After walking on the ground of the Holy Land – the Biblical stage and that of Jesus, I now have come to the stage of the Reformation. It is indeed a powerful thing to actually be and have a picture of the places we read about in both the Bible and Reformation history. The many insights and experiences are very hard to get into print, but I want you first to know how greatful I am for this time away. Being physically away from home I think has made it easier to actually “let go” but I’m still in that process. I continue to hold SLC in my prayers daily. Moreover, I want to express my utmost thanks to Pastor Paula for going to full time this summer and of course Pastor Jonathan and the rest of the staff for doing whatever else is needed extra while I’m gone. Thanks be to God!
As I’ve been hanging out in Wittenberg, Luther’s home base, I’ve been asking myself the question, “What is the Reformation really all about?” My Dean in seminary at PLTS, the late Dr. Timothy Lull, defined the Lutheran Reformation as a “movement within the church for the Gospel.” Another professor, the late Dr. Robert Goeser, often boiled the Lutheran Reformation down to a “recovery of the Word.” I love these definitions. I believe they reflect Luther’s own view of what he was about.
However, it is abundantly clear that the Reformation is many things to many people. To most Germans today, Luther and the other Reformers like Philipp Melanchthon are national heroes who made amazing contributions to society by bringing freedom, uniting the many different German dialects into one, and inspiring the need for education. This quote from the Lutherhaus Museum in Eisenach by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stood out to me: “Thus, the Germans were made one people by Luther” or this quote from the atheist Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Bible was the best German book until now. Held up to Luther’s Bible, nearly everything else is merely ‘literature’.” Did you know that at the time of Luther the literacy rate in Germany was 10-15% and in 75 years it went to 80%?
There is no way to sum up 500 years of Reformation and German history in a short article but eventually, with the core religious convictions of Luther pushed aside, Luther was seen as a champion of social liberation. Much to my surprise, when Communism came to East Germany, Luther was heralded as the instrument of the first revolution and Marx as the next. In fact, in a small little room not in the main museum, I found a post WWII picture of a Russian tank pointing to the west right next to the Castle Church, with thousands of Russian troops assembled. Of course, Hitler exploited Luther too for his purposes. Such use of Luther is clearly a heinous perversion. Yet, it is true that Luther’s legacy has had a dramatic effect on societies. Luther did unite the German dialects, begin the concept of religious freedom, and start a movement for education that lives on today. All of this and more has had a profound effect on America too. In one sense, the diversity of views of the Reformation is appropriate as the Reformation is truly a multi-faceted and complex event.
Nevertheless, I think it is important to try and get at the core of what, at least in Luther’s mind, the movement was all about. If one gets into the details of Luther’s life as I have tried to do, one sees very quickly that Luther did not see himself as a reformer of social structures even though he brought in the concept of the “community chest” to care for the poor and was critical of both those in power, as well as the peasants, when it came to politics, policies, and institutions. Luther’s primary core concern was profoundly theological. It had to do with one’s relationship to God. This theological aspect has largely been jettisoned by the German people. I think 12-15% of the town of Wittenberg claim Christianity which is a little higher than the rest of Germany. Yet, this temptation to de-theologize Luther is active in the US as well. Even in my own Lutheran tradition, I frequently here “Lutheran” defined as a certain way of working for social justice. Again, the Reformation certainly has profound applications to how we work to make this world a “better” place. No question. Yet, such applications are not at the core of what Luther was about. His concern was one’s relationship to God and the purpose of the Church – his concern was that God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness in Christ were not being proclaimed and administered properly by the church. Indeed, the church was obscuring the truth that the benefits of Christ are free, a gift, not to be sold and not to be earned by our hard work. Luther’s concern was that we, as sinful creatures, are not righteous and we are alienated from God because of this unrighteousness. Human sin, human unrighteousness, is our ultimate problem. Luther’s passion was his rediscovery of what God has done about this problem. What has God done? The good news Luther rediscovered, although plain as day in the scriptures, is that God, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, freely bestows on us His righteousness which we receive in and through faith. (Ephesians 2:8)
Towards the end of his life Luther wrote a preface for the Latin edition of all his writings. In that preface Luther highlights this fundamental core conviction and experience and tells us what he believed the movement was all about. In Luther’s own words: “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” (Martin Luther, Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings – Wittenberg, 1545) I pray that we will always cherish and proclaim the core of what the Lutheran Reformation was, and is, all about because to do so, is to continue to recover the Word and to preach the Gospel. #PBSabbatical