An unavoidable ‘Reformation 500’ post

Image courtesy of Mae

Happy 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses!

It’s been a bumpy 500 years, hasn’t it? I mean, all Brother Martin, Augustinian canon and university theology professor, wanted to do was exercise his academic freedom and hold a debate about the sale of indulgences.

And now, with the western church fragmented beyond all human hope of repair, all sorts of people claim him and his own reform movement of the 1500s as their own, including around 9000 different Protestant denominations. (If you enjoy revelling in the 33,000 number, read this article by a Roman Catholic that refutes it.) To some extent, there is a truth in this. Luther’s actions, and the hierarchy’s response to them, led to much bolder actions on his part and the part of others, snowballing over the years of his own lifetime into different calls for different levels and kinds of reform, from canon law to theology to moral action to church order to liturgy to all sorts of things. In a way, regardless of how much we Protestants (and, yes, Anglicans are a variety of Protestant; please don’t argue with me about that in the comments because it makes me tired) agree or disagree with the vast corpus of Luther’s writings, we are all — somehow — descended from his original movement of protest and call for reform.

I would like to state that I agree with the 95 Theses. Even if one were to subscribe to the doctrine of Purgatory (which I don’t; see Article of Religion 22), Luther gives some pretty cogent reasons for why they are conceptually flawed and theologically false to Scripture and tradition.

I also think, from what I’ve read, that I agree with him about justification. But, of course, what Luther taught may not be what your local Pentecostal pastor teaches. So watch out for that. Not to say that the Pentecostal is wrong, but rather that saying, ‘I believe in justification by faith,’ doesn’t suddenly mean you actually agree with everyone else who says the same.

For example, sometimes I think I agree with the Council of Trent (of all things):

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God. (Session 6, Chapter 5; pp. 32-33 of trans. J. Waterworth)

That is to say: God justifies us by grace acting in us. Our will cooperates with God’s grace freely, yet it is acknowledged that we are unable to cooperate freely without the grace of God acting in us. The awkward reality of faith as lived out in real life rather than in pious slogans.

Nonetheless, there are various other things that go on in Trent with which I disagree, so I’ll not convert to Rome just yet, thankyouverymuch.

Anyway, from what I recall from my studies back in 2011, around the time of Luther the teaching of the Latin church on this question was not, at large, clear. So when Luther found himself pushing back and resisted in the matter of indulgences, he found himself investigating the whole theological, sacramental, and canonical system of the Latin church concerning how we are saved and how this relates to the Bible.

And so we come to another happy Reformation slogan: Sola scriptura. I, again, take an Anglican line on this, that the Scriptures contain everything that is necessary for salvation. This does not mean that they are not to be understood in light of tradition or that tradition has no place in a healthy Christian life. More on that another time.

It has been said (possibly by Scott Cairns?) that Luther, a true Augustinian not simply by his vows but in his theology, who was steeped not only in Augustine but the other fathers and the greatest of the scholastics (whether he came out liking them or not is a different story) was in a very different position to say sola scriptura than the uneducated man on the street who reads the Bible for himself with no context.

That is, Luther claims in Table Talk to simply expound the plain sense of Scripture. But many of his meanings and understandings are those of Augustine. One’s past is almost inescapable. Either that, or the Holy Spirit inspired Luther and Augustine to say the same things.

So we see these things — justification by faith, a high view of Scripture, combating abuse and corruption in the church — and we say, ‘Huzzah! We are Protestants like Brother Martin!’

If you are Presbyterian or Baptist or Pentecostal or a certain variety of Anglican or Salvation Army, go and read Brother Martin’s treatise On the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I like it. It has challenged my commitment to some of the Articles of Religion, I admit, but I still like it.

The upshot of this rambling post: Martin Luther did some Big Things, and his 95 Theses were the start of those Things. But as a figure, he is a man. Simul justus et peccator — at once justified and a sinner. You will like some of the things he says (even a modern Roman Catholic would!). You will probably dislike others (I know I do). But he is an unavoidable, unstoppable force who, I believe, did much good by the grace of God and despite his failings.

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Reformation Day — It’s about Luther

Image courtesy of Mae

A few moments ago, I wished a friend a Happy Reformation Day. He said he wasn’t sure whether he should celebrate it or not. I said that everybody can celebrate Luther. He agreed, saying that he’d been thinking about such persons as Calvin and Knox. And while Calvin and Knox are certainly part of the Reformation tradition, Reformation Day commemorates a very specific event, which hindsight counts as the start of the Protestant Reformation: Nailing the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door.

This means Reformation Day is not about Calvin and the Reformed or Zwingli or Arminius, but about Brother Martin. It also means we can celebrate this day, contrary to this which I saw on Facebook (by a priest, presumably Orthodox):

Do people really celebrate an event which caused many to reject Apostolic Traditions and led to the splitting of the Church into over 36,000 separate groups?

Today we celebrated Reformation Day at lunch. A Lutheran friend of mine organised the event. We drank German beer. We played ‘pin the theses on the door’. We threw gummy worms into a bag, the winner gaining a bottle of Diet Pepsi (ie. Diet of Worms). We ate a Luther Bible cake. We sang ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,’ and we attempted to write out ’95 Things About the Church We’d Like to Change’, including such insights as ‘More beer’ and ‘Better songs’. When I wanted to add something about sermons that help explain the songs and the liturgy, the Presbyterian with the pen wouldn’t allow it, saying, ‘We are Reformed.’ This is, of course, unfair that a list of things to change about church that includes ‘More Cats’ and ‘Bacon rolls upon arrival with donuts for Jews, Muslims, vegetarians, and Hindus’ couldn’t have my suggestion, especially because I think Luther would have liked it.

Some days I dislike the Reformed. They try to steal the Reformation from the rest of us.

Once again, Reformation Day is about Luther, as well, I suppose, as the series of events his challenge to the Bishop of Rome’s authority set in motion. I favour the Magisterial Reformation, so long as we leave room for the Spirit (I am an Anglican who worships with Presbyterians and digs Lutheranism, after all), but the spiral of events led to Mennonites and Hutterites and Baptists and others as well. Luther’s action finally galvanised the Roman church to stand up and reform herself, a good thing, despite all of the other schisms that have resulted in the West from what transpired.

Luther, even when I disagree with his answers, was asking the right questions. And he held many of my prejudices — keep the liturgy, keep the images, even keep monstrances for the weak, but put preaching back into the centre of worship, bring vernacular Bibles to the people, help people realise that none of their own works will bring them to the safe side on Judgement Day and so forth. Transforming people from living lives of fear in the face of an angry God for whom no good work is sufficient to living lives of joyful obedience in faith that the God of justice will have mercy in the end — this is a good thing.

So drink a beer today in honour of Dr. Luther. He did well.

Happy Reformation Day!

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.  This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.  And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith.  Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.  Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.  Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.  Pray God that He may work faith in you.  Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.”

-Martin Luther, from “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther, John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, eds.