“Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes.” Martin Luther
When a young Priest and Theology Professor at the University of Wittenberg named Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg it changed the course of Western as well as Church history. He also changed mine.
Martin Luther was the first of a series of theologians that helped make me what I am now. When my Church History professor Dr. Doyle Young and Systematic Theology professor Dr. David Kirkpatrick introduced me to Luther’s writings and his “Theology of the Cross it was earth shaking. It was his Theology of the Cross brought me to an incarnational understanding of the Christian faith because it is only through the Cross that we come to know God in a truly Christian sense of understanding. For Luther the Cross was central to understanding the humanity’s relationship to the Trinity, and stands against Calvin whose understanding of God’s will and predestination from before time began tends minimize the Cross, for Calvin it is a mechanism but for Luther it is the most profound and personal revelation of God, Father Son and Holy Spirit. The incarnational and Trinitarian found in the Theology of the Cross also opened for me essential nature of the Eucharist to the Christian faith and which helping bring me to a catholic understanding of the faith.
The relational aspects of the Theology of the Cross were personalized in the Three Solas; Sola fides by faith alone, Sola Gratia by grace alone and Sola Scriptura by scripture alone. These became the hallmarks of the Reformation and without getting into the weeds to dissect all the ramifications for the Church and the world impact the way that many Christians practice and express their faith to the current day.
The Catholic in me tends to discount Sola Scriptura because Luther himself was such an imperfect practitioner of this. I find that the Anglican and Old Catholic triad of Scripture, Tradition and Reason is a more Biblical way of understanding what we can understand of God as well as in bearing witness of the self revelation of God in Christ in our world than is Sola Scriptura.
The Reformation which began when Luther posted his “theses” on the door of the Schlosskirche broke the hold of the Roman Catholic Church on Europe brought about many changes. It was the watershed moment when western church unity was fractured forever. As the years passed this increasingly fractured and diverse church in the west and helped end the primacy of the Church over the State. The Reformation was also essential to the future Enlightenment as educational institutions, philosophers, historians and scientists gained the freedom to operate free from the all pervasive reach of the Church.
In the beginning when he walked up to the Schlosskirche to post his theses Luther intended nothing more than reforming and curtailing abuses in the Catholic Church and how the Church saw grace, faith and scripture. Instead he changed the course of history in ways that most modern people, especially conservative Christians fail to comprehend today. If they did they would not be embracing such heresy as the Dominion movement and it’s Seven MountainsTheology.
I did a lot of study on the Lutheran Reformation in and after seminary. In 1996 while stationed in Germany as a mobilized Army Reserve Chaplain had the privilege of organizing a series of Reformation tours to Wittenberg, Worms and Heidelberg. We went to Wittenberg on Reformation day where we attended the Reformationstag service at the Schlosskirche. I led a walking tour of the town that day. One of the parishioners from the chapel asked me if I had been toWittenberg before because I seemed like I knew every place in the town. I had to tell her that I had not been there in person but because of my study had imagined it so many times that I knew every place by heart. When we went to Worms where Luther on trial before Charles V was told to recant his writings it as the same, except that in Worms the town hall where the Imperial Diet met was destroyed long ago. However a stone in the pavement marks the spot where Luther concluding his defense before the Emperor Charles V and the assembled Princes and prelates with these immortal words:
“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” It is legend that Luther said the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me, Amen!” These words were probably only added later by someone else to make the story more interesting as they do not appear in the council notes. Not that Luther would have objected. The film version is linked here:
Likewise Luther’s debate with Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli at the Marburgcolloquy regarding points of doctrine was significant for me. It was held that they might unify their separate reform movements. They agreed on all points except the Eucharist where Luther enunciated a very catholic understanding of the “Real Presence.” Zwingli argued it to be a symbolic memorial though he conceded that it might have some spiritual component. Luther would not budge and to each of Zwingli’s arguments pulled back the tablecloth to reveal the words “This is my body, this is my blood” which he had carved on the table. They departed without achieving unity, something that has plagued Protestants to this day and when Zwingli was killed in battle when leading the militia from Zurich to fight the approaching Catholic Army. When Luther heard about the Zwingli’s death he commented “Zwingli drew his sword. Therefore he has received the reward that Christ spoke of, ‘All who take the sword will perish by the sword’ [Matt. 26:52]. If God has saved him, he has done so above and beyond the rule.” (Table Talk #1451) When I visitedMarburg with my friend Gottfried in 1997 I stood in the room where the men met and standing at that table I imagined Luther arguing with Zwingli.
Martin Luther helped begin the journey to the Priest that I am now. Others similar to Luther, the Catholic theologian and reformer in his own right Father Hans Kung who was able to do what Luther couldn’t do, make a case for Luther’s theology as part of catholic theology. Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has brought Luther’s theology to the modern world and Dietrich Bonhoeffer who showed me an example of how to live out the incarnational message of theTheology of the Cross in a world gone mad. Kung’s book On Being a Christian, Moltmann’s Theology of Hope and The Crucified God have being influential in my theological formation. Bonhoeffer’s contribution was how that theology is important in standing up to oppression in all forms, his writings including The Cost o Discipleship, Ethics Creation Fall and Temptation, Life Together and Letters and Papers from Prison. All of these men helped me in my transition following seminary to a moderate Anglo-Catholic to an Old Catholic faith that places a high place to Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and Reason in interpreting and living out the faith.
Of course there are others that have influenced me, the early Church Fathers, Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, Henri Nouwen, Father Andrew Greely and Bernard Häring to name but a few. But even so I have always had a special place in my heart for Luther even with all of his flaws which were many. Luther was earthy, spoke his mind often in a direct and coarse way and had no problem with having fun or good beer. I relate to him a lot and am in his debt because he helped me become who I am today.