On October 31, 2017, Reformation Day, various activities around the world will mark the 500th anniversary of the event when Martin Luther supposedly nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This is remembered as the dramatic start of the Protestant Reformation that created the greatest schism in Western Christendom. Actually, it wasn’t all that dramatic. The door of the Castle Church was the location of the bulletin board of the newly founded Wittenberg University, where Luther was a young professor. Following usual academic practice, Luther listed a number of propositions that he wanted to discuss in a “disputation” (we’d call it a seminar today). The text was in Latin, which few people outside academia could read. The topic was the sale of “indulgences”—papal pardons for various sins—peddled around Germany by an unsavory character by the name of Tetzel. But this seemingly routine text contained a time bomb: Luther not only criticized Tetzel’s crass commercialism, but also the authority of the Pope to issue indulgences at all (whether for sale or not). Again routinely, Luther sent a copy to the Archbishop of Mainz, who had supervisory role at Wittenberg. He must have understood the implications of what had landed on his desk. Apparently he sent a copy to Rome, which reacted with fury.
It so happened that the modern printing press had just been invented. The “Theses” were translated into German and other languages, and circulated as a tract throughout Europe. This little storm in a teapot (the American writer Paul Goodman called it “a conspiracy of junior faculty in a provincial university”) morphed into a tsunami that Luther neither intended nor foresaw.
Curiously, Karl Barth (1886-1968), widely considered the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century, had a similar experience of inadvertently starting an important event. In 1922 Barth published a revised edition of his commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The book directly challenged the whole body of then liberal theology and still reverberates today as a new Protestant orthodoxy. Barth was then a simple pastor in a Swiss village. The book aroused enormous attention, and Barth was appointed a professor first in Goettingen, then in Basel where he spent most of his life. In reflecting about this career, Barth used a metaphor that can well describe Luther’s trajectory: A man climbs in the dark inside a church tower. About to lose his balance, he holds onto a rope that hangs down next to him. He didn’t realize that the roped is attached to a huge bell, which now thunders powerfully across a wide landscape.
As I write this, the anniversary is still a year in the future. The preparations have already begun. The German state of Thuringia, where many events of the early Reformation took place, runs a vigorous tourism promotion. An American Lutheran publication carried an advertisement: “Visit Lutherland—renew your faith!” (Tetzel returns, to sell Lutheran indulgences?). Pope Francis is about to visit Sweden, where he will conduct a joint Catholic-Protestant prayer service in Lund Cathedral. Next month the International Martin Luther Foundation (whose office is located in Erfurt, in the Augustinian monastery where young Luther had his great crisis of faith) will hold a conference in Copenhagen to explore the spiritual roots of the Scandinavian welfare state.
Even if one has no theological interest in reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics, one can certainly celebrate the fact that they no longer kill each other (as they did with murderous enthusiasm before the Peace of Westphalia in 1648). Since then the old animosity occasionally flared up again. Otto von Bismarck (who incidentally invented a Lutheran welfare state in Prussia decades before the Scandinavians) tried to marginalize the Catholics in the so-called Kulturkampf. He failed. The conflict seemed to recur during “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, though it is unclear how far that conflict was really about religion, as opposed to primeval tribal hatreds. (A joke from that period: A pedestrian walks down a dark street in Belfast. A gunman jumps out holding his weapon and asks: “Are you Protestant or Catholic?” The pedestrian: “Well, actually I’m an atheist.” The gunman: “Ah yes, but are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?”
In the wake of the Reformation there developed contradictory and condemnatory narratives. The Lutheran narrative (later adopted by other Protestant churches) was of course heroic. An enduring icon: Luther standing alone in front of the Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms (1521) and refusing to recant as demanded by the papal legate, saying “Here I stand, I can do no other.” (According to the official record, that’s not quite what he said. He did say that he will not recant unless convinced by scriptural argument that he was wrong, and that his conscience was bound by the Word of God. Then he added: “It is dangerous to go against conscience.” This is more wordy than the iconic quote, but really says the same thing). As to heroism, Luther was under the so-called imperial ban, which meant that anyone could kill him without fear of punishment. We know that he was terrified before coming to Worms, saying to himself: “Who are you, little monk, to stand against Emperor and Pope?” Let the heroism be conceded.
The creation of icons brushes over blemishes. Luther had some truly big ones. In 1521 (the same year he stood and could do no other) he published his tract Against the Murdering, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, endorsing the merciless suppression of the peasants’ revolt. Even worse, in 1543 appeared Luther’s Of the Jews and their Lies, a viciously anti-Semitic diatribe. There can be no excuse for these moral offenses. But both reflected Luther’s situation at the time. The first was motivated by his desire to distance himself from the Anabaptist interpretation of the Reformation as a call for revolution (a sort of early Liberation Theology). The second expressed Luther’s petty disappointment that the Jews had not flocked to his movement: After all, he had gone to the trouble of learning Hebrew, to make sure that he correctly translated the Old Testament. But I would add another blemish, more spiritual than moral: Luther’s deep sense of utter worthlessness before a terrifying God whom he could never satisfy. He found a way out of the crisis by taking reassurance from the Apostle Paul’s assertion that we are saved by God’s grace rather than by our own exertions. (I don’t want to psychologize here about what seems like a theological version of the Stockholm syndrome—victims identifying with their oppressors. Calvin later amplified this masochistic view in his idea of “double predestination”—God has decided who is to be saved and who sent to hell, regardless of their actions, and we are called to praise his sovereign justice. Arguably the most repulsive doctrine in Christian history. But Luther’s take on this is bad enough.)
The Catholic counter-narrative, the script for the Counter-Reformation, sought to debunk the iconic depiction of Luther. He was depicted as an anarchist opposed to lawful order (the charge he sought to dispel in his denunciation of the peasants’ revolt). He was also denounced as a lecher. He did suggest to Philip of Hessen (an early princely supporter of the Reformation) that he deal pragmatically with the embarrassing fact of bigamy. And Luther did marry Katharina of Bora, one of several nuns who escaped from a convent to take refuge in Wittenberg. I doubt whether lechery had much to do with this decision. Katharina was an intelligent and strong woman, who was intensely loyal to Luther, raised the six children they had together, and was hospitable to the many visitors who came to visit from afar to sit at her table and listen to her husband’s renowned “table talk.” The personal attacks on Luther have much abated (except for his late-age anti-Semitism, for which several Lutheran bodies have apologized in Germany and elsewhere). Instead an amicable ecumenical truce has emerged, especially after the Second Vatican Council.
A certain high point in this Catholic/Lutheran ecumenism was reached in 1999 with a joint declaration on the doctrine of justification by a working group of theologians appointed by the Vatican’s Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation. Prior to the declaration there had been long discussion, some of which to an outsider may look like abstract hairsplitting. In any case, both sides agreed that this doctrine “need no longer be an occasion for condemnation.” It had been just that for several centuries. The Lutheran mantra had been the phrase sola fide/”by faith alone,” which Luther inserted in his translation of Romans 3:28—“Man is justified by faith [alone], apart from works of the law.” The Catholics agreed that their insistence on good works did not deny the free gift of God’s grace, the Lutherans that they were not “antinomians” (those who believed that those who had faith did not need law at all). I would not deny the usefulness of such discussions, where professional theologians explain “what we believe.” But just who is “we?” Most believers are not theologians, don’t know about the fine distinctions made by the latter, and wouldn’t care much if they did. This is why so many ecumenical discussions (including interfaith ones) impress me as border negotiations between non-existing states. The explanations should be rephrased as “what we think should be believed.”
When both were threatened by the militant Counter-Reformation, German and Swiss Protestants (then respectively led by Luther and by Ulrich Zwingli) tried to reach a joint theological platform. A major difference between them concerned the understanding of the Eucharist (a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper). When they could not agree, Luther said to Zwingli: “Out of you speaks a different spirit.” Catholics and Protestants today might engage in a bit of ecumenical tourism, and sequentially visit a worship service of their own and the other party’s. After that they might repeat (not in anger) what Luther said to Zwingli: “Out of you speaks another spirit.”