Cultural renewal and the Lutheran Reformation

As the only Lutheran pastor in Kemmerer, I can hardly let the 500th anniversary of the Reformation pass without comment. After all, anything that lasts a half-millennium has earned some careful thought. So, I ask your indulgence (pun intended) to do so.

On October 31, 1517, Dr. Martin Luther nailed 95 “theses” to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. This door served as the town bulletin board, and the “theses” were tightly reasoned sentences which Luther wanted to defend in a formal academic debate.

The debate was prompted by an audacious fundraising scheme worked out between Pope Leo X, and Albert, his newly appointed Archbishop of Mainz, Germany. The pope authorized Albert to sell plenary papal indulgences. This meant that “full remission of all temporal punishment due to sin,” could be obtained for money.

As a pastor, professor, and loyal son of the Church, Luther was aghast. His theses were more than an academic exercise. They struck a nerve which set all of Europe abuzz. When someone translated them into German and published them far and wide, the Reformation took on a life of its own.

Even Luther couldn’t have guessed that, 500 years later, the entire world would be remembering the occasion.

However, not all remember it fondly. Some lament it as the day when a hot-headed young professor smashed a once-united Christendom into a million splinters, sects, and denominations. Even though Luther himself fought tirelessly against this needless fragmentation, he is faulted for unleashing a movement which he could not control.

This viewpoint is not unreasonable when others celebrate Luther’s reforms as the opening salvo in a centuries-long rebellion against, not only papal authority, but secular authority as well. They think Luther represents the first stirrings of our modern spirit, that thumbs its nose at all authority, opinion, tradition — even decency — whatever would hinder any individual’s self-will.

This spirit of rebellion led to the bloody French Revolution of 1789, then to its even bloodier daughter, the Bolshevik Revolution, on the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. These revolutions, in turn, spawned communism in countries throughout the world making the 20th century into the most murderous century in human history.

In our culture, the spirit of rebellion against authority has come full-circle. A large minority, disproportionately represented in academia, government, press, and the entertainment industry, is in open rebellion against the authority of the God Himself.

Is this the inevitable legacy of Luther’s Reformation? I think not.

Luther’s own attitude was not a rebellion against authority, but the profoundest submission to it. His famous words at Worms in 1521, summarize the entire spirit of the Lutheran Reformation: “I am bound by the Scriptures, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

Luther did not consider his own conscience to be the final authority. He considered the Scriptures to be that. He was not seeking freedom to follow his own will, he was admitting his complete submission to God’s will. As I was considering how to write about the Reformation here, my initial plan was to keep the focus on the secular legacy of the Reformation. I could talk about how Luther translated the Bible into German, thus allowing common peasants to participate in the most important conversations of the day.

I could talk about how Luther’s emphasis on giving the common citizen access to the Scriptures led inevitably to the literacy education for every man, woman, and child – not just for the elite. If you value our schools, thank Luther.

I could talk about how Luther’s Reformation placed the family at the center of the economy, replacing the central planning of both the church and state.

But as I considered these things, I realized this would leave out the most blindingly obvious part of the story. The most important conversations of the day were about the nature of God— who is He, and how are we related to Him?

Luther’s assertions about the generous nature of God, and our relation to Him as our gracious Creator, were not just an internal Church debate. It involved secular kings, academics, printers, artists, farmers, ranchers, absolutely everyone. The Reformation affected the entire culture, because it was a conversation about the most important things in life.

The real news of about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is how we have been conditioned to scrub the main point out of the story. It’s as if our whole culture were being pressured to tell the story of the Civil War without mentioning slavery.

In a day when questions of God and theology are being systematically excluded from the public square, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us that these questions still are the beating heart of all life and culture. We ignore them to our own peril.

Luther did not seek to reform the culture. He sought to reclaim a Biblical view of God. Benefits to the culture came in the bargain. As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Aim at Heaven and you get Earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at Earth and you will get neither.” Jesus said the same: “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

And what kind of benefits come to a culture that is focused on God? Those who would marginalize religion blame Christianity for repressing self-expression and absolute freedom to do whatever I please. Is this true? Hardly.

If you would like this kind of culture to return, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation reminds us of how it came to be. It was built by a people who largely understood God as our gracious Creator.

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