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The Priesthood Of All Believers


I recently have been thinking, and writing about, the Protestant Reformation, whose anniversary is October 31 – the 500th anniversary, and traditionally observed on All Saint’s Day, when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses (arguments, theological complaints, debating points) to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Regular readers here might be tired of these reflections, but on the other hand, “hits” and “shares” and comments have increased, to use internet indications of response. Speaking personally, I think that, as with other spiritual topics, it is good for us continually to contemplate certain things.

So: back to Luther on this birthday party of sorts. Readers will know that I revere Brother Martin as a biblical scholar whose dedication opened his mind to the Holy Spirit’s guidance. That his clarity of thought was what the church, and Western civilization, needed at that moment in history. That his personal bravery was a thing to admire, and is an example to beleaguered believers in our day.

And that we need to compile, and dedicate ourselves to engaging, 95 theses – at least – today.

But I will finally address the significance of Martin Luther and the Reformation from a different perspective. Yes, he sparked a spiritual purgative, even a catharsis, in the Church that he never intended to split. I want to consider the secular aspect of Martin Luther.

Lost in the ecclesiastic disputes is the fact that Martin Luther was a transformative figure in Western Civilization. Apart from theology. Let us appreciate his contributions to culture, and where we might be, or might not be, today without him.

He stood for the individual against the state – the Establishment of the day.

He elevated the role of Conscience and personal responsibility.

He advocated turning the Church’s role in every life and institutions to the opposite – bringing Christian sensibilities and priorities into civic life.

He democratized worship: under Luther, services were held in the local languages; singing was permitted by members of the congregation; women became participants in services.

He translated the Bible into German, and encouraged other translations into other languages. Of “the people.”

He championed the “priesthood of all believers” based on the Bible (I Peter 2: 5-9 and other passages) – the assertion that believers do not need intercessors to approach God; not fathers or nuns or pastors or even saints or Marys.

Also citing the Bible itself, he led to the disposal of man-made additions to scripture like Purgatory. Contending with the Book of James, but citing the Letter to the Ephesians, he recalculated the Catholics’ reliant view of works in God’s (ultimate) judgment unto salvation… and saw that by grace, through faith, we are justified; and that, instead, good works flow from a pious heart.

He held that Salvation was not mere “fire insurance” (i.e., avoidance of hell) but a thing much to be desired, and that Christians can have the assurance now, not dependent on prayers of survivors, their offerings, candles, beads, or lists of good deeds.

He encouraged literacy, was responsible for home libraries throughout Germany, which spread the concept of schooling and the education of women.

The German princes who hid Luther from persecution and death were emboldened to assert their independence from Rome and the political arms of the Holy Roman Empire. The “Germ theory” (no pun) of political liberty such as led to the American constitution, fostered in the forests of Germany, was godfathered by Luther.

He challenged other extra-biblical traditions of the Roman church. Priests marrying – after his excommunication, he married and had children. Mariology – he denied the divinity of Mary, arguing that the temporal mother of Jesus was not the Mother God, and pointed to scriptural accounts that an incarnate Deity in the person of Mary would not have done.

He was not perfect, and Luther immediately and violently silently stopped any such talk, even that he was a Prophet. He was an imperfect man but for the shed blood of Christ. He sometimes was intemperate; he had a bawdy sense of humor; he was prejudiced against Jews of his day; he drank and argued more than, perhaps, he should have.

And he was not a revolutionary, by design anyway. He was forced to rebuke his followers for excesses against Catholic churches and clergy. (In his wake was Rome’s Counter-Reformation… spawning what history knows as the Counter-Counter-Reformation.) In his aftermath was the Concordat, which made peace between German princes of Catholic, Lutheran, Pietist, and eventually Calvinist communities. Yet religious differences contributed to wars like the Thirty Years War in the 1600s that left one-third of the German population dead. Luther would have deplored such things.

Yet even the deplorable conflicts sorted things out throughout Germany and the remnants of the old Holy Roman Empire. Independence, literacy, increased liberty, and a stable middle class all followed. As part of universal education, musical instruction was promoted in and outside the church. Johann Sebastian Bach, although his birth was 200 years after Luther’s (and in the small town where Luther had hidden from assassins) was a virtual disciple. It is he and not Luther whom history has called “The Fifth Evangelist” – but Bach was a firm and learned Lutheran.

Christians, even adherents of the Roman Church, therefore still have much to learn from Martin Luther’s theses, his debating-points. But citizens of Western Civilization, indeed the world, are also indebted to the teachings, the boldness, the influence of this priest from the small German town. He was no special priest, he would tell you; but however no less a priest than the Pope himself in God’s eyes.

All that was left, in his teachings and the examples of his life is… that what he did was not in vain. That we, today, exercise the fidelity to scripture, a mature understanding of grace and faith, and the boldness to stand, as he did – a humble servant who declared his conscience “captive to the Word of God.”

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Today’s clip is not a music video but a full-length movie. The magnificent 1953, award-winning (and two-Oscars nominated) “Martin Luther.”

Click: Martin Luther

Category: Christianity, Hope, Service

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One Response

  1. Penelope says:

    Thank you, Rick, for your informative posts about Martin Luther. I am amazed at all of his accomplishments and praise God that we are the recipients of so much. It’s amazing how much one man did, especially without technology!

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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