Reformation Sunday: A day to celebrate?

October 17th, 2014

If your congregation sings Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in worship on October 26, it won't be alone. Many Protestant churches mark the last Sunday in October as Reformation Sunday. Tradition holds that on October 31, 1517, Luther nailed a copy of 95 theses (propositions for debate) challenging medieval church teaching and papal authority to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Although this fiercely dramatic scene probably never took place, Luther’s document is real, and it really did help spark the Protestant Reformation.

Many Americans today don’t know much about Luther. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found less than half of respondents (46 percent) could identify him and his significance. More Jews (70 percent), atheists and agnostics (68 percent), and Mormons (61 percent) knew about him than did Protestants (47 percent).

This lack of knowledge may stem partly from Protestants’ diminished place in American society. In 2012, also according to Pew Research, Protestants made up 48 percent of the US population, losing their majority status of more than two centuries. Although Congress remains majority Protestant, it is “far less so today than . . . 50 years ago, when nearly three-quarters of the members belonged to Protestant denominations.”

Given Protestantism’s diminished prominence and many Protestants’ unfamiliarity with their tradition, does celebrating Reformation Sunday make sense?

By grace through faith

Luther would likely have had no use for Reformation Sunday as an end in itself. He never intended to break with the Roman Catholic Church. It was Western Europe’s only church in his day (Eastern and Western Christianity divided in 1054), and he served it as a monk, priest, and professor of theology. Indeed, his devout faith and religious zeal were precisely what drove him to conclude, as historian and theologian Dr. Alister McGrath writes, that “the church . . . had misunderstood the gospel, the essence of Christianity.”

From 1513–16, as Luther studied and lectured on the Psalms and the Book of Romans, he experienced great anxiety about his salvation. He later wrote:

I had certainly wanted to understand Paul [in Romans] . . . But what prevented me . . . was . . . that one phrase . . . ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it’ ” (Romans 1:17). “For I hated that phrase . . . which I had been taught to understand as the righteousness by which God is righteous, and punishes unrighteous sinners. Although I lived a blameless life as a monk, I felt that I was a sinner . . . [and] could 2 not believe that I had pleased [God] with my works. Far from loving that righteous God who punished sinners, I actually hated him. . . . I was in desperation to know what Paul meant.

Luther ultimately experienced a breakthrough. No longer did he believe sinful human beings must perform works in order to earn God’s forgiveness. Instead, he became convinced, as McGrath explains, “that God provides everything necessary for justification,” including the gifts of repentance and faith, “so that all the sinner needs to do is receive it. God is active, and humans are passive, in justification. . . . God offers and gives; men and women receive and rejoice.” Luther summarized this insight in his teaching that sinners are justified, or saved, by grace through faith.

The 95 Theses and beyond

Luther’s new understanding of Scripture’s teaching on salvation fueled his criticism of Dominican preacher Johann Tetzel. Tetzel sold “indulgences” to raise funds for the restoration of St. Peter’s Basilica. He claimed to be selling relief from sufferings in purgatory not only for sinners still living but also for those who had died. A “jingle” attributed to Tetzel claimed, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Many of Tetzel’s contemporaries criticized him for misrepresenting church doctrine, but Luther’s critique wielded the greatest influence. His 95 theses about indulgences stressed the supremacy of God’s grace over any credentials granted by the Pope: “Every true Christian, whether living or dead, has a share in all the benefits of Christ and the Church, for God has granted him these, even without letters of indulgence. . . . We should admonish Christians to follow Christ, their Head, through punishment, death, and hell . . . set[ting] their trust on entering heaven through many tribulations rather than some false security and peace.”

The nascent technology of the printing press helped Luther’s theses find a wide audience. Luther followed the theses with sermons and other pamphlets calling for reform. A papal envoy to Germany reported, “Nothing is sold here except the tracts of Luther.”

In 1521, Luther appeared before an official assembly (Diet) of the Holy Roman Empire in Worms, Germany. Faced with the threat of excommunication and given a final chance to recant his theses, Luther declared his conscience captive to God’s Word. He is said to have proclaimed, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.”

This moment, too, may not actually have been as dramatic as portrayed in centuries of books, illustrations, movies — and Reformation Day sermons! Luther’s resolve did, however, unleash dramatic consequences for the church and society. “His iconoclasm, rebelliousness and demand for radical freedom,” writes religion scholar Karen Armstrong, “all demonstrate the pioneering ethos that would make the world anew.”

Reformation ramifications

One of the most obvious results of the Reformation was the emergence of many new Christian churches, each professing to preserve the ancient, true faith. These churches asserted belief in one, holy, 3 catholic (universal) church; however, they denied that this church was identical with the institutional Church of Rome. And after they broke with Rome, Protestants continued breaking with one another.

Luther’s translation of the Bible into German also proved momentous. Firmly believing Scripture to be the only authoritative source of doctrine and practice (a conviction frequently summarized in the slogan sola Scriptura), Luther also believed that individual, ordinary Christians were entitled to read and wrestle with the biblical text for themselves, as he had done. The fact that the Bible has now been translated into over 2,000 different languages is a direct result of the Reformation.

As author Gordon Thomasson points out, however, “Vernacular translations . . . unintentionally opened the Bible to an unlimited range of private interpretations.” The value Protestants placed on an individual’s right of conscience contributed to modern conceptions of individual rights and freedoms, but also challenged long-held senses of communal identity. Luther’s doctrine of “the priesthood of all believers” — the teaching that all baptized Christians are called by God to serve one another and the world as priests — has frequently been misinterpreted as divinely granted license to be “a church unto [one]self,” as Peter Leithart writes. “Renouncing Rome’s one Pope, Protestantism has created thousands.”

Scottish journalist Harry Reid observes that many people regard the Reformation “as an unmitigated disaster which led to division and secularisation. Others regard it as the most positive movement in world history . . . that led to the opening of the minds of ordinary people and set them free from the forces of medieval darkness. . . . The Reformation divided, and it still divides.”

Always being reformed

Should congregations celebrate this chapter of Christian history? Dr. Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity and Law Schools doesn’t think so: “I do not like Reformation Sunday. . . . [It] does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure.” For some Protestants and Catholics, Reformation Sunday represents how far we remain from realizing Jesus’ prayer that we might be one, as he and the Father are one (John 17:22).

If, as Lutheran pastor Clint Schnekloth says, we use today to “congratulate ourselves for being of [Luther’s] line and lineage,” we do a disservice to the reformer’s memory and, more importantly, dishonor God. But we could instead remember and give thanks for the Reformation as––in the words of another Lutheran pastor, Scott Alan Johnson — a time “when the Spirit has led the church kicking and screaming into a new reality.” We could pray that the Spirit will, as Jesus promised, continue guiding us into all truth (John 16:13), including fuller unity with our fellow believers. We could recommit ourselves to living out the classic Protestant motto, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei — “The reformed church, always being reformed according to the Word of God.”

If we mark Reformation Sunday in the humble confession and joyful conviction that God, with amazing grace, is not done reforming the church and the world, then another robust chorus of “A Mighty Fortress” may yet be justified.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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