Anascholastic Institute

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The Christmas Tree Controversy

Several years ago, when I was working for an organization connected to a Mennonite church, a superior cautioned me that Christmas trees were not allowed to be used in any part of our Christmas decorations. This was quickly followed by the assurance that “Winter Trees” were perfectly acceptable. This little episode still makes me smile when I remember it, and I think it illustrates the controversy that surrounds some traditions. But the controversy should not turn us away from discussing and thinking about an idea. Our God loves truth, and when we use our minds to seek it out and make it known, we are serving Him. We are going to take some time to look at the history of the Christmas tree and some of the arguments that surround the practice.

The history of the Christmas tree is not easily traced because the historical record is incomplete on the matter, and myth and legend have creeped up to fill in the gaps. We do know that the modern concept of a Christmas tree, found in homes with decorations, lights, and gifts, is just the latests conception of what a Christmas tree is. When we go back in time, we find descriptions change. For example, Queen Charlotte is credited with bringing the first Christmas tree to England in 1800 (Barnes, 2). Her tree was decorated with treats and gifts for the children, making it both decorative and functional as a centerpiece for a large Christmas celebration. Going back further in time, we find Germany to be the home of the oldest recorded reference to a Christmas tree. In 1561 a law was written at Alsace that limited each home to a single tree no more than 8 feet in height (Parachin, 51). Before that date, there are only a couple of references to trees that were used as decorative elements around the Christmas season. In the late 1400s and early 1500s there are accounts of merchant guilds decorating trees with food and paper decorations before carrying the tree to the town square and burning it in a sort of bonfire party. There are also paintings and descriptions of “Paradise Trees” that were used as props in Christian dramas about Adam and Eve from that same time period (Tait, 11). Because these dramas were often put on by guilds (Bertrin)  around the Christmas season, it is possible that the trees became the inspiration for the decorative tree that later developed. It is here in the uncertainty of origins that several unsubstantiated myths have taken root.

One of the myths regarding the origin of the Christmas tree involves no less of a figure than Martin Luther. According to one story, Martin Luther was walking in a pine forest one night when he looked up and saw the stars through the branches of the trees. It reminded him of how Jesus left the beauty of the heavens to join mankind on earth, so he later cut down a tree and decorated it with candles to recreate the effect for his children. It is true that German protestants were much more likely to have a Christmas tree than their Catholic compatriots, but there is no historical backing to the story. There is likewise no evidence for the myth that the Christmas tree was inspired by or mimics pre-Christian pagan traditions. While some have noted parallels with the veneration for evergreen trees that was found in Viking and Teutonic cultures, the traditions of lighting candles and hanging wreaths in Roman cults, the use of holly in Celtic rituals, and the use of evergreen branches in some Egyptian religions, there is no real evidence that the Christmas tree is anything but a tradition maintained by and originating with people who believed themselves to be Christians.

So if the Christmas tree has a clear Christian past, why are some Christians, especially Anabaptists, opposed to the tradition? There are a number of arguments, some good and some that are not so good. One of the poorer arguments is based on the premise that the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol, and should therefore be avoided by any faithful follower of Christ. This argument has two significant flaws. First, as we have already established, there is no historical evidence to support that theory. For it to be true, the practice of decorating Christmas trees would have to have quietly survived for the hundreds of years between when Christianity replaced paganism and when Christmas trees became popular. That is unlikely. The second problem with this argument is that a symbol derives its power from the intentions and understandings of the people involved. Baptism is just playing with water unless the people involved understand the significance and consequences of the act. Without understanding communion is just eating and drinking, prayer is just talking to yourself, and the holy kiss is just weird. Just as the most powerful Christian symbols and practices are pointless without Christian understanding, a pagan symbol is only pagan when the person responsible has pagan understandings. To oppose the tradition of Christmas trees on the grounds that they are in some way pagan is not a good argument.

Those who choose to abstain from the Christmas tree tradition can justify their stance with better arguments that are rooted in Biblical truths. One such argument can be crafted by looking to the first of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:3. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is a distinct command that still applies to all who worship Him today. Anything that comes before God in our lives can become a god (with a lowercase g). The God who created us and all that we see, who came to earth in human form to save us from ourselves in an unfathomable act of sacrifice, and who is constantly giving us strength and guidance should never take second place to a tree. If the trappings and traditions of the Christmas season are in danger of overpowering the true majesty of God, they need to go.

There are other arguments for and against the Christmas tree tradition that we don’t have time to explore here, but we welcome your involvement! Feel free to leave a comment on your own beliefs or understandings about the Christmas tree tradition, and maybe an explanation of why you hold to that position. And if you know any more Christmas tree history, we would all love to hear it. Thank you for reading and remember to keep serving God with all of your mind!

Barnes, Alison. “The First Christmas Tree.” History Today, vol. 56, no. 12, Dec. 2006, pp. 2–3. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23306685&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.

Bertrin, Georges, and Arthur F.J. Remy. "Miracle Plays and Mysteries." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 15 Dec. 2018 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10348a.htm>.

Tait, Edwin Woodruff. “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum!” Christian History & Biography, no. 92, Fall 2006, p. 11. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23306613&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.

Parachin, Victor M. “The Christmas Tree.” Priest, vol. 68, no. 12, Dec. 2012, pp. 50–43. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=82828626&site=ehost-live&authtype=sso&custid=s8415227.


Martin Luther - A Lesson for Anabaptists

The education of Martin Luther was mammoth. A lay-scholar could very easily be discouraged from attempting a similar level of theological excellence Worse still, one might consider oneself inadequate to evaluate one’s own culture or doctrinal positions critically.   The mantra would be, “I didn’t have the opportunity to study, so I’ll just listen.” To not pursue in-depth theological study because it seems impossible would be a tragedy. There is no doubt that Luther was a great man who did great things. But even as we commend the academic excellence and bravery of Luther, remember that Luther read by candle light.

Luther could be bombastic and rude. While certainly on the receiving end of insults, he had no qualms about dishing out a few. He called the Pope the devil at one point (Hendrix, 2015, p. 15). Though, to be fair a Pope had called him a “wild hog” and a “drunken German,”(Sproul, 2015). Cordial, christian discourse in public seems to be a more modern thing.

Christendom is accustomed to having less than perfect heroes. For all his faults, Luther stands as a hero of the past and rated one of the most influential people in history (Hendrix, 2015). Even modern Anabaptists recognize the value of Luther’s deeds. This man who once said that Anabaptists were, “… corrupters of the sacraments,” and charged them with destroying the treasures of the faith. (Hendrix, 2015, p. 186).

But this article is not to explore the struggles between the first Anabaptists and the reformer Luther. Rather, the intention is to explore the events in Luther’s life that set him up to be so used of God, specifically his academic bent. For, like it or not, the Anabaptists owe their existence as a movement to the likes of Luther.

The Education of Martin Luther:

The specifics of Luther’s education are largely taken from the book by Scott H Hendrix entitled, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer.

Luther’s accomplishments would not have come about were it not for his education.  Luther himself was aware of the treasure that he had been given, stating, “Without any doubt, I would not have come to this if I had not gone to school and become a writer,” (Hendrix, 2015, p. 21) And go to school he did.

Based on the times, Luther’s schooling may have started around the age of seven. He studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Students of the day studied  Latin and moral maxims from works that were around 1,000 years old, namely Donatus and Cato (Hendrix, 2015). After a short time in a place called Mansfeld, he studied in Magdeburg where he probably studied in the actual Cathedral (Hendrix, 2015). He soon moved locations again, however, and studied for several years in Eisenach. Here he studied an advanced version of the subjects already mentioned, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He also studied musical theory and apparently had a decent tenor voice, taught himself the lute, etc., but I digress. In Eisenach, Luther came into contact with many intellectuals and religious professions. Apparently the town there had fostered an academic culture with an impractical number of religious professionals, one for every ten people (Hendrix, 2015).

Luther enrolled at the university in Erfurt in 1501 where he learned some Greek and Hebrew. Hendrix credits Luther with mentioning a slew of Greek writers in his writings. The likes of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Cicero, Virgil, the younger Seneca, Terence, and Tacitus are mentioned as a start (Hendrix, 2015). Basically, Luther read old books, a ton of them. From a gritty, historical perspective, Luther’s name appears in the ledger of the university three times. According to Hendrix, the first was when he enrolled and paid his tuition, the second was when he got his Bachelor of Arts degree, and again when he passed his Master of Arts exam (2015). In all, Luther spent nine years in Erfurt and his work in academics had just begun.

Martin Luther would not have been able to accomplish what he did were it not for his education. What then is the application for a denomination that does not send its sons, usually, into theological academic pursuits, and who certainly do not glean their ministers from among an educated store of potential masters of Theology?  There are many directions one may take this debate. There is the debate on possibly sending people to study theology and running the risk of their transferring to a different denomination. There is the question of opening four-year theological seminaries of our own. Granted, some now exist with the name “Mennonite” but conservatives have traditionally shied away from these. This debate is a constant among us. For those whom higher education is deemed too late, and perhaps they feel that they have no good options, there is a solution, of sorts.  

Luther read by candle light. I study via the glow on my phone. Luther went to school to study the great Greek and Latin masters of the past. I just purchased the complete works of Plato on my phone for $2 here.  Just as movable type assisted the propagation of Luther’s ideas, technology has given Mennonite laymen the ability to reach a level of academic prowess approaching the Divinity Majors of today. How long did Luther spend reading a document to research a topic? I have no idea, the question is rhetorical. But how long does it take to search a PDF for the section one desires? The greatest problem is not time, but knowing what to study. That advice I do not offer here. My only point is that it is available to anyone.

Luther was given opportunities by his father and utilized them to become a scholastic giant of his time. God used his education and talents to change His church forever. It was not an easy road and Luther will forever have severe marks against him. History is replete with God using educated people to defend his church, when He can find them.

References

Hendrix, S. (2015). Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Sproul, D. R. (2015, March 10). The Insanity of Luther. Ligonier Ministries. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2StKxMKWfbU&index=4&list=WL&t=0s

 


Serving God With the Mind

Welcome to the inaugural blog post of the Anascholastic Institute! In the coming months we hope to bring you content on a variety of topics that might include: Bible studies, publication reviews, commentary on current events, and doctrinal discussions. The purpose of this blog is to encourage our readers to think about things, to excite their curiosity, and to inspire them to seek better understanding. We seek these things for our readers because we at the Anascholastic Institute believe that all Christians should be serving God with their minds, and we want to share and act on that message. We would like to lay the groundwork for this endeavor by taking some time to explore the reason why the service of the mind is so important both spiritually and practically.

To begin, let us consider what the Bible has to say about the use of the mind. There are many verses from many books that deal with the topic of wisdom and thinking, but one which seems particularly instructive can be found in the gospel of Matthew (though the phrase also appears in Luke and Mark). Here we find an account of a Pharisee who asks Jesus which commandment in the law is the most important. Jesus responds by saying: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38, KJV). According to the words of Jesus, the mind plays a crucial role in the life of a believer, one that cannot be separated from the rest of his or her  response. The mind should be involved in all of the aspects of loving God; through service, worship, living, and interacting with those around us. In short, the Bible clearly shows that God wants our minds to play an active role in our Christian lives. So now that we are clear on the importance of serving God with the mind, we can reasonably ask ourselves what that service looks like.

A great place to start is in the recognition that serving God requires a level of knowledge about God and His attributes, and His plan. Acquiring knowledge about God comes through studying the Bible, listening to other believers, and contemplating the truths of God. But it doesn’t end there. A Christian should also be concerned with preparing their mind for the task of gaining knowledge. In order to know what the Bible says about God, one must learn to read. To search out truth one must be able to think critically. To share with other believers one must be able to communicate both in writing and in the spoken word. Gaining and maintaining the tools of the mind is a necessary part of seeking the knowledge of God that is needed to serve and love God.

But serving God with the mind means more than just acquiring knowledge of God, it also requires the use of that knowledge. It has to be applied to the way in which a Christian lives, otherwise that knowledge is nothing more than the result of an  intellectual exercise that is devoid of meaning. One common way that a Christian might use their mind to serve God is through discipling other believers. While it comes in many different forms, the process of encouraging and guiding others to become more like Jesus is one that requires wisdom and judgement, both qualities of the mind. Evangelism is another way in which a Christian can use their mind in the service of God. Bringing people to Christ is not a purely mental process, but there is still a great deal of value in being knowledgeable about the arguments in favor of Christianity. Finally, a Christian can use their mind in support of the local church, assisting with the ministry efforts of the church or by protecting the doctrine of the church from being corrupted or lost.

We at the Anascholastic Institute believe that there is a need for Christians who are willing to commit to serving God with the mind, a need that might be more pressing today than many times in our recorded history. We live in the age of incredible knowledge, with access to an unfathomable amount of information, surrounded by a population that is mostly literate and educated. The setting in which we live provides amazing opportunities, but it also presents challenges. When small handheld device can access hundreds of thousands of opinions and theories and beliefs, the modern Christian is likely to be challenged far more than the Christians of the past two millennia. The local church is more likely to be exposed to outside influences, to be swayed by popular opinions, or to be seduced by false teaching. It is likely that the unbelievers we come into contact with are not ignorant of Christianity, but are simply unconvinced. In any case, we need Christians to know what they believe, who are willing to defend and communicate that belief, and who are willing to let that belief dictate the direction of their life. We are in need of Christians everywhere to place their minds in the service of God.

And so we invite you to join us in spreading the message. Keep an eye out for our regular blog posts, read them, share them, and comment on them. We would also like to hear your feedback. We welcome your agreements and disagreements, your suggestions and your questions. Become a part of the Anascolastic community! Together we can support and encourage each other in the crucial task of serving God with our hearts, souls, and minds.

Delmar Oberholtzer