Next year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the publication which started the Protestant Reformation. Luther, an Augustinian monk and theology professor, came to embrace justification by faith alone and to conclude that much of what the Roman Church was promoting had little biblical foundation. His initial goal was a modest one: to start a conversation about the sale of indulgences, lately peddled in his area of Germany by a Dominican monk named Johann Tetzel, an agent for the papacy who was raising funds to build a magnificent new basilica in Rome—St. Peter’s.
Instead of starting a dialogue, Luther created an upheaval that rocked the Church to its core, sending waves of new thought across the continent. However, not all Europe came to accept these new views. Whole countries steadfastly resisted Lutheranism and remained under the shadow of Roman Catholicism. Five hundred years after the Reformation, a shadow of Christianity is about all that remains in some parts of Europe. A spiritual darkness permeates much of the landscape, and many Europeans who might claim a “Christian” birth are at best practical atheists if not committed pagans.
Last week, on my way home from Romania, I was able to visit with several Central Seminary alumni serving the Lord in two of these dark countries—Austria and Spain. Both countries have plenty of churches, if by churches we mean ecclesiastical halls built to gather the faithful to pray. It’s hard to walk down a major street in either country without seeing a steeple or church bell tower looming above. Driving through rural Spain, the villages are marked by the bell towers. Indeed, the churches usually claim the high ground in the towns upon which they build their edifices, whether simple or exceptionally ornate. The churches are filled with wood carvings, tapestries, sculptures, stained glass windows, and painted walls, and many items are accented with silver or gold.
The artwork is stunning. In some cases, biblical scenes are brought to life in vivid imagery. The flight of Jesus’s family into Egypt, the Last Supper, and, of course, the crucifixion are among the scenes portrayed. Alongside biblical themes is a confusing array of other images—the eleven apostles, burial crypts of dead bishops whose effigy adorns the burial site, or whose mummified body can be seen in glass coffins. Other “saints” can be viewed in larger churches in centers of Roman Catholic dominance, such as Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross at the Spanish city of Avila. These individuals figure prominently into the history of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. Today, you can visit Teresa’s bedroom and enter the reliquary where one of her fingers is kept. Or, if you like, you can walk the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James), an ancient pilgrimage trail that starts in France and meanders 500 miles through the Spanish countryside. Along the way, churches provide hospitality for pilgrims who make the journey. In ancient times, the faithful made this pilgrimage as a sign of devotion or for spiritual cleansing.
Neither Austria nor Spain lacks for churches. They are in abundance in every city and village, large or small, and virtually on every street corner. One Spanish village, with but twenty full-time residents, held the ruins of an ancient monastery from the 9th century and a working church that still offers the mass four times per year.
While the primary form of Christianity across much of Europe is Roman Catholicism, other forms are present—the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and Pentecostals. But these groups are insignificant compared to Catholicism. Austria, for instance, is still 60% Roman Catholic, though down from 89% fifty-five years ago. During the same period, its Protestant population fell from just over 6% to 3.5% in recent years. Spain may be considered 90% Roman Catholic, but less than half ever go to the Church for anything other than a wedding or a funeral. The Roman Catholicism that remains in countries like Austria and Spain is more cultural than religious. Few attend mass with any regularity.
I happened to enter a large church in Vienna on All Saints Day (November 1), a day set aside to remember all who have died and have already reached heaven. There might have been 80 people, mostly old, except for the young junior-high-aged girl who assisted the priest. The church, which is large enough to seat hundreds, had most of the main floor sectioned off as a museum. Additionally, there was a large scaffold on the front exterior with a huge billboard which, I am told, was left in place more than a decade ago for the revenue it generates. Other churches have no services and serve only as museums or concert halls, their majestic organs used to play Mozart or Beethoven. For the payment of an admittance, tourists can learn the history of the churches, visit their catacombs, and climb their towers. All of these fees generate needed income to keep the doors of the churches open. If you simply wish to gaze at artwork and architecture that adorns these building, these churches are open to you.
What is missing from these churches is any real sense of the gospel. If you were to attend a mass and listen to the “preaching,” you would hear many things about life, but these homilies would explain little of the salvific work of Jesus Christ. In a typical Catholic church, the altar, upon which the mass is offered, is the central feature in the church, while the pulpit is relegated to the side. It is the mass that dominates the service, not the exposition of the Word. The priest may say things that tangentially touch on biblical themes, but these are often in the form of self-help sermonettes.
Today Roman Catholicism is dying in Europe. Austria has to import priests from Poland and elsewhere because few Austrians are interested in the clerical life. The age of priests is rising as fewer young men pursue ordination. The same could be said of the convents. Secularism is the new religion of Austria. The story is repeated in Spain. Younger Austrians or Spaniards show little interest in spiritual things. To most, the church is either meaningless, or worse, a memory of tyranny. Children who were sent to religious schools and were educated by the sisters or fathers have many bad memories of unjust treatment. Few want anything to do with the church—any church.
An evangelical witness does exist in these countries, but it is small and struggling. To identify with an evangelical church, in the minds of many, is to identify with a cult. It is bad for your reputation, for your family connections, and may have negative implications at work or in the neighborhood where you live. Housing is often denied to evangelical believers if their evangelistic purposes become known to prospective landlords. The need for gospel workers in countries like Austria and Spain has never been greater, but the challenge of gospel ministry in these countries is significant. One does not simply go and pass out tracts. Church planting is a decades-long affair. Would-be evangelists must realize that the work is hard, the rewards are few, and the challenges great. However, without gospel workers, generations of Austrians and Spaniards will never hear the gospel of Christ which alone can bring life eternal.
This essay is by Jeff Straub, Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
O My Soul, What Means this Sadness?
John Fawcett (1740–1817)
O my soul, what means this sadness?
Wherefore art thou thus cast down?
Let thy griefs be turned to gladness,
Bid thy restless fears be gone;
Look to Jesus,
Look to Jesus,
And rejoice in His dear Name.
What though Satan’s strong temptations
Vex and grieve thee day by day?
And thy sinful inclinations
Often fill thee with dismay?
Thou shalt conquer,
Thou shalt conquer,
Through the Lamb’s redeeming blood.
Though ten thousand ills beset thee,
From without and from within,
Jesus saith He’ll ne’er forget thee,
But will save from hell and sin:
He is faithful,
He is faithful,
To perform His gracious Word.
Though distresses now attend thee,
And Thou tread’st the thorny road,
His right hand shall still defend thee;
Soon He’ll bring thee home to God!
Therefore praise Him,
Therefore praise Him,
Praise thy great Redeemer’s Name.