Why normal, boring, everyday Christians are awesome

16 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  

In the Winter of 1520 Martin Luther published “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen,” or “A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” commonly called “The Freedom of the Christian.”  In the Treatise Luther wrote the following:

 

I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood – no, I dissuade everyone – unless he be forearmed with this knowledge and understand that the works of monks and priests, be they never so holy and arduous, differ no whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic toiling in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before Him by faith alone; as Jeremiah says: ” O Lord, thine eyes are upon faith”; and Ecclesiasticus: ” In every work of thine regard your soul in faith: for this is the keeping of the commandments.” no, he should know that the menial housework of a maidservant or manservant is ofttimes more acceptable to God than all the fastings and other works of a monk or a priest, because the latter lacks faith. Since, therefore, vows seem to tend nowadays only to the glorification of works and to pride, it is to be feared that there is nowhere less of faith and of the Church than among the priests, monks and bishops, and that these men are in truth heathen or hypocrites, who imagine themselves to be the Church or the heart of the Church, and “spiritual,” and the Church’s leaders, when they are everything else but that.

Now what’s he saying?  He’s not saying that some people shouldn’t aspire to the ordained ministry.  Quite the opposite.  Luther remained an ordained priest his entire life and trained many others for the same type of service.  So what is Luther saying?  What Luther is saying is that no one should become a priest who thinks that ordination will somehow set him above normal, boring, everyday Christians.  The “works of the monks,” writes Luther, no matter how dedicated, difficult, and disciplined “differ no whit in the sight of God” from the works of the field hand, or the stay at home mom, or the seamstress.  It is not the work, or even the greatness of the work that counts before God.  Rather, it is simple faith, or trusting in Christ.  In this regard, the simple farm boy who trusts in Christ is at least equal to the learned priest.  But the farm boy may be greater than the priest, for perhaps the priest is trusting in his works and his status rather than Christ making the priest a “heathen or hypocrite.”  The simple farm boy, with his simple faith in Christ, is the truly spiritual of the two.

This thinking was carried across the channel from Germany to England during the English Reformation.  In 1539 the Great Bible, the first authorized Bible to be published in the English language was released to the English people.  Cranmer’s preface to the Great Bible is instructive in terms of the theological shift that was taking place in England during the Reformation.  Just one generation prior, the highest form of Christian service imaginable was taking monastic vows and second to that was the ordination to the priesthood.  However, as we’ve seen, Luther gave pride of place to the simple Christian life of the husband and wife, innkeeper, farmer, etc.  Cranmer exhibits a similar bias in his preface.  He instructs Christians to read the Bible twice daily, with special intent towards understanding and applying the sermon heard on Sunday.  Anticipating objections, that perhaps laity do not need such training in Biblical knowledge and theology he wrote:

Let no man make excuse and say (saith he), I am busied about matters of the commonwealth; I bear this office, or that; I am a craftsman, I must apply mine occupation. I have a wife, my children must be fed, my household must I provide for. Briefly, I am a man of the world. It is not for me to read the scriptures. That belongeth to them that have bidden the world farewell, which live in solitariness and contemplation, and have been brought up and continually nuzzled in learning and religion. To this answering, What sayest thou man? (saith he) Is it not for thee to study and to read the scripture, because thou art encumbered and distracted with cares and business? So much the more it is behoveful for thee to have defense of scriptures, how much thou art the more distressed in worldly dangers. They that be free and far from trouble and intermeddling of worldly things live in safeguard and tranquility, and in the calm, or within a sure haven. Thou art in the midst of the sea of worldly wickedness, and therefore thou needest the more of ghostly succor and comfort! They sit far from the strokes of battle, and far out of gunshot, and therefore they be but seldom wounded. Thou that standest in the forefront of the host, and nighest to thine enemies, must needs take now and then many strokes, and be grievously wounded, and therefore thou hast most need to have thy remedies and medicines at hand. Thy wife provoketh thee to anger; thy child giveth thee occasion to take sorrow and pensiveness; thine enemies lie in wait for thee; thy friend (as thou takest him) sometime envieth thee; thy neighbor misreporteth thee or picketh quarrels against thee; thy mate or partner undermineth thee; thy lord, judge, or justice, threateneth thee; poverty is painful unto thee; the loss of thy dear and wellbeloved causeth thee to mourn; prosperity exalteth thee, adversity bringeth thee low. Briefly, so divers and so manifold occasions of cares, tribulations, and temptations, beset thee and besiege thee round about. Where canst thou have armor or fortress against thine assaults? Where canst thou have salves for thy sores but of holy scripture?

Note Cranmer’s language of those who are “free and far from trouble and intermeddling of worldy things,” who live “in safeguard and tranquility, and in the calm, or within sure heaven.”  Who do you suppose he’s talking about?  The monks and the priests of course.  And who is engaged in real Christian service, which brings with it real Christian adversity and Christian warfare?  Cranftsmen, businessmen, husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, children, etc.  In these few words Cranmer subtly portrays monasticism as a lesser form of Christian service than that of the everyday Christian.  Because the everyday, normal Christian is called to hard service in the world, it is all the more important that the everyday Christian equip himself with a steady diet of Scripture, which had been recently supplied in the Great Bible.

Luther’s point, sealed in Anglican theology by Thomas Cranmer, is that becoming a monk, or a priest, or a missionary doesn’t make a Christian great.  Christ makes Christians great and this is received by simple faith.  The janitor, truck driver, farmhand etc. are not lesser Christians than monks, priest, missionaries etc.  Rather all are equal before God and equally beloved of God by faith, not by works, so that no one can boast.  Not only are “ordinary” Christians great, but Cranmer reminds us that “ordinary” Christian practices are great.  In an age that calls us to be “radical” for Christ, Cranmer reminds us that more good would come if Christians simply read their Bibles, applied the sermon to their life, and sought wisdom by the Holy Spirit in prayer.  The ordinary Christian life is not to be shunned or despised, but admired, not because it makes much of the individual, but because such a life, through simple faith, makes much of Christ.

You can learn more about Cranmer and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.

 


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