From the Sept/Oct, 2017 issue of Touchstone
mere christianity Always Something by Allan Carlson


Always Something

Schisms, Reformation, Recovery & Renewal
by Allan Carlson

Christendom was torn by two great schisms. The first came in 1054, when disagreements over the precise nature of the Trinity and papal preeminence led to mutual excommunications by Patriarch Michael Cerularius in Constantinople and Pope Leo IX in Rome. The second came in 1517, when the Augustinian monk and theologian Martin Luther challenged church doctrines pertaining to redemption and salvation, which quickly devolved into a full rejection of papal authority.

In both cases, Christian rupture occurred at a time of mounting pressure from Islam. In the eleventh century, it came from the Seljuk Turks, tribes that were moving into Christian Anatolia. In the sixteenth century, the new force came from the Ottoman Turks, whose armies had conquered Constantinople, overrun the whole of the Balkans, and hungered for Vienna.

Both the Byzantine and Holy Roman emperors, charged with defending the borders of Christendom, looked on with dismay. In 1095, Alexios I Komnenos finally appealed to the Roman pope and the princes of the West for limited forms of help. He reaped the Crusades, vastly larger campaigns. While the first succeeded in driving all the way to and recapturing Jerusalem, the second turned instead on Constantinople itself, which was sacked. For his part, Charles V waded into the conflict between Luther and Rome, hoping to rally a unified empire to stop Suleiman the Magnificent. The Habsburg emperor failed in this, but Vienna would hold in 1525, and again in 1683.

Where do matters stand in 2017? Christendom, understood as a politico-religious fortress largely conterminous with Europe, is gone. Part of this was inevitable, and good. Once Christian missionaries and colonists fanned out from Europe, also beginning around 1517, they planted churches in the Americas, Siberia, southern Asia, Africa, and Oceania: a new fulfillment of Christ's command to carry the gospel to all the nations on earth. When the Catholic author Hilaire Belloc intoned in 1920 that "The Church is Europe, and Europe is the Church," he was in this respect already off by at least several centuries.

However, another aspect of this disappearance of Christendom was tragic. Religious wars between Catholic and Protestant princes and their subjects, culminating in the disastrous Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), shook the moral authority of the faith. Instead of reconciliation, indifference began to creep in. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the twentieth century's sexual revolution all followed.

And now, pressure from Islam on Europe grows again. This time, Muslims need no soldiers to assist in a massive migration from the Middle East and Africa into the heart of Europe. Rather, these still-fruitful peoples arrive now by auto, train, plane, and leaky ship. With some exceptions, the secularized, denatured, and shrinking peoples of Europe can think of no reason not to let them in and—in places such as Sweden and Germany—actually subsidize them lavishly.

Where Protestants Stand

In this new century and millennium, facing foes both old and new, where do the three great Christian communions stand? Among Protestants celebrating their 500th birthday, one clear (and ironic) line is the accelerating decline of the historic "Reformation churches": Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican. The former and current "state" churches of Germany, Scandinavia, and England—all direct products of reforming zeal tied to political interests—are the most exhausted, in terms of theology, evangelism, and numbers. For their part, the institutional offshoots of these churches in North America have merged themselves into insignificance, joined by the Calvinist denominations that once made up the "Mainline." These are the church bodies that have bought most completely into the modernist agenda: biblical relativism first, followed by contraception, then female ordination, abortion, homosexuality, and—the latest cause—transgenderism. Since Luther put forward the Christian family as "the highest order on Earth" and deemed the command to "be fruitful and multiply" as obligatory, even he—a man rarely without an opinion or words—would be rendered speechless.

While a few conservative Lutheran and Presbyterian bodies, joined by the far more numerous Baptists in their great variety, seem to be holding their own, and while some of the "daughter" churches of the original Reformation bodies thrive in Africa, the growth sector of Protestantism is found among the Pentecostals. Distinguished by their emphasis on gifts of the spirit, speaking in tongues, and divine healing, the contemporary movement dates from the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, 1906–1909. (For reasons I won't elaborate, I own a plaque declaring me a full member of the Azusa Street Centennial Ministry Team, 2006!) Reliable estimates place their worldwide numbers today at between 300 and 500 million, with growth particularly strong in South America, South Asia, and Africa. Until recently, at least, their engagement on the social issues has been amorphous. Relative to theology, the systematic intellect of John Calvin would reel.

The Catholics & Orthodox

Next year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's encyclical on contraception, abortion, and related matters of sexual ethics. Certainly a key event in the history of the modern Roman Catholic Church, it has my vote as the most important Christian event of the twentieth century.

It came shortly after the close of the Vatican II conclave. This extraordinary church council actually convened at a time (1962) religious historian George A. Lindbeck has called "a remarkably calm moment in the history of the Western Church." The neo-Thomist revival of the prior 80 years had a clear afterglow, while neo-Orthodoxy seemed dominant even among the Protestants. Christian Democrats, nurtured in the Catholic Church's theological bosom, had rebuilt Europe after World War II. In the United States, Catholicism showed every sign of institutional health and moral authority (even this little Lutheran boy was a big fan of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen). The time for a little ecclesiastical housecleaning seemed right.

Matters did not proceed so smoothly. As Lindbeck—who actually served as a formal Lutheran "observer" at the entire council—has explained: "The de-Christianization of Western culture, the kind of de-Christianization that was also undermining the faith of the [Catholic] Church in its tradition, [had] not really [been] interrupted." Such currents spilled over into theological and liturgical questions. Liberals and traditionalists soon squared off in disputes over the meaning of the council's spirit and actions; Humanae Vitae, with its unexpected affirmation of orthodoxy, poured gasoline on the fire of controversies that would continue in the decades that followed.

Within this larger context, the Vatican did give important new emphasis to protection of the family. This began with St. John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation on the Family (1981), followed by the creation of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the encouragement of a number of new academic institutes on marriage and the family, and the convening on a regular basis of World Meetings of Families. The council also became a firm friend of the World Congress of Families, a loose alliance of pro-family groups launched in 1997. John Paul's successor, Benedict XVI, continued this emphasis. However, the current pontiff, Francis, sometimes seems less enthusiastic.

The most remarkable development over the last two decades has been the emergence onto the world stage of Eastern Orthodoxy, rising from its long, politically imposed sleep. This entry of the Orthodox into the globe's current culture wars has been particularly true for the Russian Church, which has become outspoken in its condemnation of abortion and in its defense of the natural family. This dramatic shift in priorities comes directly from Patriarch Kirill and his "second," Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, and closely resembles what first occurred in Rome. Similar developments have begun in other of the autocephalous churches, most notably in the Georgian Orthodox Church, under the leadership of Patriarch Ilia.

Matters Great & Small

Such historical matters came to mind during the World Congress of Families XI, held in Budapest in late May. Your author was there, along with Touchstone's James and Patricia Kushiner. The Hungarian site is significant, for this is one of the few European lands still striving to live. Its government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, is strongly Christian, including a Calvinist pastor as its Minister of Human Capabilities. It engineered a new constitution several years ago, which opens with the words, "God Bless the Hungarians," and is laced with solid Christian, pro-life, and pro-family language. Snapshots from the Congress include:

• Strong opening speeches from the Roman Catholic primate of Hungary, the chairman of the Patriarchal Commission on the Family of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the senior pastor of Singapore's massive Faith Community Baptist Church.

• Two PowerPoint slides used by a government minister, the first showing faces of the prime ministers of the major member states of the European Union, along with their number of children (an average of zero), and the second showing the faces of Hungary's state ministers (with a range of from two to six children each)—"This is the principle difference between the EU and Hungary," she said.

• A conversation with a Habsburg descendant, who assisted with local arrangements in Budapest and who praised the solid moral and Christian education for children to be found in an American Evangelical school operating in Vienna.

• A closing dinner hosted by the Faith Church of Budapest, a Pentecostal community that squeezes 10,000 worshippers into converted factory space for Saturday evening services and that has made strengthening natural families one of its core ministries.

These are matters both great and small: Orthodox, Catholic, and very Evangelical leaders advancing a common mission; European peoples, most especially those that knew Communism, recovering their heritage and a future; a fresh spirit of common destiny among thoughtful lay folk; and a hopeful grounding of an often dizzying Pentecostalism in the common tradition. Yet they may point to something deeper.

Prophetic Utterance

This past December, an English translation appeared of a 2008 interview with Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, the man whom St. John Paul II had tasked with creating the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The cardinal cited correspondence he subsequently had with Sister Lúcia dos Santos, described as "the principal visionary of Our Lady of Fatima." As she wrote to him, "the final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family." Lúcia added: "Do not be afraid, because whoever works for the Sanctity of Marriage and the Family will be opposed in every way. . . . Nevertheless, Our Lady has already crushed [Satan's] head."

Lutherans are not supposed to think too much about visionaries or Our Lady. Yet I suspect that were Martin Luther here today and were he to judge the situation, he would recognize here the utterance of a true prophet.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is of significance, most certainly. But we may be living in the midst of something much larger. If this coming together of Christians is the Lord's doing, then it, unlike the Reformation, will be marvelous in all our eyes.

Allan Carlson is President of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society in Rockford, Illinois ( His books include Conjugal America: On The Public Purposes of Marriage and The Natural Family: Bulwark of Liberty. He is married and has four children and is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.

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