“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Jesus in Mark 7:8
It’s interesting that principle leaders in the 16th Century Protestant Reformation were priests and teachers in the Roman Catholic Church. Even the Czech citizen John Hus, the Master Teacher of Theology at Charles University in the 14th century was a faithful Catholic priest. What happened to these men causing them to become such troublemakers? In John Hus’ case, he didn’t go too far since he was burned at the stake by the Papal army. He had a copy of the Bible for himself but not a printing press to quickly run off more copies for others. Two hundred years later this would be possible. Today he could be electronically blogging daily and weekly sharing ideas for all to read!
Other, more well known leaders appeared in the early 16th Century; Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. Luther become a monk and then an ordained priest before he began to read the Bible and finally in 1517, nailed those 95 Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. Such actions led in a few years to his being banned by the church. It caused a bitter and violent revolt of the people against Rome, wherein hundreds of churches, monasteries and convents were burned and destroyed. It became so violent that Luther ordered it stopped and many of the peasants were punished. But it had secured Luther’s freedom to develop what would become known as the Lutheran Church.
Meanwhile to Luther’s south in Zurich, Switzerland, another young priest got a copy of the Bible and after reading it a few years, also decided to revolt against the policies and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. He changed much in worship including making the Mass into a Service of hearing the Scriptures read and interpreted. He banned music so people could be more attentive to understanding scriptures. Soon the Papal armies road into his city and there ensued a big fight. Zwingli joined forces in opposition and although Zwingli’s followers won the battles, Ulrich was killed in the fight. But his legacy and teachings continued as newer versions of Gutenberg’s printing press continued to churn out Bibles.
Meanwhile a young French law student named John Calvin was studying to become a catholic lawyer in Paris. He too began to study the Scriptures. Shocked to see stark differences between the teachings of the Bible and practices of his Roman Church, he quit studies and fled to Switzerland, settling in Geneva. There he spent the rest of his life teaching the Bible and setting up the representative government of the newly formed Reformed Church where the worldwide base of Reformed Churches remains located in Geneva today.
In those early years much changed in the forms of Christian practice. Many still adhering to the Creeds of the Catholic Church from the 4th Century, they permitted priests to marry and dropped many of the special holy seasons of the earlier church such as Lent and Advent. Many dropped the observance of special “Saint Days” believing all Christians ought to be considered “saints.” Church governance was created by Calvin to have an elected representative system rather appointments from an Episcopal system. Singing and expanded music was brought into the churches through new hymnology and the installations of pipe organs albeit not without rigorous debates. New buildings and cathedrals were built to rival those of the Roman Catholics.
Around 1550, a Catholic priest from Scotland, John Knox, converted to the newly formed Anglican Church, created over the dispute with Rome over the marriage of Henry VIII to his mistress after divorcing his wife. It was Henry who ordered the creation of a new Bible translation to be printed just for Anglicans, which soon was adopted by many Protestants. As a priest, John Knox married and traveled to Geneva where he studied under John Calvin, convinced that the Reformer’s view of government polity was better suited to his thinking. He returned to Scotland forming the official Church of Scotland from which our own Presbyterian brand of Calvin’s Reformed movement sprung forth.
Why all these phenomenal changes in such tumultuous times? It was information made possible by the printing press! People gained access to information never before possible; the common distribution of newly printed Bibles along with commentaries. Each reading seemed to bring new ideas and new forms. It was truly a reforming movement. It gave birth to the wonderful period called the Renaissance.
With new creeds, confessions and affirmations of faith written, a central idea stated that salvation was freely accessible to all people through simple faith in the understanding God loved them and forgave them all their failures and sins. Such forgiveness was granted directly by a mind and heart simply confession their faults and sins in sincerity. Traditions of the church were considered secondary, even barriers to freely given salvation.
Whether hymns were sung or deleted, music was lead by pulsating organs, additions where were simply tactics to lead people to the inward acceptance of the Christ as their Savior. Some “radical principles” were later gathered together of which one has been kept in the Presbyterian constitution to this day. It goes like this: “The church affirms: Eccleia reformata, semper reformanda, that is, ‘The church reformed, always reforming,’ according to the Word of God and the call of the Spirit.’ (G. 2.0300) In other words, the forms of the church are never stagnant, even needing to change and “re-form” according to the needs of the time as directed by God.
In the past two centuries, we have witnessed several important re-formations in the church of which we are part. Slavery, after a vigorous, centuries old debate, was banned by most church bodies. In our century, women won the right of ordination as ministers and priests. Ecumenical agencies sprung up to join together both Roman Catholic and Protestant groups. Now, as in our own community, we have an Interreligious Community of faith bringing together Christians of all brands along with Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian groups! These are exciting times.
Today people write of our being in another great reformation period. Some now describe us as the “earthquake” zone phase. In the past century reforms came which brought women to ordination, people of different color are now being integrated into our own, and the acceptance of gays and lesbians are gaining rapid inclusion as our brothers and sisters. Why all of this so quickly it seems, occurring now?
Well, several things may contribute to today’s reformation/revolutions. In the late 1800’s and into the early 1900’s scientific studies began to be applied to the Bible and religious scriptures. People wanted to know just where they came from, what was left out, who really wrote these scriptures? Courses in “Textual Criticism” began to be offered in Seminaries.
In 1945 two very important discoveries were made in the eastern Mediterrean countries of Israel and Egypt. First was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave near the Dead Sea and second was the Nag Hammadi letters in northern Egypt near Cairo. They were ancient Hebrew and early Christian writings that were hidden, apparently under fear of being destroyed. We are discovering they were writings of different viewpoints from those accepted by many modern Orthodox Hebrews (although even now, under guard by the Vatican and State of Israel, the Dead Sea Scrolls have never been fully translated) and the creeds of the 4th century.
The Nag Hammadi documents, from which I often quote and print, were a collection of early church writings which escaped burning by the 4th century church, with Roman army help. They give a different or much expanded view of the early church faith. These reveal an understanding of God’s Presence as not outside us or the world in which we live, but within it, everywhere, including ourselves.
People who discover and appreciate this new inward awareness see themselves as much more aligned with the so-called “Gnostic” view of spirituality, based on the knowledge or understanding (meaning of Gnostic) that God is within me, indeed is my True Self. This understanding moves us beyond or prior to the creeds of the 4th century which proclaimed Jesus as the only Son of God to be invoked from “up there” by making a proper confession. The understanding becomes one of seeing oneself as also part of the Divine Sonship. It is in all people, accessible by faith and understanding it is so.
Communications and travel of the past century also brought many more of us into countries of the East such as India where we discovered the ancient Hindu and Buddhist faiths which are much closer to that of the early church Gnostic teachings. God, Spirit, Atman or the Buddha is within each of us as part of the Eternal Spirit Oneness. We merely need to open ourselves to it and choose to identity with its Eternal Love as ourselves.
So much has been and is being reformed we can feel dizzy in these years, perhaps a bit uncomfortable and insecure. New music continues to burst forth into congregations with percussion, electronics, PowerPoint’s, accompanied with Yoga classes, meditation, and channeling groups.
However the new reformation is still trying to break into older groups as our Presbyterian denomination. What do I believe will need further reformation in order for survival?
Here are a few suggestions; the movement to understand the scriptures as not to be taken literally is still in its infancy stages in many minds within churches and seminaries. We have come part way but still have not seriously studied and considered the evidence that the whole Jesus Story is but a metaphorical one developed from many eastern Mediterrean countries in the thousands of years before “our Jesus.”
We have yet to move past the adherence to the 4th Century Creeds called the Apostles’ Creed (they knew nothing about it!) or the Nicene Creeds, statements written at the insistence of the Emperor Constantine, an Emperor who when you study you see him not as a very nice person! These creeds are exclusive and have been used to ban and commit genocide again thousand and millions over the ages. Yet our constitution claims these confessions must remain our “Church catholic standards of faith” in this day and time. It goes further to state that “The church is prepared to counsel or even discipline one ordained who seriously rejects the faith expressed in these confessions.” (G-20200) Thousands of potential leaders have left the church to say nothing of the millions of adherents over these outdated, narrow, and dangerous ideas. We need for more reform.
If you are sick and threatened with death, what do you do? If myself, I would want the best medical advice I could receive and hope they are knowledgably trained. I would not think of going back to George Washington’s time when after catching a chest cold and developing a fever, the three best known doctors of Virginia bled him to death!
Yet in a sick and dying institution in what call a “post Christian Era,” we seem to continually go back to the “spiritual doctors” of the 16th century. Yes, even worse, we return to “experts” of the 4th century. It’s time to modernize even more, awakening to consider evidence and knowledge readily available to our time and day.
Shortly after seminary, I came across a book titled, “A Modern Priest Looks at this Outdated Church,” written by James Cavanaugh, who just died in the last year or so. He was from Lansing, Michigan and as I read his thoughts many years ago, I thought of how brave he was, and honest. Deciding to marry he was expelled from his ordination but lived a very productive life outside of the Roman Catholic Church.
I believe we could write similar books about many aspects of our dying mainline denominations. Yes, we ordain women, we are slowly moving toward inclusion and acceptance of our gay and lesbian friends, and we have missions to help people in many places. But something deeper is needed; the access to the knowledge, known for centuries, that we are all God’s children. It is freely given and by going within, through meditation and understanding, we can find it and experience it directly. It’s beyond requirements for church buildings, ordained clergy, large structures and complex bureaucratic administrations. It’s as close and simple as being aware of one’s breath. It’s here, it’s everywhere!
We call ourselves members of a Reformed Church. I encourage us to keep reforming it, awakening it, moving it another step toward the Universal Message of all men and women of whatever color or race, having direct access to the same God and Presence. However we tell it is not nearly importance as to offering it in whatever way that makes it most clear and inviting. May the blessings of God be upon us as we live and re-form the church for our times. Amen.
Reflections offered by Rev. David Persons at the First Presbyterian Church of West Seneca on October 30, 2011, 2085 Union Road, 10:00 a.m. Open discussions followed.