Local News: Mission Mississippi’s next Prayer Breakfast will take place at Jackson Academy’s Performing Arts Center (4908 Ridgewood Road, Jackson) at 6:45 a.m. on Tuesday, November 5. For more information, contact Bill Bunch at 601-366-2380. The purpose of Mission Mississippi’s bi-weekly prayer breakfasts is to foster greater unity in the Body of Christ in the metro-Jackson area across racial and denominational lines. To learn more, go to www.missionmississippi.org.
October 31, All Hallow’s Eve, derives its name because it precedes All Saints’ Day on November 1. All Hallow’s Eve, which in contemporary culture usually goes by the shortened name “Halloween”, was the date of one of the most significant events in church history. It was on this day in 1517 when the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
1. Brief History of the Reformation
What inspired Luther to originally write the 95 Theses was his concern over the church’s practice of selling indulgences. Briefly summed up, “indulgences” referred to having the temporal penalties associated with the sacrament of penance forgiven. Originally intending the theses to simply provide an opportunity to debate the issue of indulgences, Luther inadvertently set off a firestorm of controversy, which ended up challenging the very authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Within four years, Luther found himself excommunicated, banished from the church as a heretic. However, many sympathized with the concerns he expressed in his Theses and subsequent writings, and by 1530 German evangelicals had banded together as strong enough of a force to publish a unified statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession.
The Reformation–the name for the movement Luther helped propel–was also sweeping other European countries around this same time. In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was working to reform the church, and in Great Britain, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, was working to reform the Church of England. John Calvin, the French theologian, helped shape what would become known as Reformed theology, impacting the new evangelical church in Holland and Scotland. The Reformation produced numerous classic statements of Biblical faith that are still used in churches today: The Book of Common Prayer, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the 2nd Helvetic Confession, Luther’s Small Catechism, etc.
Though not all of the reformers agreed with each other on every point, they were united in agreeing that 1. Scripture alone is the God-given infallible guide for the Christian Church and 2. faith alone is the means by which people are saved by Christ’s work on the cross. The Reformers never denied the importance of church tradition, nor of the importance of good works in the Christian life. However, church tradition was subordinate, not equal to, the teachings of Scripture and good works were the result of living faith, not something meritorious that we contribute to our own salvation. The Roman Catholic Church didn’t deny the importance of Scripture, nor of the importance of faith, but in both cases, Rome argued that more was necessary. Scripture was infallible, but so was the Magisterium of the Church. People, through both their works and their faith, merit salvation. These two landmark principles of Scripture alone and faith alone, which stand in contrast to Roman Catholicism, have characterized evangelical Christianity for the past five centuries.
2. Distinguishing between celebrating the Reformation and celebrating the reformers
The Reformers, for all their work in helping get the church in line with what Biblical Christianity called for, were still human beings, meaning they were fallible and prone to err. A classic and very well known example of this is Martin Luther’s bigoted writings against Jewish people. The Lutheran Hour radio program this past week dealt with this very dilemma—how Luther’s writings were actually used in the 1940s by German Nazis to help rationalize extermination of the Jews.
In his infamous book, On the Jews and their Lies, Luther called on German authorities to persecute Jews by forcing them to do manual labor and burning their synagogues. Basically, Luther was calling for their expulsion from Germany. Why? Not, as was the case with the Nazis, because he had a burning dislike for the Jewish ethnicity, but rather because he resented them for not becoming Christians. Luther had, at the beginning of the Reformation, hoped—somewhat naively—that when Jews heard the gospel preached in purity, they would place their faith in Christ en masse. When that didn’t happen, he lashed out at them.
In his later years, which is when his book against the Jews came out, his writings were increasingly bitter. Roland Bainton, author of the classic Luther biography, Here I Stand, said it would really have been better for Luther’s legacy if he had stopped writing after 1529 when his catechism was published (he died in 1546).
At the start of his response to this question about Luther’s anti-Semitism, Rev. Ken Klaus of The Lutheran Hour clarified by saying, “We celebrate the Reformation of the Christian Church more than we do the man, Martin Luther.”
That’s an important distinction to make. Evangelicals do not have to “defend” Luther’s scandalous statements, any more than they have to defend John Calvin’s involvement in Servetus being burned at the stake or they have to defend George Whitfield’s lifelong defense of American slavery. Rather than defend such actions, the best thing to do is simply repudiate them.
This is precisely what the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod did in 1983. The denomination, as Klaus explained, “issued a public statement which said that while we honor Luther for his clear teaching regarding the Gospel, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from his words concerning the Jews… Luther was a brilliant thinker and theologian. Luther was also a sinner. There were times when he shot from the hip–and his aim wasn’t all that good… To be frank, some of those later writings were just plain out wrong and are highly offensive.”
In repudiating the embarrassing statements of some of the reformers, it’s important to keep them in context. Unfortunately, in 16th century European society “religious liberty” as we have in America today was a foreign concept. It was taken for granted by practically all the reformers (and by Roman Catholics as well) that the civil government had an obligation to punish what it considered heresy. When Luther called on the German government to persecute Jews who refused to believe the Christian faith, he was calling on them to do something that practically all Christians at the time would’ve believed was the government’s obligation and responsibility. Luther, who was so far ahead of his time in so many ways, was very much a man of his time in this area.
Evangelical Christians appreciate Luther as a theologian, a man who helped the church come to a better understanding of the gospel of justification by faith alone. Evangelicals aren’t obliged to adhere to everything Luther wrote, though, most especially when the writing in question is obviously out of line with Biblical truth. Klaus concluded by saying, “People are sinners. Their thoughts do not always necessarily agree with those that come from God. We always need to weigh those writings in light of what God says in His Word, the Bible. If the writings agree, wonderful; if they don’t, throw them out and stick with what God says.”
As Protestant Christians reflect on the important events that happened 496 years ago today, let us most of all be thankful to God who promises to always lead his people into all truth. Let us not overly romanticize the Reformation as if it once for all fixed all of Christendom’s problems. The church, so long as it is made up of human beings, will always be in a regular need of reform. May God enable us to always be willing to be reformed and re-shaped according to his will.
“Almighty God, who through the preaching of thy servants, the blessed Reformers, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine forth: Grant, we beseech Thee, that, knowing its saving power, we may faithfully guard and defend it against all enemies, and joyfully proclaim it, to the salvation of souls and the glory of Thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son our Lord. Amen.”
– p. 124, Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church, 1917