This is the time of year my Lutheran friends share photos of Reformation choirs and Martin Luther-themed socks on social media. Yet to my Roman Catholic friends, the Reformation isn’t something to celebrate.
In their eyes, our admiration for Martin Luther is as misguided as holding a big party in honor of one’s divorce. They argue the Reformation ushered in a world where each individual’s personal taste in interpretation became supreme, leading to the moral chaos and postmodernism that riddles the cultural landscape today. At best, they see Protestants as limping along without the spiritual blessings God bestows through their church yet, like anorexics, rejoicing in this near-starvation.
I readily concede that the Reformation brought costs as well as benefits. Yet as a Lutheran, I am profoundly grateful for the sixteenth-century return to Scripture that reminded us of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Solus Christus. I deeply appreciate the Lutheran determination, demonstrated in the “Book of Concord, “to find and cling to biblical truth. That is why I want my Catholic friends to know three things about the event I will be celebrating on October 31.
1. It’s Not about Individualism
Secular historians, like secular journalists writing about Pope Francis, often misunderstand religion. Mainstream history textbooks portray Luther as someone who struck a blow for the individual by rejecting the authority of people who wanted to tell others what to believe. As long as these historians don’t peruse his actual writing, they see Luther as a pretty progressive guy by the standards of 1517. My Catholic friends read this stuff and, quite naturally, pick up the idea that Luther’s teachings led to hyper-individualism.
Yet Luther’s actual theological legacy is not conducive to extreme individualism. He intended to participate in a conversation about reforming errors that were harming the Catholic Church. That is because he wanted to point out where individuals were going wrong by failing to submit themselves to the authority of scripture.
Furthermore, Luther didn’t see the scriptures as a sort of “mirror, mirror, on the wall” that pronounced new things to individuals. He believed that the church body can and should agree on the clear message of God’s word and should as a body hold fast to that confession. Rather than fracturing into mini-democracies, early Lutherans, under pressure to clarify why they were rocking the boat, gathered to write out their beliefs in a systematic and orderly way and to support their assertions with scripture. Luther’s historical legacy is not about individualism. It’s about the supremacy of God’s word over the individual.
In addition, Luther’s vision of society placed a high value on the individual’s relationships with others. He wrote that as we Christians care for our neighbors (whether in the realm of the church, home, or workplace) we are fulfilling our vocations and therefore being the “masks” through which God accomplishes his work. To Luther, the individual serves God by being connected to—and serving—others.
2. Lutherans Don’t Cast Off History and Tradition
Roman Catholic friends who visit my church are often surprised by how familiar they find our liturgy. The Lutheran Reformation was not about making up new traditions from scratch, but about identifying the parts of the historic liturgy that convey the gospel well. One reason it’s so much fun to talk about philosophy and literature with my Catholic friends is that we share a rich sense of history and see ourselves as taking part in a conversation that has been going on for centuries.
However, we Lutherans disagree with Catholics in a highly significant area. They say church tradition is as reliable a guide as scripture, and that one can safely construct theological dogmas on promises and statements that aren’t found in scripture. Thus they accept concepts like the bodily assumption of Mary as doctrine even though the Bible says nothing on that subject.
Now, Lutherans respect church tradition. The Lutheran reformers frequently referenced the writings of the early church fathers. We, too, are grateful for the history that ties us to the church universal throughout time, and we, too, commemorate the faithful saints who have gone before us (although we don’t ask anyone dead to pray for us—the Bible offers no promise that we will be heard that way).
Yet we know that God’s word must be the place from which we draw our understanding of God. He has not promised us to communicate through tradition. Therefore, although we find history helpful and informative, we cannot and will not build actual doctrines upon the traditions of mere human beings. Thus, we agree with our Roman Catholic friends on scriptural truths such God’s triune nature and the sacramental power of baptism, but do not accept purgatory or papal infallibility.
Note that Lutherans speak of the “Conservative Reformation,” in which we took part, and of a second-wave “Radical Reformation,” in which some reactionary individuals ran amok and got rid of anything that reminded them of their Catholic history. Smashing stained glass and casting aside infant baptism were both part of the Radical Reformation. Luther was distressed, grieved, and even angry at the enthusiasm with which many Christians embraced theological error while attempting to escape the (real) corruptions that had damaged the historic church.
Is the Radical Reformation Luther’s fault? Surely none of us would argue that someone who points out abuses in a family or corporation is then “at fault” if individuals respond by casting off that family or corporation—especially if the institution in question initially responds with threats and excommunication instead of repentance. Or, at least, if we blame Luther for the Radical Reformation, we ought then in fairness to give him credit for setting in motion the events that led to the Council of Trent and the Catholic Reformation.
3. The Lutheran Confessions Were Intended to Unite
In 1517, the Christian church was deeply troubled (I’m sure my Catholic friends will concede this—if it weren’t, there would have been no need for a Catholic Reformation). Luther was educated in the faith by teachers who largely communicated a serious, deadly misunderstanding of who God is and how he saves us. They taught Luther to see God’s grace as something given only to those who earn it through their own sincere effort. This view led an honest sinner like Luther to despair.
That is why the words Luther eventually found in Romans, and throughout scripture (in part due to the encouragement of his mentor in the monastery, Johann von Staupitz, to read the Bible), were such a blessed relief. He found that we don’t have to be worthy. Christ is worthy for us.
Luther reminded the world that the center of everything is Christ: Christ, who paid the price for all our sins. Christ, whose mercy is our hope. Christ, by whose death we are saved by faith through grace. This is the heart of the Lutheran Reformation, and the heart of Christianity.
As they studied the scriptures, Luther and other reformers found themselves at odds with various practices and teachings of the church. The thing is, these issues are about God. They are about truth. They are too important to gloss over, because truth is actually more important than the superficial appearance of unity. Early Lutherans didn’t write out our confessions in order to separate themselves from brothers and sisters in Christ. They wrote in hopes of persuading others of truth and thereby deepening true unity (and hey, Catholic friends: feel free to read those confessions and tell me what you think!).
Recently I read an article in First Things by a non-Lutheran Reformation scholar. He commented on his experience speaking to a group of Missouri Synod Lutherans and said, “It was actually a refreshing change to be among confessional Protestants who vehemently disagreed with me along Reformation lines—and yet cared enough about me and about the historic shape of the Christian faith to want to change my views on the Lord’s Supper, not simply to relativize them or agree to differ.” Lutherans argue because we care. We care about God’s word, about truth, and about you.
So this year, feel free to come hear what a Reformation Day choir sounds like.
This article is republished, with permission, from Sister, Daughter, Mother, Wife.