Although my theological roots are completely on the Protestant side, I don’t have the romantic view of Martin Luther and the Reformation that many people seem to have.
Today is the 500th anniversary of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. That event was the start of a movement against the authority of the existing church. Luther challenged much that was wrong in the church of his day, but he got enough wrong that I’m uncomfortable holding him up as a hero for God.
Many Christians around the world celebrate today as Reformation Day and the 500th anniversary has taken on great significance for some, but I find myself looking at it in a different way. I don’t really see much to celebrate.
The Roman Catholic church was undoubtedly corrupt in 1517. You could argue all day about who to blame and how the problems should have been addressed, but it’s far too complicated to get into those theological and practical issues here. Let’s just say that when a church is openly selling permission to sin and taking money from its people for the ostensible purpose of allowing those people’s dead family members to suffer less in the afterlife, what you’re doing is vile.
Luther was bothered by a lot of what was going on around him and he was absolutely right in objecting to much of that, but I don’t see a lot to celebrate in many other things that he did and believed — and I see that his followers quickly become just as vile as what the Catholic church had been. Just in different ways.
(For an in-depth look at the murderous violence between the groups who followed Luther and the groups loyal to the Catholic church, I strongly recommend you listen to Dan Carlin’s episode of Hardcore History that deals with this. The episode called “Prophets of Doom” is embedded below. It deals with the violent struggle for control of the German city of Munster and it will give you historical perspective on the struggle which you weren’t taught in any church — either Catholic or Protestant.)
The Reformation was an important event in history, both for Christians and the world, but I have trouble being a cheerleader for either side.
When I look at controversies and battles between religious groups in the past — especially among Christians — I find myself coming back to one key question. Does what I see being taught square with what Jesus taught? In almost every case, I find that the arguments of the combatants are coming from a place of pride — a place of anger and a place of worldly control — not from a place of love.
Today, you can find Catholics who tell you why Luther is probably in hell. They will tell you what a terrible person he was — and much of what they say is true.
You can also find plenty of Protestants — especially among Lutherans — who revere Luther. (An ex-girlfriend told me about a student at her Lutheran college who was proud to say that he was a Lutheran first and a Christian second.) Many of these people have such a romantic view of the Reformation that they see nothing troubling about Luther’s virulent anti-semitism, among other things.
I can’t join either side of the debate. I have to look at what Jesus taught and conclude that they both did a terrible job of obeying Jesus — but I have to conclude that most modern Christians don’t do much better.
If we really want to reform the church, we don’t need to look to Luther or a pope or a modern theologian or a televangelist. There might be good things to take from all of those folks, but there’s really only one standard that any of us should hold ourselves to.
Do our lives reflect what Jesus taught? Do we love others? Are our hearts and minds being changed by that love?
Far too many Christians are caught up in the world’s politics. Far too many are trying to prove to others how right they are about theology (and how wrong everybody else is). Far too many are running around with a list of sins and pointing out how terrible everyone else is (while conveniently ignoring their own pride and other sins).
Very few of us reflect the love of Jesus — and what really needs reform most is our own hearts.
The Reformation was a huge historical change. It’s worth noting and worth studying. But it’s a mistake to romanticize it into something that it didn’t mean.