Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reformation Day

October 31 marks the day when in 1517 Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The actual event, I am told, was not as dramatic as we often make it sound. It was not uncommon in those days to post items for debate on the door of the church. It had come to serve as a kind of community bulletin board, I suppose. Martin Luther, priest, monk and academic, was simply making public some things that he thought needed to be discussed.

Of course, things did become dramatic enough in a short time. Luther began writing and publishing controversial topics which challenged church teaching on the selling of indulgences, justification by faith, and papal authority. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520. It was at the Diet of Worms in 1521 that Luther was formally given opportunity to recant his writings. He is quoted as saying, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.” And thus Martin Luther set in motion seismic waves that would forever alter the landscape of Western Civilization.

He was a complex man whose thoughts and actions yielded a mixed bag. His magnificent hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” is sung in virtually every Christian Church today, including the Roman Catholic Church. It is said that his translation of the Bible into German was influential in standardizing the German language. He is also known for his fierce anti-Semitism and his advocating nobles in Germany to put down rebel peasants like mad dogs after having initially supported the peasants in their grievances. He even told Philip of Hesse that he could take a second wife if he kept it secret, and then advised him to lie about it when it became public. Not always given to elegant discourse, Luther is said to have declared that “If I break wind in Wittenberg and they smell it in Rome.” His “Here I stand” quote is the one we like to remember.

Wherever one stands on the theological spectrum, Martin Luther must be taken into account. I am one who has stood on both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide. On Monday, All Saints’ Day, I will share a brief essay I wrote while making my way to the Catholic Church.

(This is admittedly a quite cursory look at Martin Luther. Anyone interested in further reading would do well to consult Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, by Roland Bainton, or Martin Luther, by Martin Marty)

For Church History buffs, here is a 95 Theses Rap:

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