Monday, October 30, 2017

"Here I Stand"

Tomorrow, 31 October 2017, is the 500th anniversary of what is regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. This noteworthy anniversary has been talked about for months and even years already. But please consider with me the following matters.

The Courage of Martin Luther
Roland Bainton (1894-1984) was a prominent British-born American church historian. His book Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther was published in 1950—and sold more than a million copies. It was so well-written and informative that during my years as a seminary student it was one of the few books I bought that was not a textbook. 
According to Bainton, in 1517 on the eve of All Saints' Day, the Catholic holy day celebrated on November 1, “in accord with current practice,” Luther posted “on the door of the Castle Church [in Wittenberg, Germany] a printed placard in the Latin language consisting of ninety-five theses for debate” (p. 79).
That rather unpretentious act triggered such a reaction that it is generally regarded as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Posting those theses (topics) for debate was not an especially courageous act—but standing firm despite his censure by the Roman Catholic Church was.
In June 1520 Pope Leo X issued a papal bull demanding that Luther renounce 41 of his 95 theses. Luther not only refused to do that, he publicly burned that decree of the Pope. As a result, in January 1521 the Pope excommunicated Luther—which was a “big deal” for someone who had been a Catholic priest, as Luther was. 
Three months later, Luther was called to defend his beliefs before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (a city in Germany). It was at that trial where he was famously defiant. In response to the demand that he recant, Luther declared,
My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe, God help me. Amen.
Bainton then notes, “The earliest printed version added the words, ‘Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise’” (p. 185).  
For his courageous refusal to recant his writings, the emperor declared him an outlaw and a heretic.
The Compromise of Luther
Luther was saved from possible martyrdom by the intervention of Frederick the Wise, the German prince who was one of the most powerful men in the Holy Roman Empire. The religious-political union of Luther and Frederick was of great benefit for Luther, but not for the great number of “peasants” in the German principalities.
The writings of Luther and new Bible-derived notions of the basic equality of all people precipitated the tragic Peasant’s Revolt of 1524-1525. Luther was not unsympathetic to the plight of the peasants, but in the end he sanctioned the violent suppression of the peasants who had unwisely sought to gain more equality through violence.
By his union with the political rulers and his approval of the slaughter of the revolting peasants—as many as 100,000 were killed!—Luther compromised his courageous stand in asserting that “the just shall live by faith.” 
There was need for a more thoroughgoing radical reformation—one that would not only change the believers’ relationship to the church but also to the state.
The Reformation after Luther
There can be no doubt about the tremendous importance of the Reformation started by Luther 500 years ago. But also of great importance is the “radical reformation” started eight years later by a small group of Christians in Switzerland. 
I am looking forward to the 500th-anniversary celebration of that reformation in 2025. The courageous “here I stand” position for many of those reformers meant martyrdom.


  1. Thanks for the history lesson, Leroy. In recent years I’ve thought we should relabel the Reformation as the Fragmentation. I think I see where you’re going with this theme, though—to the entanglement of religion with the state. That needs some thorough discussion; also whether religion is inherently authoritarian.

    1. The Roman branch of the Church certainly needed reformation. (Rome asserts that happened at Trent.)
      Anton certainly is correct about the Fragmentation. Rome had certainly been making novel doctrines dogmatic, but the with the Fragmentation, the door flew open. I hear there are now about 10,000 branches of the western Church.

      That said, I have typically found an affinity with the Missouri Synod Lutherans - My Great Great Grandmother's church. I am thankful to own her copy of Luther's translation of the Bible in Deutsch. (My Grandfather used to pray that version of the Our Father before each meal- Unser Vater in dem Himmel... -he had lived with her after the death of his parents.)

      I look forward to watching the video "Luther" again on All Hallows Eve as the neighborhood kids come around for treats.

    2. June and I also plan to watch "Luther" on 10/31. (It is on my list of the "top ten" movies I have seen this century.)

    3. It is sad how humanity (including myself) find points of division to separate us. The original mission of the reformers (esp Erasmus, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli) was to reform the Roman Church rather than split it.

      While the outcome has led to more splits even within the followers of Luther, they all seem to hold to the Small Catechism, and to an evangelistic outreach to the world. I remember my father (Baptist) working with the Lutheran doctors (EKD & LCA) in their hospitals, and they in his. In my professional roles, I was always been welcomed in their churches (ELCA, LCMC, LCMS, LCWS - although not in communion with the latter two).

      One of the congregations I remain in contact with (LCMC) is promoting the wearing of red for Reformation Sunday - the liturgical depiction of grace through faith in Christ. I think this is a common practice for most Lutherans. I like this practice, although I'm sure it would be seen as support of the KC Chiefs at our neighborhood, non-liturgical evangelical church.

    4. I was not familiar with LCMC, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and this is what I found:

      "Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) is an association of Lutheran congregations in the United States. It describes itself as an affiliation of autonomous Lutheran churches and not a denomination. It began in 2001 in response to some liberal views of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

      "LCMC is characterized by the stances it takes on Lutheran polity, biblical authority, and human sexuality. The group describes itself as 'centrist' or 'mainstream,' noting that it stands between the more liberal ELCA and the more conservative Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS).

    5. Concerning the first point in the latter comments by 1sojourner, I think it has to be said that the point of the "reformers" was to restore Christianity to what it originally was rather than to reform the Catholic Church as it existed in the 16th century.

      Except for Erasmus, who was an advocate of serious dialogue and mutual respect, the other reformers were so strong in their denunciation of the RCC that splitting was inevitable. One doesn't seek to reform an institution such as the the RCC by call the head of that institution, the Pope, the "whore of Babylon" as Luther did.

    6. Thank you for the clarification.

      Although blog posting this is about the Luther and his Reformation, I do find myself in more of the reformation mindset of Erasmus. However, I do generally feel at home worshiping with most Lutherans (probably LCWS the least and the old LCA the most).

  2. Here are this morning's pertinent comments by Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your observations about Luther and the beginnings of the Reformation.

    "There is some debate today as to whether or not Luther actually nailed his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, but he certainly did disseminate them. The importance of the recently invented printing press cannot be understated; it was crucial.

    "Luther was a complex and conflicted individual. Although he disliked violence, he condoned it against the peasants in 1525. And one thing upon which the ruling authorities, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans all agreed, was the persecution and suppression of Anabaptists, many thousands of whom were killed. Later in his life, Luther wrote violently anti-Jewish tracts, which have been firmly repudiated by modern Lutheran denominations.

    "Along with the Church of England, Luther represented the conservative wing of the Reformation; he retained much of the Roman Catholic liturgy, among other things. But his ideas about grace, individual conscience, sola scriptura, and public education have held firm for 500 years.

    (On a personal note, I grew up in the Augustana Lutheran Church, the American branch of the Church of Sweden, the most conservative of the Lutheran bodies. In 1962, the Augustana synod merged with three other Lutheran bodies to form the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), which merged in 1988 with the American Lutheran Church (ALC) to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). In the last few years, the ELCA has lost members and congregations over its inclusive stance on the 'gay issue,' a stance with which I agree.)

  3. Thanks, Eric, for your significant comments about Luther and his Reformation ideas. Thanks, also, for the information about the Lutheran Church.

    In addition, of course, is the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS), which was formed (under a longer name) in 1847. In 1969 i​t made a sharp turn to conservatism, which led in 1974 to a crisis at LCMS-affiliated Concordia Seminary in suburban St. Louis. I'm sure you remember, Eric, how that led to the formation of Seminex (seminary in exile) that year.

  4. From Wisconson, Thinking Friend Bob Hanson, who has been a Lutheran pastor (among other things), sent the following comments by email:

    "Happy Reformation, Leroy!

    "Yes, I was at a wonderful Reformation event yesterday afternoon. There were people, all pastors, from six or seven Protestant denomination that participated in this event at our church. We had a gentleman there who was an authority on the Luther from the UCC. But it still was a bit uncomfortable for me.

    "You very wisely mentioned Luther’s moral and justice mistake with the peasants. But we also must remember is racist and hateful understanding of other spiritual paths such as the Muslims in the west and the Jews. I think we all have Jewish colleagues who still cannot swallow or understand the kind of language that he used and that it is connected to our denomination.

    "I think it’s important to celebrate this great movement that happened. Luther literally created a new and more understandable German language in his translation of the Scriptures and his writings. Yet we live in a different time.

    "It is interesting that three or four movements for independence have been crushed by state violence across our world in recent months. Would Luther support that injustice? I’ve often wondered when I attend a Parliament of the World Religions meeting whether Luther would lead a workshop there, but I do not believe he would. I hope I’m wrong.

    "We live in a spiritually diverse universe. The Reformation was the moving of power from the Vatican to the Princes, and we have tried to make it much more than that. As a human being who has found himself a practitioner of two spiritual paths, I am hoping we can move far beyond Martin Luther and his understanding of two kingdoms to an understanding of a ground of all being, power beyond all power, God if you must, that embraces all as ONE."

  5. And then there is this comment from Thinking Friend Graham Hales in Mississippi:

    "We are so often locked into the worldview of our present. We look to the past and wonder how our forefathers could have believed or done such things as slavery, the Inquisition, Jewish pogroms, etc. Yet, I wonder if future generations will ask the same questions of us in regard to such things as climate change, anti-Muslim bans, hatred of gays, etc.

  6. In reflecting on the previous two comments, it seems that we need to realize that the world in which Luther lived was different in so many ways from our present world and worldview that perhaps we ought not to be overly critical of him.

    Still, if we praise him for the many good ideas he had and the good things he did 500 years ago, perhaps we are not amiss to criticize him for his bad ideas and for the things he did that were not so good.

  7. A happy Reformation Day to all. For a Baptist who's tradition is a result of Luther's action 500 years ago today, it's interesting that none of this could have happened the way we know it had it not been for the protection Luther received from Price Frederick. Later in England, the movement thrived because the government (Henry VII) allowed/promoted it. The irony of it is that this movement wouldn't have gotten going had it not been for the powers of the state. All's well that ends well! But hopefully we're not at an end. Let's pray the church is ever reforming.

    1. Correcting my note above. Not sure why I wrote VII when I was talking about Henry VIII!

  8. Two things are surprising to me, coming to the discussion late in the week: one, that more persons have not commented on what was one of the momentous events of western Christianity, and probably of western civilization, and, second, there has been no mention of the several events commemorating the 500th anniversary that have been ecumenical occasions, in which denominations come together to make a contemporary statement for our times.

    Next Wednesday, you and I have both been invited to discuss the book, One Hope: Re-membering the Body of Christ by three Lutheran and three Roman Catholic authors, in a “Vital Conversation” gathering. Next Sunday, I will be attending a joint ecumenical event here in KC sponsored by Lutheran (Atonement) and Roman Catholic (Holy Cross) congregations, titled “from Conflict to Communion.” A few weeks back there was a larger Lutheran-RC celebration at the Catholic Cathedral.

    Most importantly, on Oct 31st there was the joint statement of the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to mark an entire year of common events to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Here’s a couple of paragraphs with some parts bolded by me. The full document is at:

    “On 31st of October 2017, the final day of the year of the common ecumenical Commemoration of the Reformation, we are very thankful for the spiritual and theological gifts received through the Reformation, a commemoration that we have shared together and with our ecumenical partners globally. Likewise, we begged forgiveness for our failures and for the ways in which Christians have wounded the Body of the Lord and offended each other during the five hundred years since the beginning of the Reformation until today.

    “Among the blessings of this year of Commemoration is the fact that for the first time Lutherans and Catholics have seen the Reformation from an ecumenical perspective. This has allowed new insight into the events of the sixteenth century which led to our separation. We recognize that while the past cannot be changed, its influence upon us today can be transformed to become a stimulus for growing communion, and a sign of hope for the world to overcome division and fragmentation. Again, it has become clear that what we have in common is far more than that which still divides us.

    We rejoice that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, solemnly signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999, has also been signed by the World Methodist Council in 2006 and, during this Commemoration Year of the Reformation, by the World Communion of Reformed Churches. On this very day it is being welcomed and received by the Anglican Communion at a solemn ceremony in Westminster Abbey. On this basis our Christian communions can build an ever closer bond of spiritual consensus and common witness in the service of the Gospel.”

    1. Thanks so much, Larry, for the significant comments you posted this afternoon.

      Certainly I did not adequately write about the significance of this 500th anniversary of the Reformation not the many ecumenical meetings that have, happily, been held in commemoration of this most notable anniversary.

      Since there had been so much in the news media about the 500th anniversary observances, I choose to write from a different angle, after noting the key historical events of 1517. But I much appreciate you adding what you did to emphasize other aspects of this momentous time.