(This article was originally published in October of 2004.)
While channel surfing sometime ago I came across a show called "Mythbusters". The show features two quirky but likeable hosts whose names now escape me. The premise of the show is the investigation of commonly held beliefs to see whether they are true or myth. For example: Is it possible for venomous vipers to navigate sanitary sewers and bite your bum while on the commode? Answer: It's a myth. (However, I still always check.) Myths, you see, die hard, especially the urban ones.
Holy Mother Church has her own collection of myths. That means that the churches of the Augsburg Confession have not been spared. Unfortunately churchly myths are often devoutly held as truth. Myths seem to die especially hard in ecclesiastical settings. It’s always much easier to confess the faith of the coal-miner. The acceptance of myth is not a harmless thing. Prejudices to wholesome change in our Protestant version of Lutheranism are maintained by myth. Myth has a way of distracting people from the truth. Myth often disguises the real issues which face the church. Since this is so, please permit a bit of myth-busting.
Myth Number One: Chained Bibles
Myth: The Church of Rome had Bibles chained so that the laity couldn’t read the Bible and learn the truth. A Corollary Myth: Martin Luther produced the first German vernacular Bible so that the laity could read the Word of God and send the papists packing.
Truth: Things like this are commonly heard in Reformation festival sermons. The source of such stuff is usually a Reformation sermon which the preacher once heard as a lad at a Reformation festival, at which a preacher repeated what he heard as a lad, etc., etc. Medieval bibles were objects of great value, thus the caution. Luther did not pioneer vernacular Bible translation, or even a vernacular German translation. A 14th century German language Bible based on the Vulgate went through no fewer than eighteen editions before his time, though its quality did not match Luther’s masterpiece. Although the Roman Church restricted vernacular translations and Bible reading, it did so in a misguided attempt to thwart the possibility of heresy. For most people it was illiteracy which “chained” the Bible for them. Literacy among the common people was relatively low in Luther’s day. The problem was not that there weren’t enough Bible cells in 16th century Europe but that preaching and catechesis were often woefully poor and sometimes heretical. Yes Luther did say something about a layman armed with the scriptures was more powerful than a pope. However, personal Bible ownership doth not a Bible scholar nor Bible teacher make. The proliferation of self-appointed Bible teachers and their cells in our age is not what Luther had in mind. AC XIV certainly had its origins in part in Luther’s struggles with the Schwaermerei. The situation today is analogous to the situation of the 16th century. Ill-trained clergy resting upon what little capital they earned at the seminary leave their auditors with preaching and catechesis of very mixed quality, with the result that some among the laity desire to step up and fill the void. The editors of the MM urge our readers to read the sermons which are eagerly put on the web sites of Lutheran churches (whatever the synod) to see that a theological famine has struck the Lutheran landscape. If the catechists and preachers can’t divide Law and Gospel, if they can’t find Christ in the text, if they don’t preach sacramentally, then it’s little wonder that the average Lutheran lay person is biblically illiterate and that some lay people believe that they can do better than their parsons. However, biblical illiterates make for bad lay Bible teachers, Augustana XIV notwithstanding. Our orthodox Lutheran forbearers had good reason to condemn the conventicles of the Pietists. Lutheran lay people would do themselves a great service if they would pray the psalms at home and study the pericope from the previous Sunday and the Sunday to come. Then they might hold their preachers to a higher standard.
Myth Number Two: Corpus-less Crosses
Myth: The reason that Lutherans don’t have crucifixes in their churches is because they believe that Jesus rose from the dead and that a cross without a corpus symbolizes the resurrected, living Christ. A Corollary Myth: There is also something in the Old Testament about graven images.
Truth: Apparently someone hasn’t been around much. The crucifix was the most commonly found cross in European and early American Lutheran churches. However, there is a deeper theological issue here. The impulse to leave behind the untidy business of Good Friday on one’s way to Easter leaves the impression that the realities of Good Friday have elementary and subordinate significance to Easter. We must remember that there is no resurrection without a crucifixion. That is, there is no Life without the shedding and sacramental impartation of the Sacred Blood, which is Life. Indeed, the corpus upon the cross is a wondrous reminder of the Incarnation, the blood atonement, the resurrection, and the Real Presence. It is also a potent reminder of our utter sinfulness and the dread, but certain, price of our redemption. Our people need to realize that an empty cross is no guarantee of the resurrection or our redemption. There were two other empty crosses on Calvary’s hill and these crosses meant nothing. Not even Christ’s empty cross means a thing, unless you’re into collecting splinters. Sermonic exhortations to go back to the cross fail to articulate the truth that Christ’s saving benefits are kerygmatically and sacramentally brought forward in time. Not even the empty tomb is a guarantee of hope. The church administrators in Jerusalem cooked up a story to explain the missing body of Jesus. It is rather the prophecy of Christ and his post-resurrection appearances that seal the deal for us. By the way, these post-resurrection appearances continue in the preaching of the Church and, above all, in the Holy Supper, where we are bodied and blooded to Christ, to borrow a phrase. Oh, about that graven image thing….. It was Jehovah who ordered the first crucifix - the bronze serpent. In the New Testament era the Incarnation was Jehovah’s approval for the church to fashion icons and statuary, in keeping with his own iconography. Finally, if iconoclastic Protestants, who are masquerading as Lutherans, are consistent about graven images, then they must give the little Lord Jesus in their Christmas crèches the boot. Even if they do that, they leave us wondering about their selective gleanings from the Mosaic code.
Myth Number Three: All Things (sneer) Catholic
Myth: Things like making the sign of the cross, chanting, the historic mass, Eucharistic vestments, the elevation of the elements, the use of incense, etc. are Catholic and offensive to Lutheran folk.
Truth: Yes, they are offensive to Protestantized Lutherans, but not to confessional Lutherans. Since the use of such things flushes out the Zwinglians their use is most salutary. Protestantized Lutherans of a noble heart will be humble enough to be catechized on such matters. However, there is truth to this charge. Such things are catholic, and since Lutherans are truly catholic, they are the true inheritors of these noble things and practices. Those who continue to hold on to such myths ought to read Luther’s writings on liturgical matters. Volume 53 of the American Edition would be a good place to start. In a later issue we will point to the Christological nature of such things.
Myth Number Four: Surfeit of the Supper, no good
Myth: If we have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday it won’t be as special as it is when we have it less frequently. Besides, there are times when a person doesn’t feel a need for the Supper. Also, if you have the Supper every Sunday some visitors will be offended.
Truth: Alas, where does one begin? This bit of “logic” is based on the premise that “special” things are not only special due to their divine origin, and their intrinsic essence, but are made even more “special” by how we (mis)handle them. In regard to making the Supper special by infrequent celebrations, why don’t those who use this “logic” apply it to visits from their beloved grandchildren, three square meals a day, and sexual intimacy. Remember, this sword cuts many ways. Second: Yes, there are times when we don’t feel a need for the Supper, but all that proves is that we’re damnable ingrates. Finally, about giving offense: Are you saying that it’s alright to offend people on the first and third Sundays of the month, but not on the second and fourth Sundays? If we’re really serious about avoiding offense, then let’s close the church doors. Everything about the Christian faith is an offense to unregenerate man. By the way, offending unregenerate man is exactly what God intends to do (1 Co 1, 2).
Myth Number Five: “Roll out the Barrel!”
Myth: Luther used bar songs in his hymnody. Ergo it’s permissible, even advantageous, to use popular forms of music in the church today. (Note: One of our esteemed editors recently visited the web site of a WELS congregation where the church’s CCM group justified its existence based on the “fact” that Luther used bar songs.)
Truth: Luther did not use bar songs but rather his own creations and the musical heritage of the church catholic. The term bar refers to the type of staff notation used in medieval musical composing. Luther did wed one sacred text to a popular tune, but later regretted this dalliance with love ballads. The relatively new academic discipline called Sentics has demonstrated that music can independently generate two very different reactions and emotions, termed Dionysian and Apollonian. The first is emotive and turns one inward. It is self-gratifying and clearly anthropocentric. The second, while not denying the emotional impact of music, maintains control and gives room for the intellectual processing of the truth of the text. In the first type, the music dominates the text. In the second, the music is in service to the text. Christian Contemporary Music, a bad clone of popular music, is clearly Dionysian. Luther called Dionysian music “carnal” and he wrote his music to wean people away from the love ballads of his day.
Do any of our readers have a myth to submit? We’d like to hear and print them. §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is the pastor of Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois. This article was originally published in October of 2004