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Surprise: The Reformation Happened! Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 22 July 2011

The Atlantic has discovered the Reformation, albeit nearly five centuries too late. 

Writer Joshua Green reports that the denomination in which presidential candidate Michele Bachmann was a member, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), believes that Martin Luther was right about the Catholic papacy. Imagine that. Lutherans who believe ideas espoused by Luther. Shocking, isn’t it? Perhaps next week the Atlantic will inform its readers that the pope is Catholic, that Methodists are enamored of John Wesley, or that the Great Schism put a damper on Catholic-Orthodox relations.

The headline of Green’s article is “Michele Bachmann's Church Says the Pope Is the Antichrist,” though Bachmann and her family had stopped attending that Lutheran church two years ago. Green, it seems, has a problem in understanding the simplest nuances of church membership, how churches differ widely between denominations, and that one can stay on the membership rolls of one church while attending another church for years.

So unsurprisingly, he writes that Martin Luther, “broke with the Catholic Church,” when in fact he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. (Luther was, to employ a popular neologism, unfriended). Thus, by Green’s own logic, if he were employed by the Atlantic in 1521, he could have written this headline, “Martin Luther’s Church Says Martin Luther Not Member of Martin Luther’s Church.”


Martin Luther, former Catholic
 

Given popular culture’s understanding and depiction of “Antichrist,” shaped by several motion pictures (such as “The Omen”) as well as dispensationalist eschatology found in Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and the bestselling Left Behind novel series, the passage from the WELS doctrinal statement sounds a bit alarming.

 The WELS doctrinal statement reads (quoted in the Atlantic blog post): “Since Scripture teaches that the Antichrist would be revealed and gives the marks by which the Antichrist is to be recognized, and since this prophecy has been clearly fulfilled in the history and development of the Roman Papacy, it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.”

That, I suspect, was the reason why Mr. Green went with “the story.” It provided him an opportunity to smear Congresswoman Bachmann and drive a wedge between two constituencies whose votes she has a strong chance to attract: conservative Evangelicals and observant Catholics. Understanding what Luther and his fellow Reformers (including John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox) truly meant by “Antichrist,” and how they employed it as a term of art, was the least of Mr. Green’s concerns.

If Mr. Green had cared about doing his homework, he would have known where to look. Granted, it would have involved real effort, more time than it takes to get a couple of money quotes from a few sources accessible on his iPad’s contact list. One resource he would have found illuminating is the book Building Unity: Ecumenical Dialogue with Roman Catholic Participating in the United States, edited by Jeffrey Gros and Joseph Burgess, and published by a Catholic press.


         Michele Bachmann, former Lutheran

Here’s a relevant passage from the reflections of the Lutheran participants (note omitted):

In considering the historic Lutheran position on the papacy, we have become very much aware that the early Reformers did not reject what we have called the “Petrine function,” but rather the concrete historical papacy as it confronted them in their day. In calling the pope the “antichrist,” the early Lutherans stood in a tradition that reached back into the eleventh century. Not only dissidents and heretics but even saints had called the bishop of Rome the “antichrist” when they wished to castigate his abuse of power.

There are, of course, many other important theological issues involved with the contemporary Lutherans who continue to affirm Luther’s judgment of the papacy. In order to appreciate and understand these issues – even if one winds up not finding them compelling – WELS  has published a nine-page account of the doctrine on its website that includes sizeable quotations from Luther himself.

Of course, as a Catholic I think that Luther was deeply mistaken. But I also understand that if you take theology seriously, as something with real cognitive content, then it will by its very nature exclude certain beliefs while entailing others. Thus, the Catholic Church affirms that Protestant denominations, like the Lutherans, are not real churches. That judgment inexorably follows from the Catholic belief in apostolic succession.

Not surprisingly, Baptists do not accept infant baptisms as legitimate, Judaism believes that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical, Eastern Orthodoxy forbids its people from receiving the Eucharist at churches in communion with Rome, Muslims deny that Jesus is the Son of God, and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, “believes that the popish sacrifice of the mass is most abominably injurious to Christ’s one, only sacrifice, the alone propitiation for all the sins of His elect.”

It is not clear what Mr. Green expects to find when he investigates the churches, synagogues, or mosques of political figures. In a nation of serious believers who are citizens of a government committed to religious freedom and other basic liberties, why does it surprise Mr. Green to find that differing religious points of view should arise and that the advocates of those views would issue doctrinal statements that are at points critical in nature?

Consequently, to lament serious religious disagreement among the citizenry – and to describe it in such a crude and uncharitable fashion, as does Mr. Green – is an implicit offense against the very constitutional freedoms that make such disagreements possible

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He tells the story of his journey from Catholicism to Protestantism and back again in his book, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic(Brazos Press, 2009).  He blogs at Return to Rome.

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Comments (11)Add Comment
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written by Aeneas, July 22, 2011
Nice piece Mr.Beckwith! Green is just trying to get people to read his tripe, that and scare off potential Bachmann votes.

Best line of Beckwith's article:
"Luther was, to employ a popular neologism, unfriended"
I burst out laughing at that part!
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written by Mark, July 22, 2011
Question for the mainstream media: Why is Rep. Bachmann's former church's unpalatable teachings relevant, but Pres. Obama's long association with a Rev. Wright not?
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written by Yezhov, July 22, 2011
Sadly, the Atlantic Monthly seems to be slipping away from it's tradionally high standard of journalism. I cancelled my subscription about three years ago. Send them a message, cancel yours too if you have one.
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written by Steve Ray, July 22, 2011
Francis: Nice job as usual!
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written by Charlotte, July 22, 2011
From a life-long Bible Belt Catholic--I'm shocked, shocked to find Lutheranism going on here.
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written by Bruce427, July 23, 2011
** Not surprisingly, Baptists do not accept infant baptisms as legitimate. **

That's not entirely accurate. Baptists do not accept that infant baptisms are the same as "Believer's baptisms." The Presbyterians, for example, baptize infants, but their baptism is simply a welcoming of the infant into the Covenant family. Their baptism is not stating that the infant is, or will even become, a believer (simply that the child will be raised in a Covenant environment). As a Baptist, I believe the Presbyterian baptism is legitimate insofar as its stated purpose (Baptists have a similar practice called: baby dedication -- but absent administration of water). But since Baptists believe the Bible explicitly demonstrates Baptism only *after* conversion, that one should be a Believer before they are administered "Believer's Baptism" (infant baptism must be "implicitly assumed" as no NT passage *explicitly* demonstrates its occurrence). Therefore, Baptists would (again) baptize someone who had previously experienced some form of baptism before they professed faith in Christ. Although we differ on the administration of baptism, Baptists would absolutely affirm that Presbyterians (at least the PCA and EPC) were brothers and sisters in Christ.
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written by varados, July 24, 2011
Indeed, religions and their denominations differ in many respects, and a good deal of print and exhortations have been expended in explaining and supporting any number of theological predications. While it is well and good to approach such questions with the gimlet eye of an ecclesiastical man of the law, for the entertainment and edification of those belonging to the guild, it is revolting to observe the author pretending that black is white. Either the pope is the anti-christ, or he is not.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, July 24, 2011
Bruce: What you say is not inconsistent with what I wrote. For example, if a person baptized as an infant in a Presbyterian Church were to become a member of a Baptist Church, he would not be rejected as a candidate for baptism if he requested it. Am I correct? If so, then Baptists do not accept infant baptism as a legitimate baptism. For if they did, then they would tell the person requesting the baptism, "It is unnecessary, you've already been baptized." The Catholic Church, by the way, accepts Protestant baptisms as legitimate, infant or otherwise.
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written by Mike, July 26, 2011
As a member of the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod, I appreciate your article. I think that Mr. Green is reflective of a line I once heard from an orthodox Jewish Rabbi. "Tolerance is a term used by people with no beliefs and reserved for people with no beliefs." Unfortunately, with so much relativism pervading our society, it is no wonder that there are those like Mr. Green who are shocked when they discover that there are still people who believe in right and wrong. It is sad that Mr. Green does not appear to know any who do.
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written by William Luse, August 01, 2011
Sorry to get to this so late, Frank, so I don't know if you'll see it. But in case you do, the book you cite says "that the early Reformers did not reject what we have called the 'Petrine function...'". Can you give me a brief idea of what that function would be?
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written by Bob, August 04, 2011
Bruce comments that baptism is not explicit in the NT. But neither is baptism for Christians. Only for Jews and Pagams.

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