Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In Praise of Weakness

 Author's Note:

I realized after writing this that it may be cryptic for some. For those struggling with one of the themes, please consider this: to neglect, hate, or ridicule someone or something for weakness or simplicity is an error on your part. These are all strong words, to be sure, but I've heard far too many arguments along the lines of "he's a sinner how could you love him?" Even of the blessed St. Peter "he was a fool and serves as an example for us." Others may say "I hate myself because I keep messing up [in sin, etc.]." Others still have said that "the Church is just human authority filled with human weakness, I follow God alone."

Part of this is about patience and perseverance coupled with understanding and a willingness to change.

I ask, humbly, you reflect on those sentiments with this. This is hardly adequate for full but in the interest of your own attention and retention I cut this down significantly.
What are you talking about??  (Comment below if you feel that way)

I. Introduction

Those who do not share in the weaknesses of the body have no share in the body itself. For what body in this life is free from corruption and limitedness? Even the great Body of Christ is subject to weakness precisely because he subjected Himself to our weakness since “he took the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) and “was of human estate.” Even after the Resurrection His resplendent and transformed body still bore the wounds of his glorious crucifixion (cf. Jn 20:20). It should be noted even more that Jesus identifies Himself with the weak and broken for “what you have done for the least of these you have done for me” (Mt:25:40). Likewise Jesus identified Himself with those who were persecuted, ridiculed, and killed in His name. This is why He said “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (cf. Acts 9:4, 5).

Paul said that “Christ is the head of the body the church.” (Col 1:18). We have seen, albeit briefly, that Christ shared in our humanity fully and willfully. We saw, through His resurrection, that He transformed our weaknesses while still keeping the physical marks of that weakness. They were not cast aside or hidden but present in plain sight. Jesus told Thomas “put your finger in my hands and in my side” (cf. Jn 20:27ff). The history of Christianity is a constant call to “place our fingers on the wounds of His body.” Thomas doubted the Resurrection, perhaps, because after witnessing the horror and shame of the cross (and living in his own shame) he asked ‘how might anything good come from this?’ Christ showed him precisely the good that came from it, namely His own person.
Caravaggio's famous painting not only represents the doubt of Thomas but that same doubt that we feel about our Church and her divine characteristics. Are we willing to address our doubts? Are we still willing to trust in the Church?

II. Sharing in Weakness

This is what I call each of you to do today: If you are to truly share in the Body of Christ do you share in its weaknesses? The weaknesses I refer to are failures in charity, excessive opulence, elements of the Inquisition and Crusades, sex abuses, and every weakness that we see in our own person. Blaming the past, however horrible—and indeed some things are horrible—is to separate fallen and weak humanity from the life of faith. Faith is not perfection but, in a manner of speaking, seeking perfection. Weakness is either self-generated or encountered, shall we shy away from either?

I rarely see this type of image, of Jesus as a fragile child being cared for. Jesus Christ, our savior and Lord, became as a little child out of love for us.
Christ met our broken humanity. He calls us through faith and baptism to share in His mission of transforming all of humanity. If we deny the humanity of the Body we separate ourselves from that Body. The Church is the Body of Christ beset by human weakness but all the same transformed by Christ and upheld by the Spirit.

When we recognize weaknesses and failures there is a twofold response: the first is active insofar as we seek to rid ourselves of that weakness (whatever it may be). The second, equally important, is to realize that we are not separate from our weaknesses. The weaknesses that we carry inform our actions for the future, even in healing. If we do not address our weakness actively we won’t change effectively. If we try to disassociate ourselves from our weaknesses we become insensitive to the weaknesses of others and we forget who we are.

III. Examples of Weakness Transformed

St. Peter is our first example and our guide. He was filled with faith and he was blessed personally by Christ (cf. Mt 16:16-20). But he had his faults too. He was rash and at times overzealous. This zeal, coupled with his predispositions about what the Messiah was supposed to be, led him to deny Christ three times while He was being humiliated. He abandoned his friend and the one whom he loved. “He wept bitterly” (cf. Mt 27:75). After the resurrection Christ called out to him and Peter responded. Christ confronted Peter’s sin, fear, and weakness not by shaming him but by asking him, “Peter, do you love me?” Jesus asked him this three times for every time Peter denied him. Peter recanted three times saying “You know that I love you” (Jn 21:17). Peter is a man whose strengths and weaknesses are on full display. Just as God had chosen Moses, Abraham, and David before He chose this time to call a simple fisherman to greatness. These patriarchs and this king themselves sinned, doubted, and failed. Through it all they carried out what God had asked of them. Only Peter, however, was given “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 16:19).
Despite his brashness and weakness Christ still pulled him from the water. Despite his denial Jesus came to him and Peter grew in understanding, wisdom, and love because of Christ's example.
Our chief example, and one that has given me pause for years, is the Eucharist. I believe in Christ and I believe in Christ risen. I also believe that at the Last Supper he gave us a model to follow: he took the bread, broke it and said, 'take this all of you and eat this. This is my body which has been given up for you.' He also said of the wine 'this is my blood.' This I believe with my whole heart. This sentiment is in accord with all that has been said above. Truly, to our senses it appears as mere bread and mere wine. Then I recall with wonder that “he emptied himself … coming in human likeness and found in human appearance” (Phil 2:7). Likewise that “he had to become like his brothers in every way” (Heb 2:17).

Indeed, the Eucharist is regarded as the Son of Man, present sacramentally in ordinary bread and wine which has been transformed by the prayer that Christ entrusted to His Apostles and their successors. The Eucharist is both a glorification of the Cross and a sacrifice that dips into the eternal moment of Christ's one sacrifice and shares fully in it. It is something that stands outside of time. Something so grand, God Himself! in ordinary, daily food. Christians have praised the extraordinary in the ordinary as well as paradox from the beginning insofar as “Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom but we proclaim Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:22-23).
This is what we exalt. Do you?

Furthermore Jesus Christ Himself is “the living bread that came down from heaven that one may eat it and not die. I AM the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:50-51). I could occupy an encyclopedia set with the richness of these verses. The word “eat” (phagein) has no spiritual connotation. It literally means to chew and physically eat. By eating this living bread we shall not die. Then Christ follows by saying “ego eimi” which means “I am.” But this is no mere “I am” but rather a direct reference to God speaking about Himself in the Old Testament. It is a proclamation of authority and power—this is something we should listen to. He said “I AM the living bread come down from heaven.” He then says “Whoever eats/chews this bread will live forever.” He further says “the bread which I give is my flesh,” Literally my earthly flesh. The simple bread which He gives is his flesh. For the time being let this entirely inadequate account suffice. No “ego eimi” statement in Scripture is a metaphor or an opinion. It is Jesus speaking in the authority of the Father on an intrinsic reality.

IV. Share in Weakness, Share in Glory

What is my purpose in saying all of this? Proceeding from the Eucharist and the example of the Apostles (chief among them Peter) Christ gave us two simple and lowly things and transformed them. He transformed bread and wine into His flesh and blood. He transformed simple fishermen into philosophers, teachers, and bearers of His message. Though they were of human estate they were transformed and “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4).

The Church is the Body of Christ—it is subject to weakness. The Eucharist is bread and wine made the Body and Blood of Christ—it is common and ordinary yet mysterious and sublime. The Apostles were chosen by Christ Himself to bear unique witness to His teaching and mission—they were “also human beings” (Acts 10:26). Jesus Christ identifies with the poor, persecuted, and the oppressed in an intimate way—they are lowly and 'worthless' in the eyes of the world. Finally, Jesus Christ Himself, was born of a virgin in poverty. He was a helpless child and a man subjected to ridicule and cruel torture. A man who took on our every weakness.

By eating His flesh and blood, and through baptism, we join ourselves more fully to Him so that we may share in His suffering. In our own flesh we “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). When the Church, or even her members, do evil the whole suffers. By our personal and communal work, love, and suffering we correct the wounds of that Body and also “share in our master's joy” (cf. Mt 25:14-23).
Follow their hands and their eyes. They are looking at Christ, yes. They are looking at the Eucharist.
Join yourself, then, more fully to Him and His Church, for those who do not share in the weaknesses of the Body will separate themselves from the Body. In rejecting weakness and wickedness as unlovable they move away from the God “who so loved the world that He gave His only Son” (Jn 3:16a).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Faith and Works Part II: Love

II. To Speak of these Things We Must Speak about Love

Last time we briefly examined faith, works, and the aim of my work. We saw that faith was both a response to a call and a 'hope for things not yet realized.' My claim, for the sake of clarification, is that faith is something that looks outwards. Without faith we cannot know what to look for or what to trust, and without works that faith is dead. By works we mean actions that seek to bring about that hope. So in a certain sense faith does inspire us to works and works do flow from faith. On the other hand faith allows us to see what we should work towards. Stronger still, faith helps us to see what we must work for. (see part 1 here:Part 1)

But if faith is perceiving what we desire then desire alone will not allow us to receive what we desire. Works are necessary to reach the goal that we desire. This is why James says “I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works” (James 2:18) and that “faith was completed [literally: perfected] by the works [of Abraham]” (2:22). This theme will be expanded on later by viewing in detail the parable of the Sower and the seed in hopes to make this point clearer. For now we shall turn to the argument at hand.

Rather than analyzing faith and works right away we should look at love [caritas]. In order to speak of these two words and ideas we must speak of a third, namely love.

There is hardly a better place to begin either, for “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8) and that of all the virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit “faith, hope, and charity [caritas] remain … but the greatest of these is charity [i.e., love]” (1 Cor 13:13). Faith itself is initiated by love and sustained by love. Faith is a sort of relationship to God and knowledge of God. The blessed Apostle John says, however, that “Whoever is without love does not know God … [for] no one has ever seen God. Yet if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us” (1 Jn 4:8, 12). Love then seems superior to faith in many instances in Scripture. It is not superior such that faith is useless. Rather, Augustine speaks well in his masterpiece On Christian Teaching when he says “faith will be replaced by the sight of visible reality, and hope by the real happiness we shall attain, whereas love will actually increase when [the world] passes away” ( Book I. 90). Faith is meant to get us somewhere and Love is where we must go. Augustine also says rightly that if our faith lapses then our love will also lapse, since we would not know what to love. As it stands, however, “if I have faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).

Love is also greater than works because love is both a work and the foundation of all works. Every man acts for some purpose and that purpose is love. A man may love wrongly—preferring evil things to good things. But a proper love produces proper works. A problem emerges: someone may give to the poor which is itself a good work, but that person may not love the poor. The foundation of all law and service, however, is not to give goods to others but to love them. Love is not a work like other works but it is the supreme work that must be the source of all others if any of our works are to have life. An analogy, imperfect as it is, may help here: our bodies sometimes twitch. Nerves are excited and our arm or leg jerks because of something that affected us. But when we have a sound disposition we order our arms and bodies to do many different tasks with precision.

Works when they are without love, even though they are good, are like barely-lifeless twitches. Works inspired and guided by love is like the skill of a fine craftsman—intentional, knowledgeable, and purposeful.

Love, it seems, is truly the foundation of all. For our purposes it seems to be the foundation for both faith and works. There is no greater work of love, apart from Christ crucified, than that of creation. Love, therefore, creates. It may be said that faith and works alike proceed from love and are completed by love. All the same, faith and works are the expressions of love as well as the road by which we love.

God's love is perfect but our own love lacks perfection. This is why we have faith and works.

Faith directs our hearts and peers into the shadows of great mysteries. For revelation is God's gift which allows us to know of the world, ourselves, and God Himself. We see all of these things by faith: that creation is good, ordered, and loved. It shows us that God is Three-in-One, transcendent, and yet immanent.

Works temper our bodily passions and sharpen our vision. For without doing good works ourselves how may we see the work of the Holy Spirit in us and others? When our bodies are distracted by idle passions we will fail to see truth clearly and, by our weakened disposition, fail to love readily.

At this point, however, love is still a vague idea. As I have mentioned above we all love something or someone. In like manner we desire certain things, jobs, pleasures, and honors for ourselves. In order to understand love more precisely I would like to focus our attention to the Trinity. In order to understand how faith and works proceed from love it is important, I think, to first look at Love Himself. Though I can only speak weakly I want to speak on the Trinity so we may reflect on perfect Love which produced everything—a love so powerful that it brought forth everything from nothing! From that reflection we shall see a bit more clearly, I think, what that means for us and what it reveals to us about humanity made in His image.

For next time: The Trinity, Love, and Human Beings

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Mediation of the Saints: Part 1

(Parts 2 and 3 of this ongoing series are completed, with more on the way! 
Check it out: 

Part 2: God Works Through Us
Part 3: Walking Together)

A: Introduction

In this piece I hope to accomplish, step-by-step, an understanding of the saints. In a small part how we should strive to be saintly and in larger part how we should consider those who are called saints in the fullest sense, i.e., those with almighty God in heaven who pray for us and continue, in His friendship, to aid us in many ways. Though I will begin by mentioning mediation I will pick it up in a later part.

I. Who are They?

Christ indeed is “the one mediator between God and the human race” (1 Tim 2:5) but does this mean that God the Father will only listen to Christ? Does not the Lord “have eyes for the just and ears for their cry”? (Ps 34:16). Further still Christ tells us to “ask and it will be given to you” (Mt 7:7). The letter to James further qualifies this when he says “You do not possess because you do not ask. You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2b-3).

What should we ask for and how do we ask rightly? The letter of James further tells us that in order to do this we must be “doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22). We learn through many venues but the most powerful teachers of faith and love are the saints.

The saints are, in short, exemplary doers of the word. They stand as a model for us in courage, patience, and wise-counsel among other virtues. We are drawn to a truly holy person because it seems like that ‘have it together.’ They exemplify—it’s almost an aura—a love of God and a love of neighbor. This power and aura are displayed by the Apostles themselves. Look at see the circumstances of these examples:

+Phillip runs up to the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah and says ‘Do you understand what you read?’ The man replies, ‘How can I, unless someone instructs me?’ Phillip, filled with the Holy Spirit, instructed him. The eunuch, himself moved by that same Spirit, sought to be baptized immediately. Phillip became a light to a man searching for Christ. (cf. Acts 8:26-40)
Philip instructing the Ethiopian eunuch, pointing to Scripture and pointing to God. His bodily presence and actions making it possible for this man to see both.

+Paul and Barnabas preached at Lystra and healed a crippled man. Their presence and power of spirit and speech drew a large crowd to them. The Greeks there took them to be the gods Zeus and Hermes and began to worship them. But Paul was distraught, saying to them ‘We are flesh and blood just as you are. We have done these works so you might turn from idols and false gods and turn to the living God.’ (cf Acts 14:8-20)
Paul and Barnabas (right) pleading that the Greeks stop worshiping them after healing a crippled man. Men are drawn to great power mixed with great humility, but here too Paul reminds them that they are flesh just as they are.

The Apostles, men moved by the Spirit, proclaimed God to their fellow men. But some men, those confused or unable to see God themselves, found Him through His servants. The living saints do this just as the Apostles did. Some do it through humble service and others through great and powerful works. Saints pray and then go forth having an impact on those around them.

Moving, then, to the blessed Virgin Mary and the saints of past ages, they intercede to Christ for us, asking Him more perfectly than we ever could what we need (this does not deny the Spirit does this for us too). This is because they live with God and have achieved oneness with Him after life here on this earth. For Christ Himself prayed that just as He and the Father were one that “they may also be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:21).

When we ask a saint living here on earth or in heaven to pray for us it is not an affront to Christ or the Spirit, rather it is an act of humility. It is an act of humility because we ask the very proper question “Lord, teach us how to pray just as John taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). John the Baptist, one of the chief saints and prophets, taught his disciples to pray and how to live. A saint, in John’s image, lived these words perfectly: “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).

Thus, asking the saints for intercession is not ignorance of the power or mediation of Christ. The presence of the saints influenced many to virtue and faith. This is why Paul longs to be with the Corinthians in person and to “fill the deficiencies of your faith” (1 Thes 3:10).

In life the Apostles tirelessly labored for the sake of the faithful and even died for it. Their lives and examples alone filled the deficiencies of the faithful. Their faith and the faith of any saint, however, was not a source of pride. Rather they always pointed to Christ.
Peter, saying he would be unworthy to die as Christ did, was crucified upside down. The Cross itself points to heaven.

In the next section, I will discuss in what manner they pointed to Christ and how a saint effects the work of salvation in the world. I shall begin by looking at the Old Testament and then the New to show that this process is nothing new in the long history of faith. Having introduced saintly intercession it is good to see how the holy prophets interceded to God for the people of Israel. Thereafter I will elaborate on the communion of saints in heaven who work tirelessly on our behalf.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Faith and Works: Introduction

I. Introduction

For the average person, the debate of faith and works will change little in their lives with regard to how they live it out. Even still, I urge anyone who considers themselves a student of faith and of Christ to examine more closely the relationship of faith and works. The reason is not because I wish to change your faith or to suggest one good work over the other but rather that the way which we conceive a relationship between ideas affects those ideas.

I will give two analogies to help illustrate this:

A basketball coach conceives that defense wins games and because of this the offense of that team will proceed from the defense (e.g., turnovers lead to fast-break points, etc.). This is to say that the idea about defense builds the idea of the offense.

Tom Thibodeau, coach of the Chicago Bulls, prides his team on perfecting their defense first. The Bull's refined defense leads them to shutting down teams and winning even if they shoot 30% or score only 80-some points. Their offense depends on their (and the coach's) passion and vision for defense.
Likewise, when a man and a woman are married, one (or both) may have an image about what their marriage should look like, such as what a good husband/father/man does and what a good wife/mother/woman does. They make this image of what the relationship should strive for and they order their daily lives, thoughts, and actions to look like that idea and image—for good or ill.
Regardless of all the work that goes into the perfect photo, reception, and wedding, a couple gets married in order to live a full life together, a life of trials, periods of loneliness, difficulties, and disappointments just as much as they will experience joy, peace, and togetherness. The difficulty lies in the greater emphasis being placed on perfecting the beginning as opposed to perfecting each other along the way.

What I mean by these two analogies is that the way we look at faith and works are important. Where we may have an idea of faith and an idea of what (good) works are, the relationship between faith and works is a third idea added to these two. It is the nature of these ideas, so to speak, that I would like to write about for you.

As I considered the relationship between faith and works I found that the matter can be more difficult than it first appears because of the nature of faith. Faith can be a difficult subject for a few reasons. On the one hand faith is a very personal affair, for each one of us has experienced God in a particular way and we have grown in that relationship in various manners. On the other hand, the purpose of faith is unity, not just with God but with each other as well, for “I pray … that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (Jn 17:20, 21). Faith is furthermore described as “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1) which is related to ourselves as well as for the whole world. For why else would we pray, in faith, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” if it wasn't for the hope that all might be as one? In the Old Testament the covenant was for a people of God. Whether the king of Israel sinned or the people sinned the whole land was afflicted with injustice and many other evils. Faith in Christ is the new covenant. Through that faith we are all connected. Far be it from me to suggest faith is impersonal, but I hope to show in addition to faith being deeply personal that faith is at its core equally communal.
This depicts Moses speaking to the children of Israel. All of them are intently focused on him. They receive one word and one people which has come from one God.

When I reflected on works I found that whether or not one believes in the efficacy of works for salvation it nevertheless follows that good works are preferable to evil ones. Further still, whether good works are inspired by the Spirit or come about as a result of personal effort (or both) they are often considered a sign and expression of faith. Works point toward that supreme Good toward which all men strive to varying degree. I do, however, still plan to speak on works as they pertain to Scripture and how they pertain to faith in greater detail.

My overall goal is to elaborate on the relationship of faith and works in a manner that neither diminishes nor emphasizes one over the other. In short, how shall we understand this passage by James? “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works … See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:22, 24).

With these introductory remarks being said I will move onto my investigation in subsequent pieces. I shall begin by moving away from directly speaking about this matter and instead focus on love. Perhaps if we examine love more closely we will see more clearly the matter at hand.

For next time:

To Speak of these Things We Must Speak about Love”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Body of Christ: Concerning Protestants, Christians, and Ideology

Author's Note:
I had worked a great deal on this but am humbled in the simple fact that this barely scratches the surface on a number of issues. By the time I had realized my efforts (up until now) this essay had gone past 3000 words.

Not willing to subject you the torture of reading me for too long I decided to end the piece somewhat abruptly. It would have taken me years to write this as I truly intentioned. For now I hoped to write this as partly historical, partly theological, and in part analysis, exhortation, correction, and more. Have I succeeded? I'm not sure. I'll see the discussion that comes from it--so I do hope you comment.

It is a bit long, but I hope to continue on this topic in a more concise manner. I have some comments on this already in my pieces "On the Priesthood," "On Hierarchy," "On Confession," and "On Forgiveness." If you are so inclined, please read (or reread) them.
[I have employed parenthetical citations. In them I list the primary text and cite by letter the book I used. This can be viewed at the end of the piece. -M]

 The Body of Christ

The weaknesses and failings on the Catholic Church are well focused on. Far be it from me to deny or cover up the faults of my Body. Rather I recognize them and yet, through it all, love it. Though I would like to reflect on this I would rather like my reader to consider two things: 1) that same Body which we call the Church, specifically what that means, and 2) the general view(s) of my Protestant brothers and sisters regarding this issue. If we, believers in Christ, are also called the Body of Christ, do you know what that Body looks like? Below I shall examine those communities known as Protestant and Christian as well as those people who call themselves followers of Christ. I ask my readers, Catholic and Protestant alike, to examine their own communities and ask themselves if it represents Christ and if it represents the 'body' and ‘people of God’ images that we are supposed to be.

The opposition that had begun in the form of schism and reform by the Protestant Reformation is one that should be read with sympathy by Catholics and a critical eye by Protestants. The former are often all too ready to deny their words of “faith alone” and “sola scriptura” without considering why the reformers felt they needed to say it. The latter are ready to applaud the evaluation that the Catholic Church as the “whore of Babylon” and the pope as “anti-Christ” and then fail to evaluate the reasons some reformers derived these notions. Let us all not rest in ignorance but truth. Though I wish I could focus on all things the topic is larger than my competence. Below I leave for your evaluation my analysis and interpretation of some Protestant ideologies and their implications in practice.
This man was not a fan of sola scriptura.
Lutherans and other groups say that Scripture is authoritative and binding. Yet the fragmentation of these movements, sects, and communities showed many of them that the Bible alone—however true it is—was not sufficient for the unity of the community. For example, the Missouri Synod of Lutherans is a group that is very reverent towards God. They are also quite faithful to the teachings of Luther. They, however, agree to abide by certain rules through a signed confession, such as rules found in ‘The Book of Concord’ (1580 AD). They also agree to a certain form of governance (e.g., ministers and councils) and, of course, rely on Scripture.

Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon. These two were the primary authors of The Book of Concord. Both, especially Phillip, wanted to rid the Christian faith of the Catholic Church. Luther moderately and Melanchton aggressively. As intellecectuals they aren't to be taken lightly--they were geniuses. But perhaps they both got swept up in a movement that was bigger than Luther anticipated.
This rule is not binding, though. It is merely a confession and agreement. They, the Episcopalians, and Baptists have learned that their unions cannot be held together by doctrine but by Scripture and faith. For Protestants in general the Holy Spirit speaks to each man. As a result, when conflict arises among them two problems emerge: 1) you are mistaken and the Spirit isn’t in you. 2) You’ve misread Scripture. This argument could go back and forth. Whereas these two statements can be used as a critique, the same two statements can be used as a support: ‘I read it correctly’ and ‘I know the Holy Spirit inspired me.’

Indeed, for Protestant Reformers the interpretation of Scripture comes through the Holy Spirit alone and “the Holy Spirit can only be possessed by pure hearts” (Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, 1520; J.100). Yet who possesses this pure heart? Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, said “I know for certain God teaches me, for I know this by experience” (On Clarity and Certainty, 1522; J.188) where before he defined faith as 'having nothing to do with reason.' Neither ideology can challenge itself here. One cannot say to Zwingli “you did not experience this” on the grounds that only Zwlingli could have experienced God in the manner he describes. For Luther, no one could say to him “you are not pure of heart” because purity is a gift of the Spirit and a total trust of that Spirit makes one pure. But let us leave this here for now. Let us consider only that the proposal of these two well-intentioned men was to emphasize Scripture as the Word of God and that faith, a gift, is the guarantee of salvation. We shall examine this again in a moment.
Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss reformer, was very charismatic but just as temperamental. Before his split from Rome he had been a priest. As a priest he had been a suspected womanizer.
Luther and Zwingli (and later Calvin, to name a few) each formed their own communities based on their ideology—similar at their core and divergent in their expressions. These proposals, however, were the cause of much division. Whether it is through a true love and care for the truth or an apathy for the interpretations and witness of others, leaders who were at one time united formed their own separate congregations because of their conviction that God promised them, in faith, that they were correct. Today, the Missouri Lutherans, Episcopalians, and others came to rely on, ironically, promises and edicts outside of Scripture to maintain unity. These edicts were and are in no ways binding, but they are agreements by a people that proclaim how Scripture should be read and what is required of the faithful.

In their efforts to cast off the yoke of “institution” they were eventually confronted by the practicality and necessity of institutionalizing their faith so as to maintain unity. For example, a Missouri Synod Lutheran can only be called as such if he adheres to the agreement of this synod. A faith that is founded upon a personal faith and Scripture alone is now defined more clearly according to this code. The purpose of this is not wrong, I should say. But those who believe in a personal faith that saves (and that’s it), is it coherent?

These established Protestant groups advocated, and not unjustly, a personal faith. The problem then becomes what “orthodoxy” is for one who considers himself a ‘follower of Christ.’ One says there must be priests while others say that there is only one high priest. One says that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper while another will say that it is only a symbol for our edification. Some meet for prayer regularly while others meet rarely.

Scripture itself became a battleground, perhaps as it always had been. But now Scripture was the only authority for the Christian and only those inspired could preach it (properly). Now, we say that it is true that those without faith will struggle with Scripture. They may not be able to pierce its depths at all for “the mystery of the kingdom of God has been granted to you [Jesus' disciples]. But to those outside everything comes in parables so that they may look and see but not perceive” (Mk 4:11-12a). Jesus also says that we should “beware false prophets … [since] by their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:15) and yet the method by which we evaluate these fruits is difficult. Those from outside cannot effectively speak—some think not at all (which is false)—and even those within could lead people away.

A Christian who rejected the Catholic Church could no longer refer to any precedent in history or practice for support or clarification. This is true because the rejection of precedence and tradition gave way, eventually, to preference—both in determining one's spiritual fruits as well as orthodoxy. In reality it was the only option remaining. 

In the past, an ecclesial council (such as Nicea in 325 AD) was called because of some dispute in practice or some affront to dogma (and/or doctrine). A council met, typically, so as to resolve those topics which lacked clarity and not impose practices or beliefs that were arbitrarily new. These disputes arose either because of variant practices, clashing theologies, or a development of long-held doctrine in light of a new crisis. The most famous example was the divinity (Godhood) of Christ challenged by Arius. Councils of the past appealed to Scripture but also Tradition, for they looked to and “held fast to the traditions they were taught” (cf. 2 Thes 2:14). They used both of these to test the truth of new practices and beliefs would inevitably arise over the course of time, just as they had for the Apostles when the name of Christ Jesus gathered Gentile and Jew (see: Acts 15). From this council the Apostles dispersed once again to reaffirm the good practices and correct the errors of each community.
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) stands as perhaps one of the Church's greatest councils. It was a response to the Protestant Reformation but also a council by which the leaders of the whole Church met to enact reform, clarify doctrine, as well as extend a pastoral hand to those disenfranchised with the faith.

For the Christian reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, the opinions of past ages were true if and only if they were in accord with the present age, in a manner of speaking. The councils did not speak authoritatively in that the declared this or that was proper or improper in regard to Scripture. Rather the purpose of ecclesial councils was so that “many may derive benefit from it.” Yet here in the Smalcald Articles, which were written in 1537 by Luther, he immediately follows by saying “[We ourselves do not] need such a council, for by God's grace our churches have now been so enlightened and supplied with the pure Word … that we do not ask for a council … [for we believe that] it would not improve our condition” (T.290). Those who are well do not need a doctor and those who are enlightened do not need council (or a council).

If you look at this situation as I do perhaps you see how much of a mess it could become. Even among Luther's friends there were stark divisions towards the end of his life. The Christian who had faith must follow the Holy Spirit more than the counsel of men and he must also prefer Scripture as higher than all other words. The organized reformers, in recognizing the weakness of human nature, also sought to establish communities, churches, and rules by which they would not be led astray. The goal of the reformers was to rely on God alone but many ended up with a local, often times a state institution—for “no one can [form a truly free council] so well as temporal authorities … [since] whenever it is profitable or necessary, they ought to exercise the office and work which they have received from God over everyone” (Letter to the German Nation, J.101). The intention was that the state [not the best term for this time-period] would facilitate a free council for religion. A problem arose, however, in that the Catholic Church at this time had in many senses true autonomy from the state. Of course there were clashes and corruption, but as a whole the Catholic Church under the guidance of the pope and bishops was concretely separate from the state in many respects. This relationship could only survive, in part, by an agreement from Church and State. The Protestant model, however, relied on the uniformity of State and church almost to the point where the authority wielded was the State's alone. Temporal authority was charged with protecting the freedom of the faith in that land. But in many cases the reformers became a member of the state themselves and concerned very much with temporal power (the same power they accused the Catholics of hoarding). In other cases, reformers and the faithful became indebted or even reliant on the state to support their faith. (It should be noted that Pope Boniface VIII, when he published “Unum Sanctam” in 1302, made the opposite error for Catholics by proclaiming the Church alone had all power, temporal and spiritual—but a proper examination of this is for another time).

However, there were those who recognized this weakness and absurdity—for if the pope and bishops were merely a human institution how did the state guarantee better governance? As such, they reduced the whole of faith into a personal venture. But as time progressed these ones entered into an even greater absurdity for they call those who have faith Christian but they appear to be far from a “people of God.” Many of them identify under the maxim “I believe in Jesus but not religion.” These people see faith as nothing more than a personal relationship with Christ. At the same time there is nothing in their lives that might explicitly direct them or warn them of deficiencies in their faith.
Spiritual and not Religious = not spiritual.

Certainly we can recognize deficiencies in our bodies and in our behavior, such as alcoholism or extreme arrogance. Their faith, however, is personal and no man could point a deficiency in it. For some, perhaps, they believe that their own faith is weak and that's how it's supposed to be. All the same they believe that just as a relationship grows so too does theirs with Christ develop.

As a thought on its own it isn't bad. In fact we are all called to grow closer to the God who loves us. Let us return, however, to the image of the Body of Christ. Those who claim to be non-denominational must make an account for themselves as to how they see this Body. For a body is not a patchwork of personal relationships of bones to the head, sinews to the head, blood to the head, and so forth. Rather every sinew, muscle, vein, and follicle is interconnected in some manner. Is the Church simply the number of those who believe or is it something greater? The blood is not the head yet does it not provide life to our limbs? The bones are not the head yet do they not support the whole? Likewise the hands are not the head but do they not labor and provide for the body?

Those who would isolate themselves from others insofar as they reject a visible and concrete community of believers would do well to heed Scripture: Peter and John “went back to their own people … [and] as they prayed, the place where they gathered shook[.] The community of believers was of one heart and mind” (Acts 4:23,31a,32a). More still, Scripture herself speaks not only of our weakness that is brought about by the struggle between flesh and spirit, but in the spirit itself. Paul says that “we pray beyond measure to see you in person and remedy the deficiencies of your faith” (1 Thes 3:10). Here we have men, acting in the Holy Spirit, gathering physically together and desiring a physical union so as to teach, preach, instruct, and safeguard against deficiencies in personal faiths. Stronger still, Paul relates to Timothy both the things he taught and what was given to him by the community of the faithful. He tells Timothy to “Command and teach these things … Attend to [your own faith] and to your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim 4:11,16). 
Spiritual and Religious. They gathered in the upper room and received the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching Jesus to the World.

I think I have spoken enough on this matter. Faith neither starts nor ends as a private or isolated venture. Rather faith in Christ Jesus joins us to His Body, the Church. That Church is likewise more than the number of believers but a community of believers that is visible. More still that visible community is one made up of laborers, teachers, parents, and priests where those “who are spiritual should correct [one who errs] in a gentle spirit” (Gal 6:1). All of us are in a community called to holiness, and that call to holiness is a perfection of charity for all people. Like a Body, however, some are charged with greater authority. “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who are laboring among you and who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you, and to show esteem for them with special love on account of their work” (1 Thes 5:12-13).

I rise, now, towards my Protestant brothers and sisters who have acknowledged much of what I said above by gathering together in prayer, accepting admonishment from others in regard to faith, and in a greater sense of Christian unity. You must wrestle with what you place upon Scripture as well as the manifestation/expression of your image of 'Church.'

If indeed you hold that “All Scripture is inspired by God and ise useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) what was it that compelled Luther, a general among the milites contra catholicam, to say “St. James' epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these other [books of Scripture] for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (Preface to the New Testament, 1522, 1546; J.117)? Many deny, as a matter of belief, that we are justified by works and have ignored this holy author when he says “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. … See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:21-22,24). What determines Scripture and its interpretation if this phrase could be ignored in favor of St. Paul? By what standard do you judge these matters?
I only put this here because I love this image.

I pose another question to you, friends: who spoke truly in this regard?

Two men read that Christ said “this is my body” at His Last Supper.

One claimed that Christ's Body and Blood were truly present in that sacrament. He claimed that Christ's “is” was true and real. That at the repeating on these words Christ Himself is present “in, around, under, and through” the bread and wine. He believes this is true because Christ Himself said so.

The other countered that just as Jesus had called Himself the “Way” and the “Vine,” and that both were not literal, that His words here also constituted a symbol by which we are edified in faith.

The issue was not resolved among them—how do you resolve it?

There is much more that I would like to speak on, but I will refrain from some of it here in favor of explaining a different aspect in a future piece concerning the holy ones, the saints. In it I hope to address human weakness, how we participate with God (and examples in Scripture), and other aspects. In this piece I regretfully omitted the wisdom of Augustine who can offer us a great deal of wisdom. I hope to introduce him when I am more comfortable and versed in the vast body of his work on this issue. Until then I heartily recommend “On Christian Teaching” as a good starting point. Lutherans owe much to Augustine's theology of which Luther was well versed.

I conclude by urging a greater reflection on that powerful image the “Body of Christ” and all its implications. It is easy for us, if we have faith, to simply see ourselves as members. It is far more difficult for any of us to see ourselves as pained, maligned, festering, bleeding, crippled, maimed, or cancerous. The unity of any Body rests in both uniformity (for a body has many parts working towards the same purpose) as well as diversity (i.e., the aforementioned parts). Does that Body which you call 'Church' facilitate this? Is it accomplishing the call for one Church here on earth as it is in heaven? Is Scripture the only authority, and if so which is greater, faith or Scripture? Consequently, how is this question answered? There is much more to say but for now I will pause my argument and allow it to grow from here. My other pieces refer to Catholic perspectives on some of these matters, but as of now I hardly have the talent or the time to expound on these subjects as I would like.

Cited as [J]
Denis R, Janz. A Reformation Reader (2008).

Cited as [T]
Theodore G Tappert, editor. The Book of Concord (1580, trans.1959).