We may not be selling indulgences…never mind, maybe we are.
I am starting to think all Pastors should take more than your typical Church History survey course, perhaps a class in the historical doctrines and their developments from the Apostolic teachings to modern times would be more helpful. I know that my Alma Mater has moved towards teaching historical theology survey in place of Church History 1 & 2. That course would also have to systems of thought and their influence on Theology and biblical interpretation. For example, the fundamentalist and evangelical insistence on a “Literal” or “Plain reading” of the text comes from the Enlightment belief in foundationalism and Scottish Common-Sense religion which necessarily adopts a literalistic interpretation because well, it just makes sense. Yet, we also tend to be Neo-Gnostic in our approach to the world. As I have written before, we have tended to view the body as evil, unintentionally adopting Marcionism which viewed the created order as “Evil” because to Marcion “Yahweh” was an evil god who created against the will of Elohim. So, we focus almost completely on the heavens and become escapists, always waiting on the next life. Yet our literalistic interpretation of scripture is also a knee-jerk response to German Liberalism and the rise of the text critical method in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A justifiable reaction, though an overreaction as David Strauss’s “Deus Liebner Christus” (Life of Christ) with its rejection of Christ’s divinity had destroyed the faith of many at Tubingen in 1826. Still, a “Plain Reading” of the English text in interpretation is a new phenomenon and one that should trouble us as it has reinforced an anti-intellectualism that prompted Church Historian Mark Noll to write that: “The scandal of the Evangelical Mind is that there is no mind.”
One of the deep ironies that serious students of Church History recognize is how quickly history can repeat itself. For example, as I was finishing up my Masters in Church History I had a discussion with a fellow student about how a generation after the reformation you start to see a total abandonment of the implications of the doctrines for Christian Life put forward by the reformers. They paid lip-service to reformation ideals, but they essentially reenacted the Catholic Penitential System. Something that took 8 centuries to accomplish in the early Church tool one for the protestant church. I will return to this thought later as this is the main topic I want to address here but suffice it to say that it did not take long to abandon Justification by Faith alone.
The Church Fathers are somewhere turning over in their graves. Though they would have struggled with Justification by Faith alone as a purely legal transaction, or the Federalism, the idea that Christ did good things so that we who did bad things could be off the hook. Since they understood Christianity to be an incarnational movement where Christ dwelled in Divine Union and in which Salvation was based on the grace of God who dwelt within us in the person of the Holy Spirit. The best modern representation of this lies in the ancient doctrine of Theosis still at the center of the Eastern Orthodox Mass. The idea being that Christ’s indwelling constantly and continually changes us and makes us more and more like Christ, that we participate in divine life and even take on characteristics of the divine life. It was this realization that almost caused John Williamson Nevin to return to Rome in 1849, though he eventually recognized that Rome was purely Augustinian and out of touch with the Eastern Fathers (it was out of touch with Augustine too, but that’s another article for another time). Still the Church Father’s would take issue with us for returning to Rome in another way but reenacting the Penitential System that defined the Roman Catholic Church throughout the Middle Ages.
One of the best historical examples I can think of is the New Measures revivalism of Charles Finney which stated that a new convert had to be worked up into a frenzy over their sin and cry out in repentance for that sin before they could become a believer. Likely converts would come and sit on the anxious bench and then receive special preaching and encouragement from the revivalist until they “got through.” At the time John Williamson Nevin equated it with the Roman Catholic System, especially since some would be “effectively converted to Christianity two or three times a month.” As if sitting on the bench repeatedly and confessing repeatedly their sins with wailing. It should be said that confession is a good thing, there is a reason our liturgy has a prayer of confession for sins within, so that we can move beyond our sin to the assurance of forgiveness or pardon and live in the light of grace. However, when confession becomes emotional penitence, I must make myself feel so sad that I weep for my sin before I can be truly forgiven. You are adding an unscriptural step to earn forgiveness, as if God is going to be more gracious because you worked yourself into an emotional tizzy and then confessed. Scripture says plainly in 1 John 1:9 that “if we confess our sins, we are faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleans us of all unrighteousness.” If anyone says that “God will not forgive you until you do XY&Z, my advice to you is “Run” all that is required for forgiveness is confession and repentance from sins. I once read in a Church History book that the practice of confessing to a priest began as a good thing, it was when penance was added that it became problematic.
I cannot think of a better example of this in our modern times than Purity Culture. Which by the way, my sister in Christ Elizabeth Ross has written some amazing blog posts on this, go check them out. Many who grew up in purity culture are likely familiar with the example of the rose which has been passed around a room and when it made it back to the speaker ragged and destroyed, he yelled out “Who would want this?” It reflects an attitude that says sexual sin is completely unforgivable and if you do fall into sexual sin then there is no amount of penance you can do to make up for that sin. In fact, in purity culture there was no amount of penance your children could do to be forgiven of that sexual sin. Purity Culture is an example of over-emphasizing a sin and making that sin unforgivable. I am sure that Jesus would argue with the preacher who said this, just as he argued with the Pharisee who had invited him into his home when the prostitute came and wiped his feet with her tears and hair. Matt Chandler certainly responded to this preacher by saying “Jesus wants the Rose, that’s the Gospel.”
Penance and purity culture have this in common, they both tell you that no amount of confession of sin is enough, there has to be more and if there has to be more than God’s divine revelation is wrong. In Penance it was an action that would clear your sins and appease the wrath of God. In purity culture there is no amount of good behavior that can erase your bad. I know there are popular purity culture authors who talked about grace after sin, but that grace never made it into practice. Instead of cheap grace, it was costly grace, but the cost was you and not the one who died to take that sin away and nothing you could do could you earn you that grace. That is why Purity Culture is so often described as a culture of fear, teens were so afraid to make mistakes that they would not even talk to opposite sex. That also had to do with the absurd stigma that if you talked to someone of the opposite sex you wanted to marry them.
I admit, Purity Culture is an extreme example, but what about when we look at church culture in general. Recently I have seen a lot more Christians pushing back against the notion that the Church is filled with perfect people. The problem is, we earned that stigma during the height of the pietistic movement and later Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism has an especially nasty penitential system where any step outside the bounds of a narrow orthodoxy could get your ex-communicated. Evangelicals and evangelicalism are not different, in fact, on Sunday I mentioned that we have used the dogma of a literal six day creation as a litmus test for whether or not someone is a Christian and someone could not become a Christian until they adhered to our narrowly defined orthodoxy. Whether we like it or not, we earned the stigma that one had to get their life together to come to church and be a Christian. How ironically since most of us are far from having our lives together.
Now, I am not saying that one cannot believe in a literal six day creation, I am also not saying that purity or abstinence till marriage is a bad thing or pietism or holding to fundamentals of Christian faith. I am saying that when we make adherence to those things and acceptance into the body and grace and forgiveness based on those things we have stepped beyond the bounds of scripture. When we build a whole culture around them, we have rebuilt a penitential system that says: “Do, believe these things, act this way etc. and you will live” rather than, “because you live, do this.” We look more like Old Testament Jews than New Testament Christians. Or Roman Catholics than Protestants. Therefore, we sometimes use the hashtag #ReformedtheReformed. It may be time for us to revaluate what we believe in Gospel Truth. It may be time for another 95 theses on the Whittenburg Door of the soul of Protestantism. To return to true biblical principles and a biblical Christian Life. One of the reasons I am encouraged about the renewed interest in the early Church Father’s among young Christians is that it takes us back to where it all began and how the Holy Spirit guided the Churches early development. It helps us learn from the saints who went before, who were educated by Christ himself and those who were educated by His followers. I am also encouraged by my sister in Christ Elizabeth’s work to dismantle systems that are unbiblical, and which keep the believer bound to the sin that Christ unapologetically died on the cross for.
The Church in America, many has said, is under the winnowing fork of God. So much is being thrown on the trash heap of history and now being rejected in favor of the ancient and beautiful truth that Christ died to set us free and that those who believe in Him are free as well and that mere confession leads to forgiveness for those who believe.
One more thing; I know that when protestants hear of the “Assurance of Pardon” (or forgiveness in our bulletin) in the liturgy we can get up in arms about how we are not Roman Catholic and the Pastor should not forgive sins and what not. The problem is, most people leave Churches on Sunday like Martin Luther, wondering if they will ever be forgiven for their terrible sins and if they will ever stop sinning. These just heap shame and guilt upon the believer that was taken away at the cross of Christ. So maybe we should pronounce that forgiveness from the pulpit so that one who needs to hear it can have the peace that comes from the truth of their forgiveness.
Just throwing that out there
Now go and sin no more.
*John Willamson Nevin: The Anxious Bench
*Charles Finney: Revivals of Religion
*Mark Noll: The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
*George Marsden: Fundamentalism and American Culture
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.