The Reformation at 500 Years

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Today, October 31, 2017, is the day that we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. 500 years ago today, Martin Luther posted his famous, and to some infamous “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Posting a list of theses on the church door announced an academic debate. Luther was calling for a discussion of the use of indulgences in place of penance, and the abuse of the practice to raise funds for church construction and crusades. As with much of Luther’s writing, his formulation of the theses was not strictly academic in style. He could be sarcastic, stretch the point, point fingers, and go for a laugh at someone like the Pope’s expense. The event quickly got out of hand, and the monk, theologian, professor, priest, and pastor, Martin Luther found himself at the head of uncontrollable events, a reform of the church, a break-up of the unity of Western Christendom, social conflict and wars, and the creation of new forms of Christian piety that we know of now as Protestantism. 500 years ago, out of this seemingly normal academic exercise in a small, relatively unknown university, the Protestant Reformation began.

I have been watching the assessments, some celebratory and some not, for many months. In Germany last summer with an FPU Alumni Tour we stopped in Worms where Luther defied the emperor, Charles V with some other famous words. Asked to recant his errors he said that he could not do so unless persuaded by Scripture and evident reason, an concluded “here I stand, I can do no other.” At Worms is a 19th century monument to Luther and other early modern church leaders which emphasized the importance of Luther in the march of freedom, and the progress of European civilization. Luther, however, might remind us that while he spoke of the “freedom of the Christian” he did so to explain the result of the gift of grace, received by faith that freed the believer from the anxiety of having to “do one’s best,” or to perform works, to receive the grace of forgiveness for one’s sins. The believer was free from the religious burdens imposed by human authorities. Grace and faith were divine gifts. Without them the individual was a slave to sin and the anxiety it produced. He didn’t quite have the progressive freedom of the modern and postmodern world in mind.

In the last weeks, I’ve seen Luther celebrated for his commitment to truth, and the commitment of the individual to live in truth. And indeed, he stood up against the powers in the church and empire to dramatic effect. However, it wasn’t just truth he was after. He appealed to the truth of Scripture as he had come to understand it. He returned to the sources, back to the beginnings, “ad fontes” as humanist scholars would emphasize. He would want the truth, but not just any truth. He had struggled to understand the way of salvation as presented in the Bible over many years. He gradually came to the understanding that much in contemporary practice and teaching had deviated from that authoritative truth. And furthermore, he did so as a theologian, a doctor of theology, of Scripture, one with a particular calling and responsibility within the body of the Church to teach. He would oppose other individuals who stood up to teach a different truth. It wasn’t just any truth, and it wasn’t just any individual, he was a particular individual with a certain responsibility to teach the truth of the revelation of received by the church, and for all who would believe.

I have also read commentaries to be used in preaching from Protestant bodies that have emphasized that the meaning of the Reformation was in the ongoing reform of the church that is experienced, ideally, at all times, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (the reformed church always reforming). In one of those brief commentaries, none of the themes of Luther’s teaching was evident, not grace, faith, the authority of scripture in the believer’s life and in the church, not Christ as redeemer, or the freedom of the Christian, or the desire to live in faith knowing ourselves as “simultaneously justified and sinner,” a theology of the cross, not one of glory. Instead came the call to the work of the progressive liberation of the world, and the creation of the Kingdom of God in the world. Reading through its very 20th and 21st century language and formulations, it seemed to me to embody a new form of the work’s righteousness against which Luther rebelled and taught.

And some other church leaders have concluded that, well, today Christians just don’t see the point, are uninterested. The traditional theological themes of grace, faith, the authority of Scripture, and those other doctrines that Luther explored are just not part of how the Christian faith is experienced. Doctrines are not important though living as a body of faith is, seen symbolically in baptism, and witnessed also by the ongoing persecution of Christian around the world. These are no doubt important themes. The world does not recognize the doctrines that have divided denominations of the church since the Reformation, nor do many denominations emphasize those divisions. In many ways this is a healthy sign. We have learned that different church bodies have distinctive gifts to offer the church and the world, and we can live as one body of Christians even with some differences. But is seems also that those martyrs are dying for something, the something they were baptized into.

I just learned from a friend and colleague who is in Wittenberg today, October 31, 2017, that 400,000 are expected to be there to celebrate this historic day. I will be watching the news to see what is reported. There are apparently many who think the work of Luther, and the Reformation, a reform for the whole of the church, are important, including the experiences and theological insights that drove him. In many, many churches last Sunday, Reformation Sunday, the Reformation was celebrated once again, this time with flare and enthusiasm. And the great themes that Luther emphasized, whether in doctrinal statements, or as ways of the Christian life shown in the “solas” the “alones” of the Reformation were voiced and rejoiced in: Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone (sola gratis, sola fides, sola scriptura).

I was reminded on Sunday during the celebration that in the last two generations churches have come together to find mutual affirmations of Luther’s teaching on justification, notably in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues that resulted in mutual affirmations, and in the joint affirmation, The Gift of Salvation, of the group that formed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” These are movements to celebrate. We might lament the tragedy of the division of Christians and the wars around control of church teaching and its wealth in the sixteenth century. But we can also celebrate and remember with deep gratitude the brilliance of the reformers, of Martin Luther, and of the movement that created the modern, western Christian church in all its manifestations.

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