For many people, October 31 means ghosts, ghouls, trick-or-treating, and candy–Halloween. In a country whose history is so strongly influenced by Protestant Christianity it is interesting that many people, including many Protestants, have no idea of what occurred 499 years ago on this day in a university town in Saxony. I refer to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg. This act is widely held to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and in ways Luther could hardly have conceived, it changed the church and the world. My post today is a kind of grab-bag of some of my reflections on Luther and his influence.
The image I have chosen for this post (indeed, as the icon for my blog, as well) is an interesting one. It is a picture I took in Worms, Germany, the town where Luther’s trial before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V occurred. This trial is known, to the amusement of English-speaking students, as the Diet of Worms. Though the German pronunciation of the town is closer to Verms, those who encounter it first in print almost inevitably envision a rather stomach-turning image in their mind’s eye. The actual event can hardly have been any less stomach-turning for its principals, I suppose. Luther’s life was in serious jeopardy, the young emperor was faced with a difficult political problem to attempt to resolve, and the papal nuncio came prepared to apprehend and execute a particularly odious heretic.
But back to the picture. I took it in the most unlikely of places–it is one of the images in the stained glass windows in the Wormser Dom, St. Peter’s Cathedral. That’s correct! One of the windows in the Roman Catholic cathedral in Worms commemorates a man condemned as a heretic by the Church, and lists three of the Reformation solas that he stood for, all of which were condemned by the Council of Trent! Obviously, the window is of post-Vatican II vintage. It is part of the work of Alois Plum, a stained glass artist, who designed the current windows in the Dom between 1966 and 1995 to replace those that had been destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. Though Luther is still considered to be excommunicated and anathematized by the Roman Catholic Church, in Worms he still protests Roman Catholic soteriology, and by invitation, no less!
He may not have long to wait, however, before he is restored to the good graces of the Church. After all, Pope Francis traveled to Sweden today to join an ecumenical prayer meeting commemorating the beginning of the 500th anniversary celebration of the Reformation. Francis, in fact, has said that he thinks Luther was “not mistaken” in his intentions, and that Lutherans and Catholics agree on the doctrine of justification (much to the consternation of many Roman Catholics, by the way)! While I don’t think the Reformation is over, it is certainly an odd thing to hear the pope say that Luther was right.
What would Luther think of such things? Though some might envision him spinning in his grave, I’m not so sure of that. After all, Luther did not set out to start a new church or cause a schism. Luther might rather be saying that it’s about time, and much trouble could have been avoided if pope Leo X would have seen things the way Francis does.
What might cause Luther to spin in his grave is that Protestantism has become so fragmented. Of the thousands of Christian denominations, the vast majority are some variety of Protestant. For all its faults, the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to maintain at least a formal unity for the Western church for over 1000 years is something that Protestants can only wistfully dream about. I am not on the road to Rome (nor to Canterbury), but I do mourn for the way Protestantism opened the door to a fragmented church, as much as I understand its necessity.
On this Reformation day, I am thankful for Luther’s courage, because his faithfulness to the gospel was risky and costly. “Here I stand, I can do no other” (Ich stehe hier und kann nicht anders) may not be something he truly uttered at the Diet, but they are words that capture his spirit. (By the way, Laura, my sock-collector daughter, has among her prize possessions a pair of socks from Worms that have that saying on them–a cool bit of theology nerd paraphernalia.) And as much as Luther has a reputation for being a hot-headed rebel, his statement at the Diet was anything but a rash outburst. When confronted with the question as to whether he would recant, Luther did not answer immediately. To everyone’s surprise, he asked for a day to consider his answer. The next day, after much prayer and consultation with his advisers, he said,
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Hendrickson, 2009, 180).
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” May all of us be so captive in our day.