Here I Stand

On this day, All Hallows Eve, in 1517, a German monk by the name of Martin Luther posted on the door of the cathedral church in Wittenberg his “95 Theses.” Actually he entitled them “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” or in the Latin in which he wrote them, “Disputatio pro Declaratione Virtutis Indulgentiarum.” This event is considered by most historians as the beginning of what came to be called the Protestant Reformation. As I used to tell my students, look at the words carefully. Protestant-ant literally means one who makes a protest and reformation means a reshaping, a re-forming of something already in existence.

 

the church doors where Luther posted his theses for debate

 

In a brilliant 1960 article in the American Historical Review (vol 66, #1, October, 1960, pp 74-84) the Quaker historian Roland Bainton wrote this about Luther. “Luther happened to emerge amid a set of circumstances peculiarly auspicious. Without such a stage and without concomitants both economic and political the Reformation would never have taken hold. As for the claim that Luther was in no sense original, there is no better reply than that to be found in the recent work of Erich Hassinger, who finds Luther’s contribution to have been his rediscovery of the historical core of Christianity. The claim of the Christian religion is that God did something unique in history. . . .

“Luther asserted unequivocally the historical uniqueness of the work of God in Christ. Its continuance in the present is mediated through Scripture, which is the record of the event. And though it must be interpreted by the Spirit, yet the Spirit can never be dissociated from the outward Word. This position divided Luther from Catholics on the one side and from Protestant sectaries on the other. But if it be granted that Luther was original as to religion, the question still remains whether men were stirred by his religion or merely by his revolt. Some historians, here as elsewhere, offer an economic explanation. This of itself is by no means novel. The charge arose almost at once that the princes supported Luther in order to expropriate the goods of the Church, that the peasants at first rallied to him in the hope that the freedom of the Gospel would mean freedom from serfdom, that the masses espoused the Gospel in order to throw off tithes, fees, and indulgences. . . .

Luther takes a stand, refusing to change his position

“At the Diet of the Empire in I530, the German princes presented the Augsburg Confession, fully aware that the Emperor might in consequence deprive them of their titles, lands, and lives. In the I540’s the Emperor came with Spanish troops to crush Protestantism, but neither princes nor people would yield. Had their concern been only economic, one cannot understand such intrepidity. One may note also that some simple laymen like Hans Sachs did grasp what Luther meant in the very core of his theology. Perhaps one reason why they did and could understand his message was that the way had been in some measure prepared by the German mystics who had stressed not outward good works but inward attitudes of humility and love. . . .

“The economic explanation for the movement’s success in Germany is more plausible if it is compared with the failure in Italy. . . . The preaching in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was highly moralistic, directed against specific sins: usury, prostitution, luxury, extortion, tyranny, feuding, and the wearing of vanities. Lyrical raptures over the wounds of Christ ended in appeals to imitate his sufferings. The inference was that penitence and amendment of life would win God’s pardon. But this was just the point that Luther denied. He could denounce sins with all the vehemence of a Savonarola, but his point was that divine forgiveness is a sheer act of God’s grace and in no way contingent upon anything that man can do. Amendment of life flows from the assurance of pardon. The German mystics had come closer to this than ever did the Italian friars, and the difference in the religious preparation may have had more to do with the outcome than had economics.

Luther’s translation of the Bible into German

“Other interpreters stress political factors, contending that the Reformation could have begun in no other country than Germany because of the political decentralization. The point is that in a great monarchical state an obscure professor would have had little chance to persuade a monarch like Francis, Henry, or Charles to embrace his religious ideas. And if the monarch were not at least neutral, the advocate of new religious ideas would be promptly snuffed out. Saxony was small enough and the relations sufficiently personal that a teacher at the University of Wittenberg, supported by his colleagues, could gain the support of a little prince like Frederick the Wise, who was sufficiently independent to pursue a strategy of obstructionism over against the Emperor.”

Martin Luther

As a student of and a teacher of history, I find Bainton’s analysis insightful, helpful and enlightening. As a Christian I owe a personal debt to Luther. I was born in a family active in the church and grew up with a sense of call. However, like many others in the 1960’s [and in other decades as well], I struggled with my religious faith in my college years. I grew angry at the hypocrisy and sinful failings I saw in the Christian church. It was reading a number of Luther’s essays for a history course which I was taking that showed that a person could be angry with the church and remain a person of faith. Like all of us Luther had his sins, faults, prejudices and short-comings. And like so many important people in history, he was a complex person. History can not readily or easily evaluate him or any other such person. History is not written in black and white but rather in every available color of the artist’s palette, some dark and brooding, some light and celebratory. That why, as I have said before, history is not a science but as the ancient Greeks rightly knew, an art form and requires a muse for its proper telling and re-telling.

The historian Martin E Marty, himself a Lutheran, said of Luther in a 2004 interview, “Somebody once asked me to summarize the Lutheran reformation, and I said it`s the revolt of the junior faculty at Wittenberg. Of all those [reform movements], that was the one that caught. And I think it was a set of circumstances — his own spiritual power, his own rhetorical gift, his own energy and the drama a life in which for a quarter century . . . [he] could be killed — we pay special attention to that kind of figure. And whether Europe would have broken up as much as it did — Western Europe was all Catholic, except Jews in ghettos. And at the end of his time . . . you never again had European unity. I think he did advance, whether he wanted to or not, the cause of human freedom by placing so much on individual conscience– yes, the Bible, but reason and conscience.”

Katharina von Bora who became Luther’s wife and made him an advocate for the education of girls

It was over thirty years after I graduated from college before I actually joined the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America [the ELCA] but from the first Sunday I attended a worship service there I knew I had found a satisfying spiritual home and have spiritually flourished there for more than a decade.

I believe that Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, calls for people to make protest about racism, homophobia, sexism, militarism, poverty and injustice of every sort. In so doing believers can come to a place where they willingly and happily join people of good will from any creed or from no creed. Idealistic? Yes, I am. Liberal? Very much so. Dreamer? Yes, I am one of those as well. “Without vision the people perish,” a wise prophet wrote long ago.

a book of Luther’s essays

“I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.”– Martin Luther

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