did he?–and the phrase “Why should the devil have all the good music?” The facts may surprise you. And some of the links may not work–this was posted over 5 years ago:

From Oratorios to Elvis
Pop culture has been coming to a church near you for hundreds of years.

Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has entered the (church) building.

Part II: Caveat Gyrator

Imagine a mutton-chop-whiskered, white-jump-suited Anglican priest, posed dramatically on one knee, arm raised skyward, belting out, before a cheering crowd of the pious and the curious, the Elvis hit “Where Could I Go But to the Lord.” (Yes, Elvis covered that song in 1968. His Majesty is not in the Gospel Hall of Fame for nothing—he garnered all three of his Grammies for gospel hits, not rock tunes.) Continue reading