The Babylonian Captivity of the Church

Luther’s work was a sustained theological argument, thus it was published in Latin. But it was originally written in German, the language in which most people read it and began to discuss it.

Luther’s primary concern was to examine the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church in the light of his understanding of the Holy Scripture. He urged, to give just one example, that the cup in the eucharist should be restored to the laity. He further dismissed the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation while still affirming the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist. These were primary points in his argument.

To follow Luther’s argument a bit more carefully you need to understand that he believed the “captivity” the church had begun in the Middle Ages with something as simple, but profoundly important, as the withholding of the cup from the laity in the Lord’s Supper. This was radical stuff at the time! (It seems so tame to us five centuries later.) Make no mistake about this context, Luther said a whole lot more, some of which was clearly overstated. Much of what he wrote suffered from the style he employed but what he said in popular ways reflected the spirit of the times and the great need to awaken people from their slumber.

Luther’s work is, at times, angry in tone. In it, for the first time, he fiercely attacked the papacy. He forthrightly accused the pope of being the Antichrist. This book heralded what one rightly calls “his radicalization.”

My America?

When I grew up in the 1950s my parents never had to worry that I would be exposed to teachers who would undermine my faith or sexually molest me. It never crossed their minds to think one of  my teachers might promote gay marriage, much less be gay and legally married in a same-sex relationship. To even think that such a time could exist in America was inconceivable. If you were born in 1970 or after, you will have a very hard time understanding “my (childhood) America.” On Sunday my hometown closed down. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of gasoline or get needed groceries. It was also one of the busiest times of the week because most people were all going to church on Sunday morning.

Granted my particular (Southern) world was segregated but we all knew our roles and we were safe! No one worried about school shootings in the 1950s and 60s. People generally saw what was good and most of them did what was right. They may have slept around, and teenagers did have sex for sure, but they did it without telling everyone. We went to Sunday school and our civic leaders ran for political office by reminding us of what church they faithfully attended each week. The church, my home and my state all formed a kind of “national consortium” (Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, 1989, 16) that instilled Christian values in us all. Most people grew up Christian, in some sense, either as Catholics or Protestants. (We had a few Jewish families in my community and they lived by our cultural values on the whole!)


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