500 Years Reformation (1517-2017)

 Moore Thoughts….Robert G. Moore, Senior Pastor

In five years Lutherans will mark the 500th Anniversary of the German Reformation. As we ramp up to the year and the day of this observance, Lutherans will be both challenged and inspired by remembering this event and its effect on the church, Europe, and the world. Most Lutherans will use the anniversary as a time for celebration and not triumphalism, for challenge and not for self-congratulation, for critical thinking and not thoughtless enthusiasm.

This anniversary is tied to October 31, 1517, the Eve of All Saints Day. On that day Martin Luther posted on the university bulletin board “95 Theses” for academic serious discussion among theologians. Those theses were written in ecclesiastical Latin. Martin Luther was a “doctor” of the Roman Catholic Church and, as such, he was responsible for the theological health of the Church. Luther, thus, offered his 95 theses in order to further focus criticism of the institutional Church’s abuse of the baptized by questionable fund-raising practices in the sale of indulgences.

Luther did not arrive on the scene like Superman from another planet. He was clearly a genius born into a middle-class family struggling under normal, i.e., difficult, conditions to live. Hans and Margrethe Luther sent their talented son to grammar school in Eisenach, Latin school in Magdeburg, and to university in Erfurt. Luther did not follow his father’s expectation that he earn his living as a lawyer. He entered the Augustinian monastery for life of work and prayer.

In the monastery Luther was initiated into the Augustinian tradition which was noted for its reform efforts within the Roman communion. The Augustinians were very concerned with the church’s lack of pastoral concern for her own people. They were particularly alarmed at the exploitation of the people’s anxieties in order to get them to give up their money to buy letters of indulgence that promised “early release” from the fires of purgatory, where the baptized were purified before transferring into paradise.

It was in this context that Luther’s supervisor, Johann von Staupitz, sent Luther to the modern University Wittenberg for doctoral studies in Holy Scripture. He later assumed a professorship at the University of Wittenberg. Luther took the Augustinian tradition for reform to new levels as he lectured on the psalms and the epistles to the Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. It was during these years 1510 – 1520 that Luther discovered the biblical meaning of God’s righteousness and formulated his understanding of justification by grace through faith through Christ.

Each step in his development caused Luther to stand out as a exceptional interpreter of scripture and critic of the Church. He was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Because of his refusal to back down from his theological convictions, he was called before the Holy Roman Emperor holding court in Worms and given “safe conduct.” Before Charles V he refused to recant, explaining

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Luther was then rushed into hiding by the prince elector, Friedrich, who confined Luther at the Wartburg outside of Eisenach. While in exile Luther used the time to translate the New Testament from the Greek edition from Erasmus. Luther had created a book that was to be used by the German peoples of all dialects. Out of this common reader emerged the modern High German.

The legacy of Luther is one of erudition, piety, conscience, courage, music, art, and inspiration. But Luther also leaves us with a troubled conscience because of his writings concerning the Jews. The Nazis relished these writings which had been tucked away on the shelves by his colleagues and students. Since the Holocaust most Lutherans have learned to distance themselves from his anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish writings. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has issued a statement in which “we reject this violent invective, and yet more do we express our deep and abiding sorrow over its tragic effects on subsequent generations.” *

We Lutherans have a lot of work to do in the next five years if we are going to appropriate the lessons from the Reformation, not only from 1517 but from 500 years of Church History. I hope that we can contribute to that effort at Christ the King Church.