Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Indulgences and Grace

As I've grown in my theology and understanding of church history, it has tempered some of my former excitability regarding certain topics. While I have developed a distinctly Protestant view of the church, I no longer lob nasty rhetorical bombs at Roman Catholics like I used to. I've learned to disagree with the Roman tradition on grounds that I find more legitimate than when I was younger. For example, using the popular refrain taken from Ephesians 2:8-9 ("For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast."), I used to declare that Roman Catholics were teaching salvation BY works instead of the orthodox salvation that does not require work. Later in life, I realize that this would not be the Roman argument, but instead that they would argue more that the "works" they prescribe are only made effective by faith. In some ways, I have become somewhat of an apologist for the Roman church, trying to give the benefit of the doubt in matters I did not understand. I have even gone so far as to suggest that the Reformation possibly could not occur today because Rome is not infested with the same corruptions and abuses that lit such a fire under Martin Luther in 1517. "Heck," I would concede, "it's not like they're offering indulgences for absolution anymore."

Hold the phone! The New York Times has now reported that indulgences have been re-introduced back into Roman Catholic practice. In many ways I have attempted to understand Roman theology and progression, reading some of Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas (not extensively, but samplings). However, the indulgence seemed to mark a low point in Roman thought and practice when St. Peter's Basilica needed construction funding in the early 16th century. It was his disgust over this practice that motivated Martin Luther to write the 95 Theses and nail it to the front door of the cathedral in Wittenburg. The ensuing schism (creating the Protestant movement in Europe) would later move the Roman Catholic church to outlaw the sale of indulgences for monetary gain, when the Council of Trent recognized the abuses that had ensued. So in essence, indulgences have never completely vanished from the Roman collection of rites. They have merely been suppressed, or de-emphasized until now.

With the reemphasizing of indulgences within the Roman tradition, Protestants should also reemphasize why the schism not only took place in the 16th century, but remains important to this very day. Attempts at ecumenical agreement between Protestant and Roman leaders have been somewhat laudable, desiring unity among the traditions naming Christ as their head. However, these overtures are ultimately flawed in that they cannot get around the deep seated differences won centuries ago: (1) that Christ has NOT delegated his authority on earth to the Pope - solus Christus, (2) that the Bible remains the highest measure with which to evaluate and calibrate faith and practice, NOT the papacy - sola Scriptura, (3) that salvation is NOT procured by means of my or any saint's merits, but by God's arbitrary grace - sola gratia, (4) that assurance of heaven is NOT appropriated by the practices of rites and sacraments, but is received only by faith - sola fide, and (5) that God has not stooped down to save me because of my merits, but for the sake of his own glory - soli Deo gloria.

While I sometimes have needed to tone down my rabid reformationism in order to work closely, and agreeably along side Roman Catholics (chaplaincy often requires a kinder, gentler Aaron), such news about indulgences only fans my flame regarding Reformation pillars.

On a semi-related note, I recently was conversing with an old friend about their religious tradition. They are no longer in that tradition, but they related an experience in which the religio-cultural dynamics were quite restrictive. Because the religion taught a form of salvation that required certain behaviors and "works" to be assured of not only proper living now but a favorable afterlife, it lent itself over to a very controlling environment. The control of this religion had evolved into a process that my friend found abusive and demeaning. At some point in the conversation I felt it started to sound rather familiar. A religious tradition that had developed a "works based" redemption to the point of controlling people's lives. The shackles firming attached in the name of religious structure.

Oh man, was I mad. [Parenthetically, if you really want to know someone find out what truly ticks them off.] They couldn't hear through the computer (it was an online conversation; is that an oxymoron?), but I slammed my fist on the table in anger; for Jesus' words were explicit: "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32), and only a couple of lines later he emphasizes, "so if the Son sets you free, you will be really free." The truth is not supposed to be strangling, but liberating. The truth is that grace cannot be bought. It cannot be earned. It cannot be controlled. It cannot be used for shackling people with stifling regulations.

A line in the NY Times article even stated that, "You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one." You cannot "buy" one, but you can "earn" one through charitable contributions combines with other acts?! This is still salvation for sale, regardless if St. Peter's Basilica needs any renovating.

Many men find that their great passion is fighting a battle of some kind. They may be warriors who fight a literal battle, but for most of us it is a metaphorical battle against an ideological "enemy." For me, the battle is against the human propensity to enslave ourselves and others by means of religious assumption and intricacy. This explains my love of theology and the Holy Scriptures, for it is the irresponsible use of these areas that enslave people. Therefore, it will always be necessary to liberate people by means of these pursuits, for it is their intended use anyway.


Alan said...

I've always strongly disagreed with many Catholic doctrines, but recently I've found myself defending the Catholic faith to my friends. News like this makes that rather difficult...

Monk321 said...

Exactly, just when I think I can see their point of view, they throw the differences back up in my face.