Besides a love of family and an arguably tragic loyalty to the Cubs and Vikings, I have realized that God instilled in me three passions/interests in this life journey:
In retrospect, it is no wonder that I was mesmerized when in I walked into the library of Trinity College in Dublin and first gazed on The Book of Kells. I can’t believe I had never heard of it, but I am eternally grateful for my travel companion who insisted we visit the ancient, handwritten copy of the Gospels. It was my first real introduction to the world of illuminated manuscripts, and in that fateful moment I experienced a harmonic convergence of my passions. Here was the Word of God presented in an obvious work of art that was steeped in the rich stories and context of history. I have been fascinated by illuminated manuscripts ever since.
Before the invention of the printing press, both scriptures and books of common prayer were affectionately and painstakingly copied by hand. Often, these handwritten copies were the work of monks who embellished the written word with beautiful and colorful illustrations. In the case of The Book of Kells, the illustrations included mysterious symbols and celtic imagery. The printing press and moveable type changed history forever. Books could be quickly and efficiently published and copied. Handwritten illuminated manuscripts were a thing of the past.
Last year I stumbled upon news of The St. John’s Bible. For the first time in hundreds of years, a team of calligraphers and artists began working on a completely handwritten and illuminated copy of the Bible commissioned by St. John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota. I discovered that high resolution copies of the modern manuscript were available in multiple volumes and this past Christmas I received two of the volumes: The Pentateuch and The Gospels and Acts. Since then I’ve added The Books of History. I also, by the way, received a copy of Bernard Meehan’s gorgeous history and analysis of The Book of Kells for Christmas.
So, each morning I’ve been opening and reading a chapter from the gorgeous copy of the handwritten St. John’s Bible. I’ve been blown away by the incredible effort, craftsmanship and artistry involved, along with the textual nuances of the Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version in which it was written. One of these days on a trip up to the Twin Cities I hope to make the trek up I-94 to St. John’s and see the original for myself.
I’m a history geek. Forgive me. You might need another cup of coffee for this one.
In a few years we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of one of the most important events in western civilization. In 1517 a young Roman Catholic priest named Martin Luther stopped by the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. The door served as a sort of medieval community bulletin board in those days. He nailed to the door a theological challenge that he was presenting for public debate. There were 95 things that he felt needed to change in the Roman Catholic church and his 95 “theses” started a chain reaction of events that led to what we know today as the Protestant Reformation. Europe was split asunder between Roman Catholics and these new Protest-ants.
There were many reasons the Protestant Reformation happened when it did, and many of them had nothing to do with Marty’s 95 bullet points. One of the reasons for the Reformation had to do with one of Luther’s other pet projects. Until that time the Bible existed only in painstakingly hand written copies which were penned (generally by monks) in Latin which was the official language of the Roman Catholic church. Because of this, the only people who could read the Bible for themselves were priests, the educated, and the wealthy (a very small minority) which meant that priests and the church had tremendous power over the uneducated masses: “We will tell you what God says because we can read the Bible and you can’t. You’ll just have to trust us on this.”
Marty Luther believed that everyone should have access to reading God’s Message for themselves, and so he began translating the scriptures into the common German language of his people. His successful translation coincided with a relatively recent German invention by a guy named Johannes Gutenberg: the moveable type printing press. This allowed for relatively quick and cheap mass production of books. It was a perfect storm. Gutenberg’s printing press mass produced Luther’s German translation of the Bible and common everyday people began reading the Bible for themselves. They soon discovered for themselves that the Roman Catholic church had taught them some things that they couldn’t actually find anywhere in the Bible.
One of the most important theological concepts to come out of the Reformation was “the priesthood of all believers.” The Roman Catholic church had maintained a rather tight reign on the Western World for over a thousand years because only the priests could read the Bible and Roman Catholic doctrine developed the concept that you could only receive God’s forgiveness by going to a priest, confessing and receiving absolution from God through the priest. No priest, no absolution, no forgiveness. God’s Message, however, says that Jesus is the only High Priest of all believers and that everyone who believes is part of the “royal priesthood.” In other words, the local priest in all his regalia standing at the cathedral altar has no more spiritual standing before God than the everyday sinner sitting in the pew.
So what’s my point with this wordy history lesson?
The “priesthood of all believers” was a radical concept in the 1500s, but my experience with the 21st century protestant church is that it remains just as radical today.
We still like to make our pastors into priests by putting them up on the platform in the spotlight and bestowing upon on them a spiritual standing that they do not have.
We still like to sit in the pew and believe that we are held to a lower standard as if God grades us on a curve. “I never claimed to be a pastor or a priest, so God can’t possibly hold me to that kind of spiritual standard as my pastor.“
Protestant churches eventually replaced the elite Roman Catholic priesthood with their own educational elitist system of seminaries, refusing to acknowledge that all believers are ministers of the new covenant (see the verse above, I knew I get to it eventually). Protestants replaced the remote and out-of-touch leadership of the papacy with their own remote and out-of-touch denominational offices.
Protestant churches regularly put educated but spiritually un-gifted people into positions to which they will ultimately fail, while refusing to encourage or allow spiritually gifted every day believers to use their gifts because they have not met some human educational standard.
We refuse to embrace the truth of “the priesthood of all believers” which means that EVERY person (man, woman, child) who believes and receives Jesus as Lord becomesa minister and receives a spiritual gift(s) intended for the carrying out of that ministry in their everyday lives and vocations so that others might come to believe and for the building up of fellow believers. EVERY believer of Jesus is a minister regardless of that believers education, I.Q., E.Q., age, race, background, social status, heritage, sinfulness, record, or history.
What amazing things would happen in our lives, communities, and the world itself if we zealously embraced the truth of the priesthood of all believers and started a 21st century reformation.