Contending for the Faith
Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints .—Jude 3
by James Owczarski
Given everything at stake in the matter, it is not too terribly surprising that most of the world’s religions have wanted to see the finger of God in their history. After all, discerning the presence of the divine in everyday life, especially when the divinity appears to intervene on one’s own behalf, is much more than the source for encouraging stories and other tales well told; it is, ultimately, a sign or seal that a believer has chosen wisely and is treading a path pleasing to the One he serves. This impetus has led well-intentioned people of all faiths and persuasions to drag history hither and thither like an unwilling dog on a short tether. Secular historians, with a mixture of disgust and anger, have tended to respond by denying the infinite any place, or at least any determinable place, in the human past—a denial which the more honest among their number will concede is really based in large part on their own atheism or agnosticism. Both extremes, it seems reasonable to argue, do God a gross injustice. History is neither a tidy, monochromatic story of “us versus them” nor is it a Godless bundle of unconnected events. Christians, while never letting slip the faith that set them free, can take a fair view of the past and arrive at credible conclusions that do not marginalize their Creator. Doing so is as much a part of the struggle to which Jude referred as any matter of doctrine.
With all the foregoing in mind, the present study considers four men who have been raised up as among the greater in the history of the Church Militant: Arius, Peter Valdo (more commonly Waldo), Martin Luther, and John Calvin. More particularly, it concentrates on what are usually considered to be their greatest theological contributions to the Church in their own time and how these contributions may have been used to feed the flock of God.
Christianity is rent into so many pieces that one rather suspects that only Jehovah himself knows where all the tatters have gotten off to, much less how to fit them all back together. Nonetheless, the vast majority of those describing themselves as Christians heap nothing but abuse on Arius. Uniformly described in the standard texts as a heretic, his heresy, about which more will be said presently, has been violently abjured by both Pope and Protestant. The Nicene Creed of 325 A.D., drawn largely in response to his beliefs, has remained a standard confession of faith for mainstream Christianity and a touchstone of fellowship for those with ecumenical inclinations.
Despite all the foregoing, precious little can be said about him with certainty. Born sometime near the mid-point of the third century A.D., he did not come to prominence until his more advanced years. Then, in about 319 in his native city of Alexandria, his eloquent speeches on a variety of topics received sufficient popular attention to elicit a complaint about him to the imperial court of Constantine. Having only recently lifted the more onerous burdens associated with being a Christian within his empire, the emperor seems to have cared little for doctrinal dispute, but he was passionately concerned with good order. Arius, therefore, was more a political difficulty than a theological one as evidenced by Constantine’s dispatching St. Hosius in an ultimately vain attempt to patch things up. When he learned of the failure of Hosius’ mission, his next response was to summon one of the great early councils of the church, that at Nicaea in 325 A.D. From the beginning, it is entirely probable that Constantine was not too worried about what the Council ultimately decided, so long as it was something comprehensible and enforceable.
As the mind’s eye travels backwards to the crowded seats assembled around the throne imperial, the greatest difficulty in assessing what took place at Nicaea is a fundamental uncertainty about just what Arius believed. Only two works, both brief letters, can be ascribed directly to his hand. His Thaleia or “banquet,” a collection of doctrine-laden songs sung to the tunes of naughty sea-chanteys, has vanished save as excerpted by his arch-rival Bishop Athanasius. The Council itself ordered his works destroyed and it is therefore little wonder that so little is known about his doctrine. In any event, the responses to his beliefs seem to indicate that he held for a form of subordinationism, that is, the Son or logos is in some respect less than the Father. This was not a new view within the Church and it could take on many forms; latter-day “Arians” would find themselves profoundly uncomfortable with some of them. Jesus, after all, had stirred so many messianic hopes in the faithful—hopes that were not to be formally quashed by the church until the fourth century—that few had bothered to define with any precision who he was while on earth and who (or what) he was since the Ascension. When authors began to pose these questions, it became quickly plain that even completely orthodox thinkers were not of one mind on the matter and Arius’ experiences demonstrate that the notion of Jesus Christ as “very God from very God” was anything but the accepted formula of his age.
On the other hand, it will not do to make Arius the harbinger of the Good News that Jesus Christ was the angelic logos made flesh. He may have so believed, and many of the Germanic tribesmen who were converted to Christianity by Arian missionaries in later years certainly found something congenial in the notion of a heroic spirit coming to rescue men from demonic captivity; but there is a certain subtlety in his beliefs, what can be ascertained of them, that suggests he would have ultimately recoiled at such a flat statement of difference between the nature of God and that of his Son, smacking as it might of a sort of bi-theism. Further, such a view is difficult to reconcile with his attempts at reconciliation with the Roman Church, attempts that failed just short of actually receiving Communion in Constantinople from his former enemies.
Still, by the time of Arius’ death in about 336, the Roman Church was well on its way to clearing away the tangled thatch of dissent that had surrounded the question of who Christ was and in so doing embraced the at-best obliquely scriptural notion of a trinity amongst the divine persons. While Arian Christianity persisted until at least the seventh century among several of the Germanic tribes that hastened the fall of the Roman Empire, his views were not those of the church’s future.
Unlike that of Arius, the history of Peter Valdo has been as much hidden by his friends as his enemies. Ever since the Reformers of the sixteenth century lit upon a seemingly ancient group of kindred spirits in the North Italian region of Savoy, the Waldensians (French Vaudois) have been used by various groups as evidence of the persistence of the true spirit of the Gospel throughout the “dark times” of the Middle Ages. The Genevan reformer Beza, among others, thought their community to have been founded by the Apostle Paul on his semi-legendary journey to Spain. Others, with the same general purpose in mind, found their origins in the very earliest apostasy of the Bishop of Rome in the third or fourth century, arguing that they fled the corruption that was creeping into the Church. It makes matters no better, from a historical point of view, that the very name “Waldensian” became attached by the official church to any number of heretical sects that were then subjected to persecution. Even worse, some chroniclers and later authors confused the followers of Valdo with the Albigensian perfecti who made trouble for both the Pope of Rome and the King of France through much of the High Middle Ages but were radically different from the Waldensians in both doctrine and form of life.
The earliest source to which any credibility can be attached is an anonymous chronicler who clearly thought little of Valdo and his followers. Nonetheless, he reports, with a certain impartiality, that, near the close of the twelfth century, Valdo—originally a rich merchant of Lyons, France—upon hearing the words of Matthew 19:21 sold all his worldly possessions, dispersed his wealth to the poor, and adopted the life of a mendicant or “begging” preacher. He soon acquired a sizeable following and set up a series of small communities on the French side of the Alps, communities that were eventually to be as wide-spread as Spain and Bohemia.
In his life and preaching there is a fair similarity between Valdo and his near-contemporary St. Francis of Assisi. Both railed against the wealth and splendor held by a church established by the son of a wood-worker and a group of fishermen. They both urged the church to be more mindful of the least of God’s sheep and both, for these and other reasons, ran afoul of church authority. Francis, in a little-known footnote to history, came within an ace of excommunication for his insistence on clerical poverty while Valdo, after appealing to the third Lateran Council of 1179 for official recognition as a monastic order, was placed under papal ban by Lucius III in 1184.
From that point forward, it seems, Valdo and the Waldensians’ circumstances were driven by their heretical status. More than once the church preached both ban and crusade against the scattered groups of what came to be known as the “poor men of Lyon.” Moreover, Valdo, who died in Bohemia in 1217, began to radicalize in both doctrine and tone. His communities shaped themselves around a “form-of-life” program of his drafting and appointed a new order clergy to meet their sacramental needs. Perhaps more than anything else, however, he is known in Christian circles for undertaking the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into his native Provencal. While no scholarly treatment of the text (the defects in the Vulgate alone would see to that), Valdo’s translation must be seen as part of his largely anti-clerical program and his desire to see the Church return to a better time before it was afflicted with what English Puritans were to call the “raiment of popery.” With moveable type still almost three centuries distant, however, the impact of this translation was of necessity limited. Nonetheless, for those that cherish the ministry of the word and desire the Psalms on the lips of every plowman, Valdo’s will always be a special place in the past.
If about Arius and Valdo too little is known, it is entirely possible that modern historians have said altogether too much about Martin Luther. In dissecting his life, historians have looked on this copper miner’s son as the founder of a new faith, the father of modern child-rearing, the great lexicographer of the German language, a liberator of women, the inspiration for the work of artists like Gruenewald and Duere, and even the distant intellectual ancestor of German anti-semitism and fascism. Whether any of these notions be true or not, they are utterly valueless hunks of stuff spinning through void-space if denied their centrifuge: Luther’s views of salvation, particularly justification by faith. It would be the crudest sort of arrogance to even suggest that in the space herein allowed one could encompass the mind-numbing mass of material that has been generated, in Luther’s time and since, on this subject. What follows, then, with deepest apologies, is as close to a standard account as can be gleaned from the literature and then synthesized for the general reader.
Even those who dissent from a psychoanalytical approach to Luther’s theology acknowledge the importance of father figures in his life. His natural father deeply disapproved of young Martin’s decision not to pursue a degree in law but instead to enter a monastery on a quest to make himself right with God. Once inside the fellowship of the Augustinian Canons, however, there was another Father who seemed far more terrible to his young conscience. Through fasting, prayer, sleepless nights, incessant confession, and even self-flagellation, Young Man Luther sought a near-magical combination of works that would allow him to stand before Jehovah as anything other than a damned penitent. As he sought and struggled, historians are agreed that, while lecturing on the scriptures at the relatively new University of Wittenberg, he gradually began to watch the accretions of medieval credulity fall away from a golden kernel of grace that was the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In a way, he had stumbled on Medieval Christianity’s most carefully-kept secret, that none of the acts, works, or monuments fashioned by the hands of men could achieve a sinning soul’s salvation and, in fact, even the Roman Church’s own best minds had always marginalized these works in favor of grace. As external signs, however, as tangible objects for a large uneducated populace, these works were far too easily held forth as the centuries wore on as the real goals of human existence or at least the sure route to the salvation they represented. In them, Luther came to see only lies and deceptions, gaudy baubles that hid the simplicity and grandeur of salvation.
It was therefore that in the fall of 1517, when a Dominican by the name of Tetzel came to Wittenberg to sell indulgences, Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses for disputation on the door of the city’s cathedral. Historians have said again and again that there was nothing unique in this act. As a university professor Luther was all but obligated to hold such disputations from time to time; but, unlike so many modern academics, he put something of himself into the deed. When Pope Leo X first heard of the micro-furor the challenge to debate caused, he is said to have offered a quip to the effect that this was just another case of monks bickering among themselves; but, within only a few years, Luther was excommunicated and Western Christianity was broken to shivers. Everything that followed, the final rift with Rome, the radicalization of his views on the pope as antichrist, the emergence of a strain of German nationalism in the urban centers of the Reform, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525, and all else is ultimately effect and not cause. Once Luther knew that salvation was by faith alone, he was willing to let heaven and earth fall beside. This belief led him to cast aside the Epistle of James as one “out of straw” because of its emphasis on works. It drove him to reject the value of even good works by those who have not achieved salvation because they tend to lead those who perform them to unwarranted pride. It tended Luther toward strong predestinarian views for, if man is utterly unworthy and in fact incapable of his own salvation, on what basis is he selected for grace save on the impenetrable decision of his Creator? Luther never did grapple fully with the ramifications of this last consequence of his views on justification. His world, his views, were usually framed as rhetoric, even polemic, allowing him to dodge the bullet fired by them squarely at the heart of human free will and its relationship to salvation. John Calvin, on the other hand, never flinched for a moment.
A lawyer by vocation, Calvin remained throughout his life an avocational theologian. Known best as the man who reformed the Swiss city of Geneva during the 1530s, the systematic, analytic methods of the law never left him; and his Institutes of the Christian Religion remains as one of the hallmarks of Protestant thought. Initially a student of Luther’s writings, Calvin is usually viewed as a dour, double-blind predestinarian who thought of men as puppets in a cheap show run by, at best, an uncaring God. What Calvin really did, however, in his Institutes and elsewhere, was hatch the egg Luther laid. For him, if justification is by faith alone, then, as was the case for Luther, there can be no other basis for the selection of the elect than decisions in the mind of God. If grace is a free gift there is no salvation save by grace—yet scripture tells us there will be those who do not receive either grace or salvation—then, again, it is God who alone has numbered the elect.
For some, this is a troubling notion, disabling human will and volition, but for Calvin it was a source of infinite consolation. After all, he argued, if God had to depend on fallen, wretched creatures such as men to fulfill His plans, what assurance could there be of His ultimate success? Further, he first peered inside himself and, seeing nothing of worth, he then turned to heaven and asked what hope he could have of achieving salvation in his wretched state and therefore how Christ could dare to speak as the hope of human kind. His answer was that the Father had before the foundation of the world chosen the elect, and their salvation, through the gift of Christ Jesus, was certain. The thin, dry, often-acerbic Calvin will likely never be remembered as an urbane spirit that had one of the finest wine cellars in Geneva, loved music, and cared passionately about the care of the poor. As students of his doctrine know, though, his thinly-haired head slept sure of his salvation to a degree that it is sometimes difficult for the modern mind to comprehend.
These are not the only men of faith that have ministered unto the Church. Christ swore that he would neither leave nor forsake his followers, and the clear testament of what is now nearly two millennia of time is that he has kept his holy word. From both within and without the established church, God has often enough raised up servants of his word and, it seems reasonable to suppose, will continue to do so as circumstances warrant. Praised be His Name that, so far, He has not found it necessary to call upon the stones to bear His son witness, nor be praised by the very rocks should He need to give them utterance.