Luther and Reformation Day

Today is All Saints’ Eve, Halloween and, most importantly, Reformation Day. Several newspapers, including the L. A. Times, have noted the significance of this date in Western history. (The year 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary.) I think the celebration of the Reformation is making a slight comeback in many of our churches over the past few years. There seems to have been a 25 year movement away from identification with our heritage in many evangelical Protestant circles.

The Rev. Nathan P. Feldmuth, professor of medieval and Reformation history at Fuller Theological Seminary, noted in the L. A. Times article that "The Reformation is about the centrality of Christ in the life of the individual and centrality of the word of God in worship. At the heart of the Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith—meaning people are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, not by good deeds."

Most people know that there were serious doctrinal debates in the Reformation era that have shaped Church history and practice ever since. People also know about corrupt practices in the Church and of Luther’s attack on both these ideas and practices. Few realize that Luther was not trying to divide the Church or begin a new Church in any sense of the word. When the famous 95 Theses were published on October 31, 1517, Luther had no idea what would soon follow. The new printing presses were quickly used to distribute these statements to multitudes of people in Germany and beyond within two weeks. Luther was, eventually, excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and the rest  is history.

What many Catholics think about the Reformation today is at wide variance with the historic vitriol of centuries past, when blood was shed by fierce enemies on both sides. In the late 1990s, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, then the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, warmly acknowledged Martin Luther’s contribution to Christianity in general. He said that Luther spoke up "during a difficult time" when the Church was using indulgences to finance church building. Cardinal Cassidy added at that time: "At that historical moment, someone was needed to stress that it wasn’t by what we do that we are saved. Luther brought these things up in such a striking way that he made it clear we were in trouble." Read that again, whether your are Catholic or Protestant. 

Luther, rightly so, has his critics. His anti-Semitism is not defensible. He was also intolerant in some areas of practice and became short-tempered in his older life. He suffered from various illnesses, which does not exonerate him but it does help to understand him. His own wife was heard to say, "Dear husband, you are too rude."

But there can be no real doubt that Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, which he believed to be his most important work, and his political impact upon Germany, and then all of Europe, was immense. He was a major figure in Western history and thus all historians agree on this point, regardless of their views of Luther as a man.

Feldmuth, in the aforementioned  L. A. Times article, rightly concluded: "There were many Catholics before Luther who cried out for reform. But Luther was such a prophetic individual. Not only was he a great scholar, but he was politically savvy. He was courageous beyond most people’s expectations. He was the right man for the moment."

No doubt he was. I thank God for Martin Luther while I continue to disagree with him on a number of fronts. I wish more people could appreciate him in the way Cardinal Cassidy does. This would go a long way toward healing the hatred, and general misunderstanding, that still plagues our respective communions.

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