In five years, on October 31, 2017, we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. Today is its 495th anniversary. Since that time, the “Wittenberg Door” has become a symbol of protest—we have one in our Steinert Campus Center, at the entrance to the dining room where students post all manner of comments, protests and sometimes screeds. We all need these kinds of outlets.
Luther’s protest was multifaceted. It was both witty and serious, a set of theological theses proposed for debate. The story goes that posting such on the church door was the way a professor at a university announced that he was ready to debate those particular claims. Luther’s claims went beyond mere academic debate, included satirical comments, and were destined to arouse, inspire and inflame. From there to the break-up of the always imperfect unity of both the Church and Christian societies in Europe was inspiring, violent, theologically creative and a tragedy. In the matter of a couple of generations the shape of European Christianity, societies and governments (which were all merged into one) were permanently changed, and some such as Brad Gregory at Notre Dame has recently claimed, the course of history toward our current “secularization” began.
I would like to offer a reminder of a lesser know element of Luther’s thought. Luther believed he was a “Catholic” reformer, a theologian in and for the one Christian Church. He did not plan the split between what became the “Evangelical” and later “Protestant” communions and the ongoing Catholic Church spread across all of the European continent and at the center of the culture. He worried at the end of his life that perhaps it had all been a mistake. Perhaps his pen and mouth had run ahead of good sense. Perhaps the Holy Spirit wasn’t fully in it. He was a follower of Christ, with great insight into faith, grace, the source of our theology and religion in the Holy Scriptures, and our permanent status as “simul justus et peccator,” simultaneously just and sinners, living the whole of our lives in faith and grace, not triumphaly holy. But he was a reformer for the church not against it. The “Catholic Luther” has been a topic of historical recovery in the last generation.
Similarly Calvin and the “Reformed” tradition for which he is the most prominent founding theologian, thought of themselves as “catholic” (note the small c) or part of the universal church, even if they deemed full communion with “Catholic” Christians impossible or inadvisable. In the last fifty years dialog between historians, theologians, and church leaders in all of the Christian communions, including Mennonite and other Anabaptists, have helped all of us to recover our common, “catholic” and “Catholic” heritage.
In practice we witness and live with this heritage each day at FPU. Mennonite Brethren/Mennonite/Anabaptist faculty members are our largest denominational group, but we have Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, Lutheran, charismatic of various denominations, Baptist, and even a few of us Presbyterians on the faculty, among others. Among students our three largest groups are non- or inter-denominational churches, Baptist, and currently our largest, Catholic students. Mennonite Brethren follow shortly behind these.
Yet we find a way to believe Christ together despite different ways of explaining our faith, we all believe in the Scriptures as our common source guidance and authority in faith and life, and we each are participants in worshiping communities. We learn to appreciate each other’s ways of worship and thinking, of serving and praying. As our “Idea” says “the university invites those from other church traditions, both as faculty and students, to enter into dialogue and faithful practice with those in the Anabaptist/Mennonite and believer’s church tradition in following Christ and sharing the university’s mission.”
This Reformation Day, and in five years at the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, let’s remember the Luther who was a reformer for Christ and the Church, small and large “C,” and let’s celebrate faithfulness to our common Lord and calling.