A Protestant and a Catholic Walk into a Bar . . .


My final paper for my Transitional Moments class was to do a talk/sermon for Reformation Day October 31.  I decided to approach this as a talk for an adult formation class.  A few areas to correct, but I’m pretty happy with how this came out not only for the work itself but also for the grade it received.  

A Protestant and a Catholic Walk into a Bar. Are We Invited?
Where Anglicans fit in the religious landscape of the 16th Century

The via media is one of the crowning principles of Anglicanism; the cornerstone of who we are as Episcopalians. Via media means “middle way,” and that is the best definition of what it means to be an Anglican. We are neither Protestant nor Catholic, while at the same time we are both Protestant and Catholic – or as I like to say, we are the best of both worlds. This is best exemplified in the beginnings of the Church of England in the 16th century. As a matter of fact, the first three Books of Common Prayer – 1549, 1552, and 1559 – serve as a particular witness to the development of the via media, but unfortunately that is a story for another time. In order to grasp a fuller understanding of what it means to be Anglican, it is important to look back at our reformation counterparts. It seems to me that this day, Reformation Day, is a great time to look back on the birth of our particular flavor of Christianity.

Before I say anything else, let me give a brief word about Reformation Day. On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther published his letter, Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz containing his grievances against the sale of indulgences. Luther was furious that people could buy their way, or someone else’s way, out of purgatory and into the Kingdom of Heaven – into eternal life with God. As the story goes, Luther took his letter – commonly known as his Ninety-Five Theses – and nailed them to the Church door in Wittenberg. Many, and I believe rightly so, refer to this event as the genesis of the Protestant Reformation, and thus this day is kept, mainly by Protestants, as a remembrance of this historic event.

This morning I want to look back at several questions from the reformation era of the 16th century. What does it mean to be saved? What does it mean to be a person of faith? How do we participate in the Sacraments? And ultimately, what does this mean for us as Anglicans?

In 1511, Martin Luther arrived in Wittenberg a small town with a great deal of power. At that time, Wittenberg was the home to a new, well-endowed university as well as the seat of the Elector of Saxony. This elector was one of seven electors who voted on the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This would be like Smithfield having 77 members, or one-seventh, of the Electoral College for the President of the United States. Upon his arrival, Luther took a position at the university as a professor of Bible. In this role, he would begin to lecture on various books of Scripture including Galatians, which we will look at shortly. This new academic endeavor would lead Luther to study and teach in a new way. As R. Ward Holder writes of this new methodology:

Though one can find instances of Luther’s commenting [on Scripture] in very traditional fashions in these early lectures, he was also investigating issues of belief and of theological education. Both of these contributed to his foundational insights, which latter shattered the sense of unity Christian Europe enjoyed.

As a result of this process, Luther discovered Holy Scripture in a brand new way. By his own account, he felt that for the first time he had truly discovered the Gospel. This discovery forced Luther to disagree with the Roman Catholic idea of the state of grace – by being forgiven of sins after Baptism – and ultimately lead him to articulate his understanding of the righteousness of God – his understanding of the doctrine of justification.

There is a fabulous story of Luther and his theological development, of the interplay of politics and religion that takes Luther’s academic exercise and translates it into an international reform that I unfortunately, for the sake of time, have to skip over. But, if you are at all interested in learning more about Luther, I would be happy to continue the conversation and I can provide you with a variety of resources for you to peruse.

The righteousness of God, as Luther articulated, represents the pinnacle of ethical goodness. This new articulation created even more questions for Luther. Can a person achieve this ideal standard? Is this level earned or is it a gift? Ultimately it led to serious questions of salvation. These were not new questions for medieval theologians, however Luther’s understandings would ultimately put him at odds with the powers that be – the Roman Catholic Church. Above all else, there is one incredibly important revelation Luther made during his time as lecturer at Wittenberg. Through studying Romans 1:17, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (KJV), Luther realized that the righteous person is the person who lives by faith and complete dependence on God. Through this single verse, Luther established the heart of his theological method that forever changed Christianity in Europe.

To get a better understanding of Luther’s understanding of salvation, I want to take a few moments to look at how he expresses the doctrine of justification the preface to his Commentary on Galatians.

Each piece of this preface builds upon a previous statement. The very foundation of this argument is the nature of our justification. So Luther begins by stating the following:

I consider the infinite and horrible profanation and abomination that has always raged in the church of God, and still today continues to rage against this one sure foundation, our justification (that is to say, that it is not ourselves, nor by our works, which are less than ourselves, but by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, that we are redeemed from sin, death, the devil and are made to share eternal life), and I am compelled to throw away all shame and be bold above measure.

Despite what has been argued by the Church, our salvation is by Jesus and only Jesus. Luther has no problem saying that the Church can be wrong, and this is an example of him challenging the commonly held theological understandings. As far as Luther is concerned, there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our salvation, as it is a gift freely given by the grace of God.

Luther goes on to explain what this means in regards to our life of faith. So he explains three different types of righteousness: political or civil righteousness, ceremonial righteousness, and righteousness of the law. Yet above all these there is still another type of righteousness – righteousness of faith, also known as Christian righteousness. Here is how Luther describes this important type of righteousness:

But this most excellent righteousness – that of faith, I mean – which God imputes to us through Christ, without works – is neither political nor ceremonial, nor is it the righteousness of God’s law, nor does it consist in works. It is quite the opposite; that is to say, it is passive whereas the others are active. We do nothing in this matter; we give nothing to God but simply receive and allow someone else to work in us – that is, God (emphasis added).

From this he adds the term passive righteousness. This is something that God grants, and nothing – absolutely nothing – we do can obtain, earn, or change this.

Luther recognizes that, as humans, we cannot help but try to fix things. When a person realizes that they are a sinner, they try to fix it – by repentance and change of action – to make sure that they do not sin and thus, as the Catholic Church teachers, remain in a state of grace. For Luther, this means that a person does not trust in the grace of God that redeems us from sin with no action required on our part. Recognizing this short coming, and having to wrestle with the role of the law in all this, Luther advocates for an active righteousness for the benefit of the earthly world and the flesh. He is clear to distinguish it from the spirit and passive righteousness, but this gives humans something to do to avoid the temptation of trying to earn their way into heaven. The doctrine of justification, according to Luther, is that we are saved by the grace of God and nothing we do can change or alter that, for “we shall never be able to attain it unless God himself bestows it on us.” On this Luther is clear.

Luther’s understanding of the doctrine of justification strayed from the accepted teaching of the Catholic Church. In fact, when the Council of Trent in 1547 (one year after Luther’s death) issues its decree on justification, it begins by targeting those who do not fall inline with acceptable doctrine, “Whereas there is, at this time, not without the shipwreck of many souls, and grievous detriment to the unity of the Church, a certain erroneous doctrine disseminated touching Justification.” They might as well have written, “Luther is wrong and has put the fate of your soul at risk!”

What the Catholic Church teaches, as expressed in this decree, is that our salvation comes through the redeeming work of Christ and that we accept that gift through the sacrament of Baptism. Once baptized, a person is to live by the commandments of God and when he sins, to repent and receive penance. This continual pardon allows for the baptized to show their acceptance of the salvation of God by the manner in which they live their life. To quote Chapter VI – The manner of Preparation:

God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; and when, understanding themselves to be sinners, they, by turning themselves, from the fear of divine justice whereby they are profitably agitated, to consider the mercy of God, are raised unto hope, confiding that God will be propitious to them for Christ’s sake; and they begin to love Him as the fountain of all justice; and are therefore moved against sins by a certain hatred and detestation, to wit, by that penitence which must be preformed before baptism: lastly, when they purpose to receive baptism, to begin a new life, and to keep the commandments of God.

This in many ways sums up the entirety of this decree on justification, but the document provides additional summations in the canons by a series of statements, “If any one saith . . . let him be anathema.” For example, “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema,” or again:

If any one saith, that he, who has fallen after baptism, is not able by the grace of God to rise again; or, that he is able indeed to recover the justice which he has lost, but by faith alone without the sacrament of Penance, contrary to what the holy Roman and universal Church-instructed by Christ and his Apostles-has hitherto professed, observed, and taught; let him be anathema.

Having outlined both Luther and the Catholic Church’s position on justification, I wonder which sounds closest to our Anglican understanding of justification?

If you do not already know this, the back of the Book of Common Prayer contains a section titled “Historical Documents of the Church.” The “Articles of Religion,” are one of the documents contained in this section. Article XI, Of the Justification of Man, reads, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.” This sounds very much in line with Luther’s doctrine of justification. But, if we read on to Article XXVII, Of Baptism, we find a slightly different message:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.

This seems to be clear that it is through Baptism that we gain access to the forgiveness of sins. It seems to me that, in regards to justification, the Anglican understanding is inline with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Our salvation comes from God alone, a gift freely offered by the grace and love of God. We in turn need to accept this grace; which is exhibited through the sacrament of Baptism, and a life lived in accordance with the commandments of God. This understanding of justification being rooted in God’s grace and accepted through the sacrament of Baptism, transitions us nicely into the next area of the reformation that sheds light on our Anglican identity – the nature of the Sacraments.

Through the Middle Ages until the 13th Century, the word sacramentum was meant to describe a plethora of liturgical acts. This is the height of the classic definition of a sacrament – an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In the 13th Century the sacrament becomes more defined in number. At this point, the Church limits the number of sacraments to seven: Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Marriage, Ordination, and Unction. At the time of the 16th Century Reformation, this number would once again come into question. The Roman Catholic Church upheld the 13th Century understanding of seven sacraments. But, for Luther—and the other reforms with a sola scriptura understanding – this number was incorrect and unbiblical. According to the Protestant reformers, the only sacraments that should be practiced are those that are explicitly mentioned in Holy Scripture. At first the Reformed Churches have three sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession, but this is eventually narrowed to two sacraments instituted by Christ in the Gospels, Baptism and Eucharist. So what about Anglicans? Do we have seven, three, two, or some other number of sacraments? Yes. Here is a great example of Anglicanism living into the via media. The Anglican Church recognizes two dominical sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist, and five other sacramental rites, Confirmation, Ordination, Marriage, Reconciliation of a Penitent, and Unction. In the words of the Articles of Religion:

There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

What this article is expressing is that those five commonly called Sacraments are referenced in Scripture but there is no prescription for how they are to be exercised, as is the case with Baptism and Eucharist. As Anglicans, we have the Sacraments of the Protestant and Catholic Churches, with a unique definition and understanding of them.

Sacraments are an important part of the Christian faith. Even Luther, while condemning the liturgical practices of the Roman Catholic Church, did not deny the fundamental importance of Christian worship and sacrament. As a final case study in the place of Anglicanism in the 16th Century reformations let’s turn our attention to the Eucharist to see what Luther, the Council of Trent, and Cranmer have to say in regarding this fundamental expression of faith.

In The Small Catechism Luther wrote the following about the sacrament of the altar, “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” Luther viewed what happened at the Altar not as a sacrifice, but as a call to faith and obedience in the Word epitomized by the Gospels’ command to take and eat, and to take and drink.

For Luther, and for Thomas Cranmer for that matter, there were several important liturgical reforms that impacted the celebration of the Eucharist. Vernacular language was to be used as opposed to Latin; there was a restoration of the word (Holy Scripture) to public worship; and evangelical preaching. This comes as a reaction to the fact that the Medieval Church was too reliant on ritual, and that the laity was not educated in said ritual. The Eucharist was to be a clear summary of the Gospel, and the communion of the people in both kinds was – and still is today – absolutely integral to the Eucharist as is consonant with the Apostolic Tradition.

The Council of Trent – as was true with the doctrine of justification – responds to the Protestant reforms of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli by upholding the traditional teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It should be noted that Cranmer’s major theological work the 1549 Book of Common Prayer would be published just after the Council of Trent. In regards to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the council upheld the doctrine of transubstantiation in which the accidents of bread and wine remain the same with the essence, or ousia, are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Council also upheld the Mass as sacrifice. While never fully lived into, the Council of Trent also articulated that the laity should be instructed in the Mass, to understand what is going on, as they could not understand the language used for the Scriptures and the liturgy.

Luther and the Council of Trent express two different understandings of the Eucharist, but what about Thomas Cranmer? Is Cranmer, and thus the foundations of Anglicanism, in line with Luther? Cranmer’s theology of the Eucharist is best expressed in the words of administration found in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, “Take and eate this, in remembrance that Christ dyed for thee, and feede on him in thy hearte by faythe, with thankesgeuing. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s bloude was shed for thee, and be thankful.” For Cranmer the only sacrifice a Christian can offer is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. What happens in the Eucharist cannot change or alter what God has done through Christ: What matters is the reception of the elements of bread and wine which are the real and true Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a sacrifice, but one of praise and thanksgiving not repetition. The Body and Blood of Christ are consumed in the real presence not by transubstantiation. Once again we see in Anglicanism the both/and of Protestant and Catholic.

My hope is that this brief look into the Reformation gave you a glimpse of the foundations of Anglicanism in relation to our Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. We are a tradition of both/and. The idea of Anglicanism as both, despite how much I joke, is not about proving that Anglicans are the best but rather it is about living into our identity the best way we know how. I hope this showed that we are not so different from our Protestant and Catholic counterparts. I wonder what the Church and world would look like if we focused more on our similarities and less on are differences? A Protestant and a Catholic walk into a bar, where they are joined by an Anglican. They all order a beverage, share in fellowship, and rejoice in the desire to serve Christ in this broken and hurting world.

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