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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  1. davedryer October 31, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Heroes are never perfect but they are always heroic. Spurgeon had his cigars and crippling depression; Lloyd-Jones was often stubbornly intollerant; Baxter had some really weird theology at times. But they all at certain points in history were heroic for the cause of Christ. As was Luther.

  2. Eric Young November 5, 2007 at 3:26 am

    You actually want us to ponder what that Roman Catholic priest said. Maybe if it was worth pondering. How watered down can you get. The Reformation was a whole heck of a lot more than someone needed to just bring up maybe even stress that its not what we do that saves us. Boy now was that edifying! John I came to Reformation 1996, the first one you had. I then came again in 1998. I am not sure about your critique of Martin Luther’s personality. His writings yes, but his attitude? That long ago? I can attest to your rudeness however, I spoke to you privately at both conferences. Both times you were not doing anything but just sitting by yourself. However, you treated me with such disdain, as in who is this person to think that he can come and speak to the great John Armstrong. Well, I guess you will just blame on chronic fatigue sydrome. The direction that you have headed theologicaly is no suprise to me. I can remember at Reformation’98 having to defend Calvinism to a so called Calvinist. I can remember vividly sitting in the front row, downstairs in one of the rooms at College Church at Wheaton College and stating to you in front of everybody, that Spurgeon clearly said you cannot preach the gospel unless you preach what is commonly called Calvinism. You danced around and sidestepped that as best you could. I could even then see the falling apart of the theological house you had built on sand. You were not arminian, calvinist, etc… I am not sure what you were. And please don’t cop out by saying some sentimental crap such as “I’m not anything but just a Christian” You know full well in this time that must be qualified. I don’t expect you to post, answer, or give a lot of thought to this letter. Why would you, you had no time for anyone in person. Just remember that Unitarianism in New England slowly began as they abondoned Calvinism.

  3. John H. Armstrong November 5, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for pointing out my “rudeness” to you Kevin. I sincerely apologize and ask you to forgive me. I do not recall these events and had you approached me about my response I would have asked your forgiveness long ago.
    I can assure you my illness is never an excuse for such a response and to suggest I would use it as such is to decide in advance that you know me well enough to know how I would have responded to you.
    Further, you should not be surprised that I post your response since I post every response that is not anonymous, so long as it is germane to the issue written about. The reason I reserve the right to publish responses first is simple—spammers and people promoting garbage were using my site to post stuff that was not related to the posts in the least.
    Thanks for your response. Readers can judge for themselves their response since that is part of the purpose of this exercise.
    By the way it was not me who said Luther was rude but his own wife. Read the quotation in its context.

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