Home » Uncategorized » Meat, Fat, and Bone (Faith as a Piece of Meat)

Meat, Fat, and Bone (Faith as a Piece of Meat)

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“That in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.”Augsburg Confession

(This a bit of fun with an extended metaphor of mine.  Like any metaphor it isn’t perfect, but I hope it illustrates an important point).

Imagine for a moment that you have a cut of meat.  This cut includes meat, fat, and a large bone (perhaps a t-bone stake for my western American friends).  Now these three elements in the cut can vary greatly in proportion, and these proportions can greatly affect the taste, cooking, and perception of the meat.

So where am I going with this? It is my contention that the idea of “reformation” at its best is trimming the fat.  In the late medieval church, the “fat” part of the cut of meat was obscuring the meat and bone, and many of the leaders of the church were so focused in on the fat part that the meat and bone were being neglected or confused.  Notice however that the cut of meat still exists, and that the gospel is still present, even if the fat has gotten in the way.  Fat can be a good thing.  It can add flavor, complement the meat and bone, and for those who have had “good fat,” one absolutely misses it when it is gone.  This idea of “trimming the fat” is exactly what I think what most Lutherans and a good portion of Anglicans were doing.  Both were attempting to cut away the excess fat, but as a whole were naturally conservative, trying to maintain the classical Christian tradition (especially the councils, creeds, and liturgy).  This attitude is reformation at its best, a calculated and cautious response to the abuses of the age, and a call to the sources (Scripture, and the classical consensus).   There is nothing new being taught, as reflected in the quote from the Augsburg Confession above (the emphasis on the “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” found in the Anglican tradition is similar).*

This can be contrasted with what one might call more “radical” types of reformation, so much so that some groups even argue for some form of “restoration.”**  Many of these groups are so paranoid about the fat part that they overreact, cutting away not only the good fat, but parts of the meat as well.  In fact, some pride themselves in creating theologies that define themselves by their avoidance of fat.  Some are perhaps left with a bone and little else.  Now this may be the correct bone (i.e., the gospel is still present), but it is such a limited and stunted view of the life of the church that they are missing out.  Many of these groups can be seen making statements like “we don’t preach the creeds here, we only preach the bible” (as if somehow one excludes the other), or “we don’t do what the Catholics do,” or “I like Luther, but he didn’t go far enough.”

Please don’t misunderstand, many that I know from this mindset do live exemplary lives, and know the Scriptures in ways that should make any orthodox Christian applaud.  But there is something inherently troubling when entire groups of Christians so divorce themselves from the historical church that the gospel is ONLY the bone, and anyone that disagrees “isn’t reading their bible.”  The blood, sweat, and tears that were shed over centuries to pass down to us a living breathing faith, is ignored because “it isn’t in my Bible” (usually based on a certain set of presuppositions going in).   Many fail to see that 19th century revivalism is NOT the norm for Christians everywhere and for all time, and that reading post-Enlightenment ideals of “democracy” into the church creates a myriad of problems.  When this occurs, those in the Roman and Eastern Orthodox traditions are absolutely correct when they accuse Evangelicals of having “millions of little popes.”

Augsburg Confession

So as we approach both Reformation Day and All Saints Day (and yes, we should keep observing the latter, along with the calendar in general), remember and honor all the great Christians that existed (and are alive today!) before the reformation, and for most of my Protestant friends, that means the Christians that lived between 500 and around 1200 in particular.  Unless of course you believe the church disappeared for 700 years and Christ lied when he said, “…I will build my church and the gates of Hades (Hell) will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

* For an interesting take on some Anglican heroes, the pocket scroll has a good post (and he shares my sentiments I believe at the end).

** This is the view of heretical groups such as the LDS (Mormons), JW’s (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and perhaps some forms of the Seventh Day movements.  To use our analogy, the piece of meat completely disappeared for centuries, and needed to be restored and reconstituted by 19th century Americans.


  1. Scholiast says:

    I like the analogy! Precisely what I think the Reformation was at its best — the trimming of too much fat!

  2. Can’t say that I really care for the analogy; it assumes that reformation is purely reductive as opposed to, well, reformational. What if an institution isn’t just adding more things to the gospel, but is actually changing, perverting, or even denying it? Does the analogy work if the meat is rotten and the bones decaying? Or if the steak has been replaced with steak-flavored tofu?

    Also, when we say that some are ignoring “the blood, sweat, and tears that were shed over centuries to pass down to us a living breathing faith,” we might do well to remember a couple of things.

    First, the “more radical” reformers saw themselves as carrying on the very legacy of those who had been willing to die for the gospel in ages past and would have said that *they* were the ones who were honoring and remembering the martyrs, rather than the Roman Church (the Anabaptists looked a lot more like the Waldensians than the Jesuits did). This is precisely the view with which John Foxe wrote “Actes and Monuments” (Foxe’s book of martyrs).

    Secondly, there was also a lot of blood, sweat, and tears shed by the reformers in their efforts to recover the gospel (especially the “radical” reformers). Minimizing the significance and necessity of the Reformation seems to ignore the thousands who died at the hands of Rome (and the magisterial reformers) precisely because they proclaimed the gospel and refused to let princes and cardinals overrule the word of God.

    Perhaps a better analogy would be a ship that has lost its course. It is no dishonor to the original crew members and the older faithful sailors to correct the course, even if that requires radical changes. If the others refuse to turn the ship then those who still want to reach the original destination may have to lower the life-boats and go alone, but the heroic history of the voyage should shame those who are now misusing the ship, not those who are willing to sacrifice to maintain the course.

    • There is a big difference between recovery/restoration and the idea of reformation/correction. In order for something to be recovered or restored, it must have disappeared or been lost. This is a big problem, because if Christ truly said “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades/Hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18), and if he promised to leave the Holy Spirit (all through John), did he lie? One has to take a sort of stunted view of ecclesiology in order to make a case for this, like arguing the “true church” existed in small bursts of time (such as the Lollards and the Waldensians) or that it wasn’t recorded by history in some sort of conspiracy (like the Landmarkian Baptists). Interestingly, even heterodox and heretical groups (LDS) make these same sort of arguments (and no, I’m not lumping this all together, just pointing out a commonality).

      To use your ship analogy, it seems that the ship itself disappeared, and people floating in rafts needed to reconstruct it since only counterfeit ships were in the water and the gospel was lost, even if the materials (the Scriptures) were still around. The good part of the Reformation would be getting rid of the excess weight and cutting the lines of unrelated things slowing or diverting the ship (with the Roman church saying those lines were essential). The bad part is saying it is all a fraud and jumping out and trying to rebuild the entire ship from the ground up.

      If the more “radical types” truly saw themselves as honoring the legacy of the martyrs and confessors in ages past, why is it they repudiate the councils, creeds, and traditions of those martyrs and confessors? I’m not talking about groups like the Waldensians here, as they are a reaction to late medieval scholasticism and chronologically are pretty late. I’m talking about people like Justin Martyr, Maximos the Confessor, the “army of martyrs” at Nicaea, Athanasius, Cyprian of Carthage etc…If you claim this legacy, but throw out the Christian consensus and their very teachings that exists here, there is a problem. For example, the Lutheran Confessions quote many of these people as an authority (but not the final one of course), and Lutheran scholars/theologians knew them very well (Chemnitz’ book on the Two Natures of Christ owes a great deal to both Chalcedon and John of Damascus). I do not see such reverence for the living and breathing tradition of the church in the radical view (as opposed to traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living).

      • Scholiast says:

        I think both analogies have strengths and weaknesses. It is true that the Reformation, at all places, was not merely a stripping away — whether of altars or of false teachings — but also a change of course. Invocations of saints, relics, purgatory (and the entire system that goes with it), universal papal authority, etc, are to be stripped away. But the Eucharist is not stripped away as much as rethought — the course is changed. Similarly with justification, the course is changed, an inevitable result of cutting away the fat of the penitential/purgatorial system.

        The questions lying with both magisterial and radical reformers are: How much fat? How many degrees off course and in which direction? We all agree that the Scriptures are the ultimate, sole binding authority. But we also disagree on their interpretation on many points. Take the changing of course in the Eucharist: Calvin turns the ship one way, Zwingli another, Luther a third, certain other Lutherans a fourth, the radical reformers a fifth. The ship cannot turn that many directions. And everyone calls their interpretation the most biblical. I side with Luther because his is the simplest but also because his falls in line with centuries of pre-mediaeval — yea, pre-Constantinian — thought.

        And how are we to worship? The Bible gives us little more than, ‘In Spirit and in Truth.’ Yet everyone declares their method the true one, whether it is Reformed-style Presbyterians with acappella Psalms or Lutherans and Anglicans with a renewed and restored liturgy that maintains all the elements visible in Justin in 155 and ‘Hippolytus’ in 200 as well as the heart of the Late Antique liturgies, such as the sixth-century Bobbio Missal. Since the Bible doesn’t actually tell us which vision is the true one, I’ll side with Luther and Cranmer on this one, standing alongside martyrs such as Justin and Hippolytus, the former of whom helped us think carefully about the Person of Jesus.

        As far as the Creeds are concerned, the casting out of summaries of biblical doctrine is just absurd, especially since their roots run back visibly to the second century, and partially even to the letters of Paul. If I am to reject the tradition that produced the Creeds, I am saying that Christ turned his back on the Church from the moment the last apostolic letter was penned and it was left to flounder until the Protestants rediscovered the Truth in the sixteenth century.

        True, the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene ‘Fathers’ did not get everything right. Neither do we. Neither did the Reformers — including Luther. But if we read their writings with care and attention, there are jewels waiting there to be taken by the observant reader.

  3. Reblogged this on Apologia and the Occident and commented:

    For Reformation Sunday, a re-post on what good (and bad) reformation is, using a metaphor (involving food, so what’s not to like?)

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