Today is the 500th anniversary of a very important event in church history. On this day, in 1517 (according to The Legend), a bright and intense young priest posted on the city bulletin board his reasoned objections to a particular money raising program by the church.
In the U.S., while everyone else is getting ready to hand out candy to children this evening, church history and theology geeks are recognizing “Reformation Day.” This year is particularly compelling because it is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his “95 Thesis” to the local church authorities in Wittenberg.
Just a few thoughts on Martin Luther and this Reformation Day.
First, let’s remember that there were many Reformers before Martin Luther came along. In a very blunt fact, Luther was the first who survived. He had the benefit of a certain constellation of political-historical factors (weak Pope, strong German princes) that allowed him to be protected when previous reformers had been killed or imprisoned. Martin Luther was not the first reformer – he’s the first who lived to tell the tale. There were centuries of reforming effort prior to the period of time we now think of as The Reformation.
Second, let’s remember that it was not his intent to split from the Catholic Church, to defy the Roman See, or to create a division within Christianity. He wanted the church to return to its senses and recognize the specific danger – both practically and theologically – of selling Indulgences. The posting of the “95 Theses” was actually an invitation to debate the issue with a list of 95 arguments that he was going to start with. His intent seems to merely have been local – within the scope of the local archbishop.
Third, as brilliant and energetic as Martin Luther was, he was not a precise theologian (as we think of theology now). Frequently, his theological pronouncements would be made in pamphlets, tracts, and only occasionally in finely argued doctrinal arguments. It seems to me that Luther was more of a polemicist than a theologian. I affirm that many of his theological instincts were good, but that they do tend to be notions, ideas, and he left it to others to clarify the reasoning behind them.
Fourth, Luther was Intense! He directly accused the current Pope of being anti-Christ-like in how the church was being administered; he directly instigated the German princes to support the cause of reform within the church; he directly challenged how the sacraments were used to manipulate people in the church – and then, which practices were truly, “sacraments;” he could be defensive and reactionary (the story behind the Peasants’ Revolt) and – as is his negative reputation – he became profoundly anti-Semitic.
Fifth, Luther was wrong. Can’t we all agree on this one? Luther’s anti-Semitism was just plain wrong. It is horrible given today’s sensibilities, and it was alarming even in Luther’s time. Luther was much more tolerant of Jews in his younger days and became hateful as he got older. His antipathy towards the Jews was not merely over theological differences. There is no sugar-coating this. Luther’s anti-Semitism was hate speech – even at the time.
Sixth, Luther was brilliant. Even though we don’t have a lot of his finely detailed theological discourse, we do see extraordinary insights and theological passion. In a more secular vein, his translation of the New Testament into German pretty much defined the modern German language. Shakespeare heavily influenced modern English, Luther created the German from the various versions of the language. He was a gifted thinker and an energetic activist.
Conclusion: While we can honor Martin Luther and his many achievements, it does not seem appropriate to “celebrate” him. He was a brilliant, yet broken, human being.