By Heather Smith
Heather is a pastor's wife in rural Illinois, prior to which she was a teacher in a classical Lutheran school in Wyoming and spent time in the Washington, D.C. area working on a master's degree in English. She has an abiding love for reading, baking, deep intellectual conversations, and persistent Lutheran matchmakers.
Decades of planning, thousands of special resources, and over a million Playmobil Luthers later, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation has finally arrived. It is huge. It is important. Christians everywhere are energized to commemorate this event that is still so significant for us today. So significant, in fact, that we might well ask that quintessential Lutheran question, “What does this mean?”
And suddenly we are deafened by a hundred competing and contradictory answers. Like Charlie Brown in the classic Christmas special, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the commercialization and to be frustrated by trying to understand what the whole celebration is really about.
Nor is the proliferation of rival viewpoints entirely unintentional. In fact, the re-interpretation of history is quite a deliberate pursuit for many in our time. In a document published by a joint commission of Roman Catholics and ELCA Lutherans in commemoration of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, the authors state, “What happened in the past cannot be changed, but what is remembered of the past and how it is remembered can, with the passage of time, indeed change. . . . In view of 2017, the point is not to tell a different history, but to tell that history differently.”
However, historical retelling almost never leads us deeper into truth. In searching for the true meaning of the Reformation, we can begin by weeding out the obvious misreadings of it.
It’s Not About Founding American Democracy
Luther’s actions have been credited as the impetus for nearly every modern political idea from freedom of religion to the rise of American democracy. While it might be true that there would have been no Puritans to leave England and start colonies in the New World if there had not been an initial breaking apart from the Roman Catholic Church, it is hardly a direct line from Luther nailing the Ninety-five Theses to Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. Under the circumstances, it is a stretch to claim historical causation. Even more outlandish is claiming that it was Luther as proponent of anti-authoritarianism who should receive the credit for the crumbling of the (already waning) medieval feudal system.
Rather, history shows us a Luther who urges the princes to use their authority and who rebukes the peasants who rebel against them. Lutheran writings of the sixteenth century unanimously assume that those in governmental positions should rule well and those under the government’s rule should honor, respect, and obey their rulers. While the Reformation did coincide with shifting political situations in Europe, it certainly did not cause them.
It’s Not About Defying Authorities We Don’t Like
Social justice advocates like to paint Luther as a lone figure, standing athwart the oppressive powers that be with conscientious defiance. Cue the hammer blows in the background as a deep baritone booms out, “Here I stand!” The problem with this interpretation of Reformation events is that Luther did not plan to start a movement or make either-or demands. He wanted to correct the erring course of his beloved Church, and the resistance he received forced him unwillingly into standing against the authorities.
Nor can we settle for a vague, mystical version of the historical events, in which the take-home lesson is that we should all act in the “spirit” of the Reformation, feeling within ourselves the call to speak out against wrongs. This idea of Luther lumps him with every other slightly virtuous person in history as a fuzzy example of doing good stuff, which mostly means defying authority some more. Believe me, Luther would have some choice words to say about that portrait of himself.
It’s Not About Supplying Legitimacy to Your Pet Theology
The Reformation was about a return to Scripture as the only authority for the Christian . . . says the Fundamentalist who on that basis rejects any form of creed or confession and tries to explain how the Biblical statement that “Baptism now saves you” does not really mean that Baptism saves you, or that “This is my body. This is my blood,” does not really mean that this is Christ’s body or blood.
Or the Reformation was about recovering worship as a congregational, participatory activity . . . says the megachurch pastor who tries to energize a congregation of 10,000 people he cannot possibly know by name with a praise band which plays so loudly that the people have a hard time doing more than attempting to wave their arms like floating strands of seaweed amidst the musical waves.
Or the Reformation was about rediscovering the wonder of God’s boundless grace . . . says the liberal mainline Protestant who therefore claims that homosexual love is blessed by God and everything the Bible says about women’s submission to men is an obsolescence we are vaguely ashamed of, while we talk about forgiving ourselves so that we can release our bad feelings and radiate niceness to everyone around us. (Except those bigots who claim God hates sin. They need to be publically taken down.)
It is true that Scriptural authority, congregational worship, and God’s free grace strike nearer at what the Reformation is about, but none of them are its true heart. Focusing on one aspect of such a historical event—even a very good, true aspect—cannot reveal to us what it all means and may even lead us into condoning our own errors.
That’s What the Reformation Is All About, Charlie Brown
We should not be surprised at the myriad explanations of Luther and his actions 500 years ago. The Reformation, like any other historical event, is subject to almost limitless interpretations and misinterpretations. Such is the nature of history, which interpreters always see from their own particular, chronological perspective. But if history is open to so many readings, how are we ever to know what it means?
To understand the meaning of any historical event, we must be able to look at it in relation to something outside of history. That is, we must be able to look at it theologically. Not in a cherry-picking, proof-texting manner that forces history to endorse our particular theological hobbyhorse, but in the sense of seeing how God is working through history. And God is always working through history for our redemption (as Luther rediscovered).
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:16-17)
The Reformation is about God yet again reaching into history to rain his grace through Christ upon sinners who thought they could (at least a little bit, at least in part) save themselves and found they could not. Or, as the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s slogan for the celebration aptly puts it, “It’s still all about Jesus.”
It’s all about Jesus, because wrapped up in Him is the whole of Scripture, the fullness of God’s grace, the object of true faith, the Law fulfilled and the Gospel brought to us with new life and forgiveness. Yet Jesus is no emotive, all-purpose, vague, feel-good God. He demands nothing more and nothing less than our complete faith, and to give Him that, we find that all our pet projects and qualifications must be sacrificed.
With Him, we learn daily—not once in our lives, not once a week on Sunday, not every 500 years—daily to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23). We learn how right Luther was when he began his Ninety-five Theses by saying, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The entire life of believers!
So on this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we do have something to celebrate. We have more than 182,500 days of repentance and turning to Christ behind us, and no end to His grace before us. Celebrate today by repenting and clinging to Christ. Then tomorrow, when all the hoopla is over, wake up and repent again, and take up your cross and follow Christ. That’s what the Reformation is all about.