Let the revisions begin
Today is the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s declaration of war, or thus it amounted to. Indeed, Luther may have intended the 95 theses to be grist for university debate, but they struck so fundamental a blow to medieval religion that the tide could not be stopped, and the Reformation was set in motion. A reading of the 95 theses reveals that while they have an air of protest about them, they aren’t in any way a full-throated Protestant manifesto. Luther would certainly progress from these early complaints to more overtly biblical stances. In this year of run-up prior to the actual quincentenary, revisionist history is sure to be written. You’ll see a plethora of articles on interpreting and reinterpreting the Reformation. Part of this is driven by an anachronistic look at the contemporary church, and to view things as so much better than in Luther’s day, was the Reformation really necessary? This is not necessarily new, but in a manifestly post-modern intellectual (and spiritual) milieu, Luther has suffered in the house of his friends. From Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther, to proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul who often surmise that, at least on his understanding of the apostle to the Gentiles, the Wittenberg monk was off the mark. In the year ahead, as you read the appraisals and assessments of the influence of the Reformation through the preceding half millennium, I think it is important to keep a few things in mind.
Ecumenism is not the measure of truth
Some of the archetypical Reformation foes – Roman Catholics and Lutherans – have sought to bridge the divide that it created. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is an example of efforts to say that we really do agree on the signal doctrine that Luther insisted upon. Pope Emeritus Benedict said just a few years ago, “It was indeed biblical to say, as did Luther, that it was the faith of a Christian, not his works that saved him.” His successor, Francis, said much the same, referring to Luther’s views on justification by faith alone. “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.” But these statements have to be reconciled with the insistence “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation” Declaring justification by faith alone, while at the same time saying that certain acts must be performed cannot be squared as sola fide. As a never more appropriate cliché says, the devil is in the details. The Vatican is often interested in ecumenism as a means to invite people to “come home.” You see, we really do agree on so very much. Ecumenism wears the mantle of nobility. Being charitable to those who disagree with you on certain points is evidence of an open-minded and magnanimous attitude is it not? But we should not confuse charity with truth.
Looking for common ground with all who name the name of Christ, we may feel the pull to diminish our differences, even if they involve fundamental tenets of faith. That is, those who want to see the Reformation breach healed will be keen to paper over the differences and to proclaim that we are all in agreement now. We can do no better than the apostle Paul on this, who asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” We should not forget the things that incensed and animated Luther: the selling of salvation, and the attitude of a priestly class toward the ordinary believer. Though justification was the central grievance Luther had, there were other things he decried in the church of his day. Ecumenism shouldn’t blind us to the fact that putting the Church in the stead of the Holy Spirit, for example, is still a feature of the Roman Catholic Church.
The priesthood of all believers is vital
One of the things Luther did that had lasting value was to highlight the status of every Christian as equal in God’s sight. Indeed, Western civilization has so adopted and expanded this with respect to human rights that it may seem odd to think otherwise. But in the medieval church it was otherwise. Clergy had a status above that of laymen, and were believed to possess special abilities. Part of the controversy was political and economic. The clergy enriched themselves at the expense of the laity, and there was pent up resentment of this among the faithful. The medieval Church was, after all, an entity with the power of taxation. But it was also theological. By virtue of the sacrament of ordination, only a priest could celebrate mass, baptize, and safely shepherd a soul through life with the likely outcome of a period in purgatory. For Luther, ordination was not a sacrament, but a public declaration of a man’s calling to the work of ministry. It did not raise the man above his fellows in God’s estimation. The ancillary effect of the priesthood of all believers was Luther’s desire to get the Word of God into the hands of the faithful in the vernacular. Luther was following the path of Wycliffe in this, but the effect was profound on the German speaking peoples.
One may look at the Catholic church of today and say that Luther’s reforms have indeed taken hold. Bible reading is permitted, we have a far more realistic view of the clergy, and the Church has long since ceased to have any taxing authority. But if we look closer, the hierarchical church still wields its power. Bible reading is allowed, but not particularly encouraged, and even then the final authority for interpreting the Scriptures rests with the Magisterium. It is still the case that “the minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.” There is lip service to the priesthood of all believers, but in practice, there is very little of it. And this is not only among the more liturgical churches. Sadly, even among evangelical churches, there is too much reliance on pastors who are vocational ministers, and not enough Bible study in the congregation. Evangelicals of all people, should celebrate this New Testament truth by exercising it.
The centrality of the Word of God
Behind all Luther’s reforms stood the Word of God. A study of the Word had taught him justification by faith alone, it taught him that peace with God was the possible, not through the sacraments, let alone purchasing pardon from God, but by reckoning on the sure and certain promises of the New Testament. It is difficult to perceive at the distance of these centuries the accretions that had shaped and formed the understanding of theology of Luther’s day. Scholasticism and Aristotle, the allegorical lens applied to Scripture, and above all, the authority of the Church – these were the things Luther began to sweep away and insist there be scriptural justification for any obligation upon believers. The authorities of the day were not prepared to grant him any of his fundamental points, and thus, he could do no other.
Part of the knock on Luther is that he set in motion a virtual free-for-all in terms of scriptural interpretation. Look at the plethora of denominations under the Protestant banner and see where this principle leads, the criticism goes. But it is a ruse to imagine that some centralized authority or body can pronounce the true and certain meaning of the Bible. This is evident for several reasons. Unanimity is worthless if the interpretation is wrong, and even the hierarchical church has repudiated the legacy of allegorical exegesis. Secondly, as Thomas Bergler notes in The Juvenalization of American Christianity, Roman Catholics feel every bit as empowered as Protestants to pick and choose what they want to believe from Church teaching. The central authority is rather ineffective. But most importantly, the Scriptures promise no continuing authority apart from the Holy Spirit guiding the Church, but not through a hierarchy. The church is a who and not a what; an organism, not an organization. This belief still separates the Reformation parties.
Luther had his inconsistencies, and in some areas did not allow the Bible to fully hold sway over his thinking. But do not mistake his imperfect outworking of principle for a deficiency in that principle. The need to subject our faith and practice to the Bible remains. Historians and commentators who suggest that the Reformation was unnecessary, or a misunderstanding, should recall the state of the medieval church. To whatever degree the institutional church has reformed, we can thank Martin Luther for this. Some things are indeed different today, but the need to continually turn to the Scriptures for guidance and authority, for the warrant of all we believe and hold – this need has not changed. In this sense the Reformation is not over, nor should it ever be.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 319.