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Here I Stand

10-2-17

This month is the occasion for a grand remembrance. The last Sunday in October traditionally is observed by Protestants as Reformation Sunday, when, on All Saint’s Day, Father Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses – basically, theological complaints – to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Extra special is the fact that his act was in the year 1517, so the 500th anniversary is now observed. Half a millennium, roughly 25 per cent of the age of Christ’s Church on this earth. Even unchurched people know the basics of the revolution that commenced with those hammered nails – Luther’s nails ironically recalling the nails that Christ endured as He offered Himself a living sacrifice for us.

I wonder how the church will observe the “anniversary” of the Reformation. I have noticed that package-tour groups are available to cities in Germany and places associated with Luther’s life. More than that, I don’t know. I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Augsburg, Germany, in 1983, the place and 500th anniversary of his birth. In the Augsburg Cathedral I had reasonable expectations of a grand worship service, and a stirring rendition of his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

There was, however, a small service attended by mere dozens of worshipers, in a side chapel and a charming but very modest, ancient free-standing pump organ.

Martin Luther is honored only in the breach, as they say, in many of the lands where his spiritual revolution once seized the hearts of men. The reforms of the reform-ation are evanescent; or in dire need of revitalization. Brother Martin is, possibly, in 2017 more of a historical than a theological figure.

I have said that unchurched people know something of his life. That is, to be precise, only to the extent that anyone knows much or cares much about history these days. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who have not learned from history are already doomed. The young Luther, training to be a lawyer, decided after what he perceived to be a life-saving miracle to join the clergy, and became an Augustinian monk. God’s hand might have been in that choice, because there are clear philosophical and theological lines from Platonism to the early Church fathers to St Augustine to Luther.

As a faithful clergymen he made a pilgrimage to Rome, walking from Germany. At the Vatican he was repelled by corruption and open scandals. Even back in Germany, the Roman church was becoming an agency of money-hustling, famously among other acts selling “indulgences” that promised poverty-stricken givers that souls of dead relatives would be boosted closer to Heaven in proportion to their “donations.”

Other offenses Luther identified, such as non-Biblical cosmology, veneration of saints, and Mariology, also led to the 95 Theses. Local Catholic clergy, representatives of the Vatican, and the Pope himself were much displeased, especially as Luther’s critiques gained currency. Germany was a land of greater literacy and ecclesiastical freedom than other corners of Christendom. Rome, already making a practice of suppressing and executing other critics (Luther was not the first voice of protest) sanctioned Brother Martin; demanded that he recant his many writings (including, strangely, those that were quite orthodox); excommunicated him; and sought to imprison him.

Luther was certain that Rome intended to kill him for his ideas, as it had done with previous reformers like Jan Hus in Prague and John Wycliffe (posthumous excommunication of desecration of his remains) in England. But the rising spiritual sophistication of German princes coincided with their growing desire to be free of the Catholic Church’s political and military dominance.

Religion, culture, and politics coincided. So did another great factor: Literacy. The average German could read better, and with more depth, than other Europeans to whom words and ideas were anathema, as so decreed by Rome. Largely proscribed from reading their Bibles and having to sit through Latin church services, Christians outside the German states beheld Christianity as dear to their hearts but largely alien relative to their daily lives.

My Catholic friends will dispute my characterizations of the fervor of Catholics of the day, or of the spiritual hunger of Luther’s fellow Germans and Scandinavians, yet two counter-arguments stand: Luther’s foundation-stone, based on Ephesians 2: 8,9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, Not of works, lest any man should boast,” which confronted the authority of the Pope and efficacy of indulgences and putative good deeds. And… the empirical evidence, the speed at which the Reformation spread through Europe. And the world.

A lightning lesson. We will visit some other aspects of the Reformation in coming weeks. When I refer to “literacy,” I mean more than Luther translating the Bible into German, and common believers having access to God’s Word. We must understand:

Suddenly, men and women could read the Bible themselves. And think for themselves. They could write, and publish, and exchange ideas. Literature, poetry, and philosophy flourished – contemporary works, and those of the past – and political ideas were exchanged. Luther became the patron saint of democracy and the Enlightenment (although he must be considered a Pre-Modern, just as his musical disciple J S Bach, two hundred years later, must be similarly regarded, theologically).

Not a Humanist, yet of the Age of Humanism; living during the Renaissance but not a typical Renaissance man, Martin Luther astonishingly bridged the worlds of total subservience to Word of God, and the absolute independence of the human spirit. The soul. By looking back, to the faith of Jesus Himself, he was able to portend the future.

Threatened in the Church’s kangaroo court in the city of Worms – knowing that torture, burning at the stake, and death awaited him – he nevertheless refused to recant any word he had written, any sermon he had delivered, any “thesis” in his list of complaints.

No.

“Here I stand,” he said. I can do no other.”

At that moment one of the great souls of Christianity, and one of the greatest figures in Western civilization, changed the course of history. Fortified by utter conviction, Luther was also secure in the fact that when when one stands by God, one never is truly alone.

Martin Luther challenged more than Rome – he challenged humankind. In the face of authority, in the face of injustice, he challenges us today.

How would we have responded? How do you respond today… because Authority and Oppression are ever present. No less threatening, even more dangerous.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous? Many readers might consider the knee-jerk reactions of football players during patriotic exercises, in relation to Luther. They kneel; he stood. Not an absurd contrast to discuss. We shall take it up.

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Protestantism has spread worldwide. More than one-fifth of South Korea, for instance, is Protestant. Here are the famous SoKo Christian singers “Golden Angels”: –

Click: Where No One Stands Alone

Category: Faith, Hope, Perseverance

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One Response

  1. Mark Dittmar says:

    Nails…they held the ordinances against us to the Cross and the complaints against the Church to the Door.

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More