Many churches around the globe are celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s radical upheaval of medieval Catholicism. What he set in motion on Oct. 31, 1517, as he posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, challenging the religious authorities to a debate, affects us still. We are still trying to catch up with Luther in many areas; and in other areas, we rightly distance ourselves from his writings, especially his perspectives on Jews.
What was Luther so upset about that he nailed the placard of grievances to the door, which served as the public bulletin board of that little village? Let’s look back at the Catholicism that nurtured him to see what was going on.
Catholicism at the time of Luther had become a complicated system of trying to earn one’s salvation. One could travel to Rome and view the relics: a splinter from the cross; the chains of St. Paul; a lock from John’s head etc., ad nauseum. By viewing these so-called holy treasures or climbing Pilate’s steps on hands and knees, kissing the stairs for good measure, one might hope to release one’s parents from purgatory. This approach to working out one’s salvation suggested one could not really count on Christ’s forgiveness totally. This made Luther miserable, fearful that his salvation was not secure.
In the Augustinian cloister he had fasted, slept in the cold, and confessed the smallest of sins in a never-ending cycle of penance. Later in life he believed that these austerities had harmed his digestive system, about which he wrote entirely too much.
The thing that really set it off for Luther was the idea of indulgences. The pope had a cash flow problem, and he was in a capital campaign project to enhance buildings in Rome. So, the idea was born to issue indulgences; for a sum of money, one could buy forgiveness for oneself or parents. The brilliant marketing slogan of the Dominican Tetzel, who supervised the sale, was:
As soon as the coin in the coffer clings,
Another soul from purgatory springs.
One’s eternal destiny seemed to depend on factors other than the death of Christ. Later Luther was to observe that if the Pope had the power over purgatory, why did he not let them all out? It was more revenue positive to do it this way, evidently.
Luther’s breakthrough came when he realized through his study of Scripture that God’s justification is a gift; it is not something we must earn. By learning that God’s wrath had been submerged in mercy and that grace transcended works, he was no longer captive to a troubled conscience, but to the liberating Word of God.
There are parts of the Reformation legacy we have not fully realized. We are still reforming in the area of the priesthood of all believers. We know that women have made wonderful progress, yet in Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches, only 6.5 percent of senior pastors are women. Next week the Tennessee Baptist Convention will be deciding whether or not a church with a woman as its senior minister will be allowed to remain in the fold. It is hard to believe that this time-worn conversation continues.
We are still reforming in our thought about vocation. Luther believed that any profession could be an expression of Christian service. This teaching can revitalize our understanding of the dignity of work and how Christians bear witness in the public square. My husband, of blessed memory, pursued a Christian vocation as a medical doctor; my calling as a minister was not superior to his, although I could argue that a seminary was better than a med school — primarily because you get to sing rather than cut things up!
Finally, Baptists are still reforming in understanding a theology of the cross. Luther was very critical of those who expect all “to gleam in glory” rather than seeking God where God chooses to hide — in the cradle and the cross. Rather than speculating about the actions of God, we should return again to the place of self-revealing in suffering, desolation and humility. That is where we should look for God.
Often we see human suffering as a judgment or a sign of abandonment by God. Yet, that is where God is to be found, truly. The cross demonstrates God’s vulnerability to all that would assail humanity, and that by being “pushed out of the world onto the cross” (Bonhoeffer) God can redeem the groaning exigencies of life.
So, as we celebrate this great inflection point in Christian history, we do so with awareness that the reforming impulse interrogates our practice as Baptists. We ever need to be reformed, along with the whole church.