Time Travelling with Martin Luther

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
What would Martin Luther have made of it all?
Time Travelling with Martin Luther

What would the German Monk have made of Reformation 500?

Transporting an historical figure from another time and another place is always a risky procedure, because of the over dependence on our imagination. Yet, the concept of time travelling has an enduring appeal either by way of transporting us into the past or the future, or by bringing someone from the past, or the future into our twenty-first century environment. This is the year of Martin Luther, the German Augustinian who lit the spark which became the Protestant Reformation. Of all the anniversaries we will commemorate in our lifetime, this year that marks 500 years since Luther nailed his now famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, Wittenberg, is the most significant of all. Owing to the manner in which the Reformation transformed the landscape of European Christianity and the colossal shifts it influenced in the political and social fabric of a continent, this is the anniversary of anniversaries. What would Martin Luther have made of it all? If he were alive today, how would he respond to the way in which his anniversary is being marked 500 years after the event? We are at a slight advantage where Luther is concerned. As the first truly prolific and popular writer of the printing age, we have Luther's own words to guide us as we bring him into our century. As a larger than life figure who was never one to pull his punches or shrink from a challenge, this man, we are sure, would have aired his opinions on the twenty-first century view of his character and influence.

To begin with, he would have been disgusted at the tendency of Protestants to transform him into a kind of superhuman idol of their own inventions. It is a strange weakness of Protestantism, endemic within humanity, to cultivate hero worship. Being without beatified saints, there arises this tendency to elevate men and their achievements as if they were without sin. The Protestant Reformers, being afraid of this very thing, gave express instructions (as with Calvin and Knox) that their graves were to be unmarked and that they were be buried without ceremony. In Luther's case, the hero worship commenced in his own lifetime because the Germans adored their champion. Yet Luther himself was never one to become filled with self-importance. The Wittenberg artist, Lucas Cranach, was in the process of painting the impressive fresco, which is now behind the altar in Wittenberg's Castle Church, in the lifetime of the German Reformer. He cleverly painted the Saviour with thirteen gathered around the Last Supper, not in Jerusalem but in Wittenberg. The thirteenth disciple sitting with Christ was unmistakable - Martin Luther himself! What he made of the fresco, not completed until after he died, we don't know; but we can conjecture, based on how he responded to those who dared to compare him to the apostles. In his rugged German, he described himself as "a stinking after-thought". This kind of self-deprecation was typical of Luther and must be remembered by those who revere his memory. He was a genius. Yes. A man of God? I would argue so with passion. But all geniuses are flawed, and all men of God are only sinners saved by grace.

What would he have made of the Roman Catholic Church today? Some within modern Catholicism are attempting to claim that Martin Luther succeeded in his Reformation and that the Catholic Church has changed in response to the Protestant challenge. This idea is rooted, however, in a shallow understanding of Luther's real grievances. Yes, there were moral corruptions within the Church that many had criticised, including people like Erasmus, the Dutch scholar, and Sir Thomas Moore, the English statesman, who never joined the Reformation movement. Unlike the social reformers, Luther's chief matter concerned the theology of the Church. The preoccupation of the Church with a works-based salvation, with the priests, their Masses and Confessionals, and the submission that had to be given to the Papacy, were all deep grievances in Luther's thinking. Catholicism today continues to require the Priest to forgive and sacrifice; one must be loyal to the seven sacraments of the Church to achieve salvation; and the Papacy reigns over the Church ("the Petrine Dimension", as Pope Francis likes to call it). Luther famously declared when visiting "The Holy City' that "If there is a hell, Rome is built on it". If the theology of the Catholic Church continues to contradict what Martin Luther upheld, then he would in this twenty-first century continue to be a separatist, believing Catholicism to be apostate.

I also pause to reflect upon the attitude Luther may have had towards the ecumenical spirit that exists within Protestant denominations, especially when celebrating this 500th Anniversary. To mark the Reformation Anniversary, Union Theological College has been hosting a series of seminars on "The Unfinished Reformation". The speakers include Presbyterian Ministers and prominent Roman Catholics. Dr Francis Campbell (former UK Ambassador to the Holy See) and Father Tim Bartlett, (Secretary General of the World Meeting of Families which is bringing Pope Francis to Ireland next year) have been dealing with Reformation-related topics. In St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral, Armagh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin, delivered an address on Sunday 8th October on 'Reconciling the Reformation'. Quoting from Pope Francis' address at Lund in Sweden last year, Archbishop Martin spoke of the Reformation as having "wounded the visible unity of the Church." He then proceeded to suggest how the gap produced by the Reformation could be bridged between the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches, here in Ireland, north and south. The question, however, is - did Luther believe he was wounding the visible unity of the Church? After Pope Leo X excommunicated him, Luther wrote a book on "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church". As Babylon was the evil empire which held the Jewish people captive for seventy years in the Old Testament, so he contended that the Christian Church, as long as she was under the authority of the Papacy and holding to doctrines that were not found in Scripture, was in bondage. He regarded the Reformation, rather than being a schism, as a liberation movement setting the people of God free under Christ. In the spirit of Luther, should genuine Protestant churches not be challenging the falsehoods of Rome, true to their historic Reformed Confessions of Faith (Westminster Standards and the 39 Articles of Religion) rather than giving those who hold to these erroneous beliefs a platform as fellow Christians and offering them fellowship?

Within society, Martin Luther would have commended the movement towards democratic principles, which has so changed the world over the past 150 years. It was he who rediscovered the precious truth that all Christians are priests, by virtue of their unity with Christ their great High Priest. This truth was developed by Calvin and Knox and found its ultimate expression in the democratic principles of Scottish Presbyterianism. All Christians within the Church are equal under God, all being part of the one great body of the Christ. There is no need for men who are Priests to intercede and to sacrifice because all Christians have an immediate access into the presence of a holy God. This was revolutionary and swept away the medieval superstitions which so inhibited the faith of the devout. Ignorance was banished, and Christians realised their true value in the sight of God. This movement worked out into society generally and gave rise to the great principles of democracy which we cherish today.

Where faith is concerned, Martin Luther was no formalist. He had been sickened by formal religion. Within the cloister, he practised his religion with fanatical zeal and found nothing but sorrow of heart. When he uncovered the truth in the Bible, "The just shall live by faith" peace reigned where once doubts and fears controlled his conscience. He expended the remainder of his life preaching and defending this truth, being willing to stand alone and die if this was what God required. Today Christendom is plagued by the curse of formal and sectarian religion, a faith which has no heart. Protestants and Roman Catholics accept their labels without practising their faith. Others attend their places of worship but trust in their devotion to a creed and a ritual rather than in the Christ who died and rose again.

To twenty-first century Christendom, Luther would exhort the reading and personal study of the Bible, the discovery of Christ as the only hope, and reliance upon Him alone for salvation. Anything less than this is nominal religion which can do nothing for the soul. The Reformation calls us to consider our relationship with God so that we might know that we have peace with Him.

Would Luther have had opinions on how we regard this 500th Anniversary? Absolutely - but, ultimately, he would be teaching us not to listen to his voice but rather the voice of God in the Bible. Have we ears for this voice and hearts to obey?
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