As published in The Register Guard on October 29, 2017.
On the eve of All Saints Day, also known as “All Hallows Eve” — Oct. 31, 1517 — a young Roman Catholic monk in Wittenberg, Germany, posted a notice on the community bulletin board inviting an academic dialogue over a list of 95 theological propositions. The monk’s name was Martin Luther, the ensuing dialogue was explosive, and this Halloween marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
When we read Luther’s “95 Theses” today (let the curious turn to Google!), most of us come away scratching our heads and wondering what the big deal was. We find none of the explosive issues that confront our modern church and society — gender equality, civil rights, abortion, climate change, same-sex marriage, etc. Instead, we read a lot about “papal indulgences” and “purgatory.” What’s that about?
But if we examine closely, we find a fundamental theological thread that shines light on God’s grace and God’s justice — in contrast to a religious institution that, in its day, had become very ungracious and very unjust in its treatment of people, particularly with regard to people’s shortcomings.
This is what caused the uproar. It almost always does when human institutions and power structures (be they religious, political, socio-economic or whatever) are shown to be at odds with God’s economy of grace and justice.
Luther had no intention of doing away with a religious institution, but he did seek reform. The Latin phrase “ecclesia semper reformanda est,” or “the Church must continually be reformed,” does not originate with Luther or the Reformation, but the sentiment fits this context well. The focus is not upon a static “reformed” church, but upon a “reforming” church.
The starting point for a reforming church is the Bible, which Luther poignantly referred to as the manger that holds the Christ child. This obvious reference to the Christmas story underscores the important truth that God’s grace and justice are meant to be flesh and blood in the world, and the role of scripture is to teach us how that happens.
For Luther and many like-minded churchwomen and churchmen, reformation occurs as the church in each new day seeks to understand the witness of sacred scripture to the grace and justice of God that is incarnate in Jesus Christ.
This kind of reformation is neither arbitrary nor theoretical, but fully incarnational in that it reflects the person and ministry of Jesus and continually challenges the church to “flesh out” God’s grace and justice in the world today.
So why is any of this the least bit relevant for people in Lane County some 500 years on? The answer, quite simply, is this: A church that is continually being reformed through serious reflection upon scripture produces great benefits for society (regardless of whether the beneficiaries have any inkling of these benefits or are willing to acknowledge their source).
When the church obtains a clear picture of divine grace and justice, it inevitably overflows with good things for humanity — creative things such as language, literature, music, art and education, and social institutions that care for the vulnerable and nurture human flourishing.
Martin Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular and thus gave modern Germany its language; Lucas Cranach chronicled the reforming church in works of art; Johann Sebastian Bach set the Reformation Gospel to musical score; the so-called Catholic Counter-Reformation created the beauty of baroque and rococo art in all its forms and invited poor peasant farmers into richly ornate sanctuaries where they could worship like royalty.
The church that is continually being reformed brings blessing to the community it serves. So, if you have ever feasted your ears on a concert at the Oregon Bach Festival, or been captured by the natural beauty of a John Muir photograph, or been moved by a T.S. Eliot poem, or been drawn to a painting by Mary Stevenson Cassatt, or received a healing touch from a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center, or found yourself smiling upon a family with a new home built by Habitat for Humanity, or been inspired by a sermon or speech of a more recent Martin Luther whose last name was King, then it might be appropriate to pause for a moment on this year’s All Hallows’ Eve and offer a word of thanks for God’s grace and justice overflowing from a church that is continually being reformed.
Dennis Lindsay is vice president for academic affairs, dean of faculty and professor of biblical studies at Northwest Christian University in Eugene.