On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther publicly protested what he considered to be profound abuses in the Roman Church by posting a list of his objections to the church door in Wittenberg. Nailing matters like these on the church door was a customary way of initiating debate in that time and place. Despite the common practice, though, those 95 Theses were no ordinary bulletin board material. Luther was calling into question deeply rooted practices in the medieval church—the paying of indulgences to buy loved ones out of purgatory, the assumption that the pope’s mediation was necessary for Christians to experience the grace of Christ, and the emphasis on deeds performed as a way of earning one’s way into God’s mercy. Dissatisfaction in the church over these practices and others had simmered for centuries in the medieval church, but in the 16th century Luther’s 95 Theses became a flashpoint for reform, igniting revolutionary changes in the Christian Church all across Europe—turning the Church upside down.
From that revolution was born Lutheran Churches, Calvinist Churches, Anglican Churches, and eventually Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, and others. From that revolution also emerged a Roman Catholic Church that was significantly different than the one from which Luther broke. Reformation Sunday—this year on October 29—annually celebrates the richness of Christian pluralism and the beginning of Christianity’s entrance into modernity. Reformation Sunday also reminds us of some of the fundamental theological convictions for which our Protestant ancestors labored so mightily. In an age in which most American Protestants struggle to define Protestant identity as anything beyond being generically “American,” it seems good to reserve a day each year to think intentionally about our Reformation inheritance. And it’s especially appropriate this year, as we commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of the 95 Theses. Here, then, are seven examples of the theological legacy of the Reformers.
(1) WE are the church. A lot of what Martin Luther railed against in his 95 Theses was the medieval Catholic notion that ordinary Christians needed the intercession of priests and the pope to have their sins forgiven and their lives redeemed, indeed, to communicate with God at all. Luther insisted that the church is not fundamentally its rituals or its offices. The church is its people, a community that gathers together by the call of God and has access to God’s grace directly, through its own reading of Scripture and its own prayers. This is what Reformation thinkers called the “priesthood of all believers.” We need no intercessor between us and God except Christ. We’re all capable of learning deeply about God. We’re all capable of praying to God. We’re all capable of embodying the Spirit of God. Thank you, Reformers, for empowering us to do that.
(2) You don’t have to lose your mind to be a Christian. If there is a dominant characteristic of the typical modern mainline Protestant congregation, it may be the insistence that faith and reason should be able to go together. But this is not a new affirmation. It is a historically Protestant contention that goes way, way back. It is older than the social awakenings of the 1960s. It is older than 19th-century liberalism and the Origin of the Species. It is older than the European Enlightenment. To be sure, each of these moments in history has pushed Christians to think in fresh ways about the intersection between their faith and what other sources in the world were telling them about what is right and true. But the insistence that faith and reason are compatible goes back to the beginnings of the Christian story, and it is an assertion that the Protestant Reformers readopted with enthusiasm. Martin Luther spearheaded popular literacy with his insistence that the Scriptures be translated into the language of the people; his German Bible was revolutionary. John Calvin (little appreciated fact) was a master humanist who did theology in conversation not only with Augustine but also with Seneca and ancient Roman law. Protestant Christians who insist that faith needs to be skeptical of modern science, history, and philosophy misunderstand their own Protestant heritage.
(3) Change in the church is often a very good thing. It is hard to exaggerate the revolution that occurred in the church as a result of the Reformation. Protestantism was born and exponentially multiplied, making diversity and pluralism a dominant feature of global Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, too, was never the same. The Reformation was all about change. Some Reformers even had a saying with which they described the faithful church: “reformed and always reforming.” Nothing is sacrosanct. Nothing is immune from critical scrutiny and change if it gets in the way of our being the most faithful community for Christ that we can be. When we exercise the freedom to do, think, and believe new things, to change our minds based on new information, we exhibit our Protestant DNA.
(4) There’s not that much new under the sun. The Protestant Reformers recognized that they were living in a profoundly new moment that required radical change, but at the same time they also saw the virtue in appealing to wisdom from the past. As unique as the moment was in which they were living and thinking, they knew that smart and faithful people who had gone before them dealt with analogous issues. The circumstances were different, but certain perspectives on the human spirit and the nature of God and the essence of Christian responsibility could be useful in this new situation. And so they tore down and reinvented structures informed by those who had gone before. They reformed and renewed in a way that learned from the past. If the ghosts of the Reformers were haunting us today, I think they would caution us against the judgment that everything thought, written, or practiced between the 2nd century and the 20th century was destructive, unintelligent, or irrelevant.
(5) It takes more than a village, actually. Your church—your community of faith—is where you worship and pray and practice and serve and laugh and cry together. But “church” is more than just this. Church is also others doing the very same thing, sometimes in remarkably different ways, in other places in your town, in communities of faith across this country and around the world, even in other moments in time. That’s what it means to be church with a capital “C”: the Body of Christ in all times and places. In breaking with the Roman church, the Protestant Reformers never gave up on the idea of being part of the church with a capital “C.”
(6) Who you are on Sunday is who you are on Monday. The Protestant Reformers rejected the idea that the only people who do “religious” work are priests and monks. Instead, they taught that the ordinary work we all do, in our congregations but also in our roles beyond church, has holy importance. They encouraged us to think of our life’s work as our religious vocation, an opportunity to live out Christian faith and contribute to the common good. And not just professional work; late in his life, Martin Luther delighted in the duties of parenthood as part of his vocation, arguing that he “changed dirty diapers to the glory of God.” Preachers, teachers, politicians, store clerks, innkeepers, soldiers, emergency workers, lawyers, day-laborers, stay-at-home parents, and trash collectors all do holy work if they engage that work with faithfulness to God and the common good. In other words, we are church not only when we gather to worship, but also when we are “out there” in the world.
(7) We are not our own. We are part of something bigger, something that claims us, something profound, something beyond our own manipulation, something more than the sum of our parts. We choose to name that something God, and we know that the character of God is love from its reflection in Jesus, from Scripture, and from the testament of generations of Christians. We are not our own; we are the products of, recipients of, and conduits of divine love. We are not our own; we belong to God. And not just we ourselves, but the cosmos belongs to God. That counter-cultural proclamation ought to inspire grace and gratitude, hope and optimism, wonder and awe. If God is for us, says the Apostle Paul, then who in this world or the next can stand against us? For nothing—not the regrets of the past nor the despair of the present nor the anxieties of the future; not our antagonists, circumstances, ourselves—nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That hope in a future for which we strive but which is not totally of our own making is a core Protestant aspiration. And increasingly, I believe it’s one we need to hear and affirm in the church and the world. We are not our own; we and the world belong to God. And God is good.
Long live the Reformation!