“Courage is contagious. When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.”
Tonight, I will be dressing up as Martin Luther for Halloween, or as I would prefer to call it, Reformation Day. Five Hundred years ago today (Oct. 31, 2017) Martin Luther put the 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg chapel. It was a common practice at that time in history when the printing press was in its infancy. The theses weren't written in the common language of the people, they were written in Latin. His intent was not revolution and rebellion, it was reformation and debate. What followed was certainly not Martin Luther's idea. He wanted unity within the church and unknowingly echoed the teachings of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus a century to a century and half earlier. In fact, Martin Luther would become mortified later when he read the teachings of the famous heretic Jan Hus as Martin found out that their conclusions about Scripture and what it taught were quite similar. As a protestant and as an American I am quite fond of the reformation and the ideas that came about as a result. But, not everything that came about as a result of the reformation fits in the category of butterflies and rainbows. Some of the ideas in the reformation went very wrong.
Faith and Politics
When Martin Luther put his 95 theses on the door he was hoping that other learned men would read them and begin to debate them. That is why they were written in Latin and not German, the language of the people. Luther didn't anticipate the power of the printing press and how wide spread his theses would become. He would later write a more complete explanation of the 95 theses that was meant for publication, but was not as widely read. The story of the reformation is widely available, but the intent of this post is not the story, but the fallout from the story.
Since the time of Constantine's Edict of Milan in 313 C.E. there was really only one religion allowed in the Roman empire and that was Christianity. As the Roman empire expanded so did Christianity. The people of the Roman empire didn't really have a choice. There was no freedom of religion. This was true during Luther's days and he did not intend on changing that, but he did change it nonetheless. The reformation brought about a new perspective. The stronghold of the Catholic church on government began to be challenged. Although Luther's benefactor Fredrick the Wise was Catholic, he protected his famous professor from meeting the same fate as Jan Hus...death by fire. Fredrick fought the institutions as they existed in that day. Later it would become common for different rulers to declare whether their people would be protestant/Lutheran or Catholic. This divergence was new. England would go back and forth between Catholic and Protestant several times depending on who the ruler was, but the idea that there was a choice was new. The Anabaptist came about as a result of the teachings of Huldrych Zwingli although Zwingli himself was not Anabaptist. Zwingli was a contemporary of Luther and led the reformation in Switzerland. A handful of his followers started what is the tradition my own denomination comes from, the anabaptists. They rejected the idea that faith and politics should mix. In fact, to this day there is a statement about religious liberty in the statement of faith for Converge World Wide formerly known as the Baptist General Conference. It is a Swedish Baptist denomination. You might wonder how this could become something bad.
God's call for unity in Scripture is quite clear (1 Cor. 1:10; Eph. 4:11-13; John 17:23; etc.). This created disunity in the church. In fact some of the Anabaptist are accurately described as extremist and violent. Others as passivists and peaceful, but still rebellious. Their refusal to participate in the faith practices of the province or city in which they lived led to revolt and created disunity in the church. Even if you agree with their theology in many areas (as I do) their revolution created disunity in the church and that is not what God desires. Of course everything seems to be a trade-off this side of eternity. Do you sacrifice unity for doctrinal purity? I guess that depends on the doctrine and the extent of the disunity...it's a hard call.
Collectivism for Individualism
This disunity began a cultural shift that would not only lead to disunity, but ultimately it would lay the ground work for the hyper individualism that we find in our culture today. Luther believed that if the church would simply turn to the Scriptures it would come to the same conclusions that he had come to. Luther translated the Scriptures into German so that the common person would have access. He believed that if they would just read the Scriptures everyone would end up in the same place. The Catholic church believed that if you gave the Scriptures and the priesthood to the common person there would be an unending number of splinters from the church. Luther was wrong and the Catholic church was right. Today there are over 30,000 denominations as some measure it. Perhaps this is an overstatement based on a rather strict definition of a denomination. There are many Baptist denominations that have some minor differences, but are still very similar in their theology overall. So many have gone their own way because they have a different understanding of the Scriptures. There is no longer a central authority for protestants to follow. If you look at the history of the popes you might conclude that is a good thing. True, it probably is, but this has bled into the local congregation as well. The common person who picks up a Bible for the first time and reads a passage is often considered to have just as valid of an opinion about the meaning of that text as the person who knows and understands the original language, has access to excellent tools for studying Scripture, and has spent large portions of their life studying that same passage.
I would never suggest that we go back to pre-reformation days...God forbid!! I would, however, caution that many things that came from the ideas of the reformation have potentially dangerous and difficult consequences.
The reformation, like everything else, has a mixed history when it comes to what was good and bad. Some of the anabaptists waged bloody wars as did other groups. Luther, by today's standards, would be considered an antisemite and he would certainly be considered intolerant. Of course that could be said about the Catholic church against whom he fought as well. I am thankful that it led to what we know as the first amendment to the constitution and the ability for each of us to decide who we will worship and how we will do so. I am also thankful that many denominations and church's have begun to work together and strive for unity in the body of Christ in spite of some doctrinal differences in recent years. I am thankful for the reformations that did eventually take place in the Catholic church even if a lot more are needed (at least that is my educated opinion). I am thankful for the ability of each person to study the Scriptures through good translations of the Bible and see the Jesus that Luther saw. As a good protestant, I love the reformation and I love Luther for his role in it, but let's make sure we recognize the pitfalls and potential pitfalls as well.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.