Pastor’s Perspective – October 2017
“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordained lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefor he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”
– Martin Luther, Preamble to 95 Theses
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the Wittenberg Church that set fire to the Western world. The posture of the document was neither strident nor was it aggressive, yet the controversy that it spawned led to the dismantling of the ancient Holy Roman Empire and the rise of the European city state. It fostered a wave of nationalism and opened the doors to the use of the vernacular language in worship and government.
It is said that the Reformation began when Luther posted his invitation on October 31, 1517. Luther’s action was not the protest or act of vandalism that some imagine it today. Nailing the document was not an aggressive action, nor was the tone of the document overly bombastic. If Luther had access to SCOTCH tape or a community cork board, he would have used them, but getting a message to your colleagues in 1517 was a bit trickier than sending a Facebook invitation to an academic lecture series.
Luther’s intent was simple: he sought to begin a conversation about theology. His theological treatise concerned repentance and grace, but theology tends to reveal the deeper motivations and issues behind our petty disagreements. History is clear that Luther was motivated by a dislike for the Papal manipulations of the promises of heavens, as evidenced in the selling of plenary indulgences, but the ramifications of this initial debate stretched beyond the boundaries of a single issue. Luther sought to bring biblical solutions to intellectual and moral debates in an age in which authority was placed not in the scriptures or the law but in the hands of the powerful.
Luther was initially willing to see the misuse of the powers of the Pope as a “misunderstanding” of the scripture. He believed that if he could correct these interpretive errors, he could then reform and correct the Church itself. It was only after years of fruitless debate that Luther came to accept that the intransigence of the Church was not based on an incorrect interpretation, but an incorrect understanding of scripture itself borne of corruption. Luther’s greatest contribution to the world was that he recognized that the word of God was intended to judge the actions of humanity, even the actions of Popes and Kings.
Luther’s innovations became the tip of the spear that would eventually pierce the heart of the dominance of singular men over the good of humanity. Luther’s understanding of sola scriptura argued that the Bible was the sole and primary lens by which the world was to be seen and judged. This was an enormous shift in the previous worldview of the West, which saw all power granted to the sovereign (be it the Emperor or the Pope). If scripture ruled even the Pope and the Emperor, then the power of the Pope was tempered and the power of the Emperor was diminished. This usurpation of power was the reason that Luther’s ideas were so harshly received by Rome, it was also why Luther’s revolution had such wide spread appeal in Europe.
Sola scriptura reframed the power of Europe by affirming the value of the individual in human society and gave momentum to the subsequent rise of democratic values in Reformation states. Reformation values give rise to the previously unheard-of concept that each individual person has rights that were endowed to us by God. That these inalienable rights are granted to us not by the power of the King or the vote of a legislature, but by our Creator as established in the scripture changed the world and allowed for the rise of the United States of America and the principles of our representative republic.
If Luther’s great innovation was the scripture is the moral authority of a free people, then it is also true that the loss of biblical authority will bring with it an eventual loss of freedom itself. Each generation must once again affirm the values of biblical authority if we expect to maintain the freedom from tyranny and decadence that too easily overshadows our lives and our nations. Human beings and human governments will always fight over terms, rights, and powers and we are prone to argue our positions, not based on set principles and laws, but based on the advantages that certain interpretations provide us. It did not take long for Enlightenment philosophers to retreat to the ancient pagan understanding of Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things.” The same became true in America. Bible, which had been the core curriculum of early American education, slowly became anathematized. The book that led the nation to our founding principles and through our principled moments is no longer allowed to be read and taught in state sponsored schools. The loss of that lens has caused us to become spiritually blind.
In my opinion we need to return to the Lutheran assertion of sola scriptura so that we might check our privilege in a way that understands the dangers of human power and authority. The Word of God as revealed in the Bible still stands against the immorality of humanity and reveals the fraudulence of our own goodness. When we allow the scriptures to speak to us, our need of repentance and spiritual transformation is revealed. Scripture lets us know that the inclinations of our own hearts have been corrupted by sin and for that reason alone we cannot save ourselves, but stand in need of a grace that can only come from God in Jesus Christ.
In Luther’s time everyone in the Kingdom was considered a Christian by nature of minimal Church attendance and support of the State based Church. Luther called them to a deeper, personal, and Biblical faith that changed the world for the better. We stand in a similar moment today. Most Americans believe that they are Christians, but few of them attend worship services and even less truly study the word of God. We have a nation that is willing to speak ‘to’ or ‘for’ God, but is unwilling to have the word of God speak to them. This inverted understanding of scripture allows us to claim to be righteous while ignoring the divine definitions contained in scripture.
It is time for a renewal of the Church. The 500th Anniversary of the great movement of God is a great opportunity to renew our heart and strengthen our commitment to God and God’s word. On October 29th we can affirm our fidelity to scripture together. It is time to be renewed by the Word of God. Join us at our 10 am worship service on October 29 at First Baptist Church of Greater Toledo as we honor the work and vision of Martin Luther and celebrate the 500 year Anniversary of the Reformation. It might just change your world.