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An October 31 bang on the door started a reformation

Reformation began 492 years ago

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Martin Luther nails his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg

While children in costumes wander the streets knocking on doors asking for candy October 31, few will commemorate a more significant action that happened in Wittenberg, Germany 492 years ago. On the eve of All Saints Day, Dr. Martin Luther, a professor and monk, nailed to the door of the university’s chapel a document containing 95 theses, inviting discussion. The subject? Complaints against the practices of the Roman Church that made God’s salvation and a place in heaven a commodity which someone could buy. Luther’s actions sparked a revolution in Christendom.

Throughout the western world lie traces of Luther's legacy. Among other things, the 16th century reformer was instrumental in reshaping the political face of Europe, popularizing the Bible, recognizing the importance of education, promoting musical expression and calling the established church back to its scriptural roots. In 2000, Luther was named the third most influential man of the millennium, after Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, and scientist Sir Isaac Newton.

Martin Luther was a typical medieval man—to our eyes a chauvinistic, opinionated, often bombastic, right-wing fundamentalist. However, it is not fair to judge a historical figure by 21st century standards because the good accomplished becomes overshadowed by the desire for political correctness.

Everything Luther did, taught, and wrote was driven by his desire to see the proclamation of a pure Christian faith, unadulterated by tradition or self-interest. As a young Augustinian monk and theology professor, he had always struggled with his own unworthiness and sinfulness before God. Personal confession would take hours and, even after hearing the words of absolution, he would never allow himself to experience God's forgiveness. The turning point came as he studied the Bible and meditated on St. Paul's letter to the Romans and the phrase “The righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written: the righteous shall live by faith.” Luther finally understood that “the righteousness of God is the righteousness in which a just man lives by the gift of God, in other words by faith” he later wrote. Nothing we can do will ever bring us into a right relationship with God; it is God's action that brings us to Him.

This new understanding was the driving force behind the Reformation movement and Luther. Historian, Rev. Dr. Richard Kraemer, retired president of Edmonton’s Concordia University College of Alberta, explains that theologians and philosophers in the middle ages were “busy trying to prove the existence of God and in a series of abstracts, how to reach the heights where He is. Luther's approach was different. He said that what we know about God is that He is for us—God created me and all that exists; Jesus died for me and the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel. Luther wanted people to know that God cared for them so much that He sent His only Son—Jesus.”

Martin Luther never intended to form a new church. His sole desire in questioning the practices of the Roman church was to ensure that the Gospel was preached in its purity, stripped of anything that would stop anyone from receiving God's gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. “What is remarkable about Luther,” says Judy Meier, a history professor at Concordia University College, “is that he bucked the system and survived when others who did the same thing ended up being burned at the stake. Luther died of old age!”

After 492 years, what do we see of Luther's legacy?

“When Lutherans worship using traditional settings found in our hymnals, we're getting very close to Luther,” says Dr. John Stephenson, a Luther scholar at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Luther's Formula missae of 1523 and Deutsche Messe of 1526 were abolished during the 18th century but were restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in North America.
The fact the service is in the language of the worshipper is another legacy from Luther. Making the Bible and worship available to all German Christians began with a translation of the Bible that is equal in poetic quality and linguistic accuracy with the King James Version of 1611. The German poet Goethe credits Luther with unifying the German language. While Luther's was not the only translation, it is regarded as the most accurate for the time.
With the Word of God in the hands and language of the people, the next logical step was to begin worshipping in German. Stephenson calls it "a huge revolutionary act." Before Luther, all aspects of the service were in Latin and the Words of Institution spoken before communion were whispered by the priest. Even if you understood the Latin, you couldn't hear what was going on. The Lutherans not only conducted worship in German, but loudly chanted the Words of Institution so everyone understood that "this is My body...this is My blood." Like all of Luther's reforms, the changes ensured a clear proclamation of the Gospel.
Lutheranism is also reflected in other churches. When Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was formulating the new prayer book for the Church of England in 1552, he was strongly influenced by north German Lutheran liturgies. His wife was the niece of a Lutheran reformer and he understood German.

The Methodist tradition, which grew from the Church of England, is also a product of Luther's insights. It was at a prayer meeting in London in 1738 that John Wesley heard a sermon on Luther's introduction to the Bible’s book of Romans and discovered for himself that salvation is a gift of God. From these Methodist roots sprung one of the founding church bodies we now know as the United Church of Canada.

Even the Roman Catholic Church was influenced by Luther. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the Roman church addressed some of the abuses and departures from traditional doctrine which Luther had pointed out. At the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the Roman Catholic Church introduced liturgy in the language of the people and ceased praying for “heretics” (i.e.: the followers of Luther and other reformers).

Another place we see Luther's legacy is in education—not just in the growing network of Lutheran schools across Canada—but the idea that the state should be active in educating children. “So burning was his desire to have the Scriptures read by everyone,” explains Richard Kraemer, “that he advocated establishing schools so that every child, male and female, could be taught to read and write. This would not only provide them with access to God's Word, but the training they received would allow them to better serve others.”
The printing press made this type of education possible. “Luther was one of the first church leaders to embrace and feel comfortable with the printing press and to write for the public instead of just the well-educated,” observes Professor Meier. “That is what makes his rebellion into a movement.”
Luther also championed the idea that children were not just miniature adults, but progressed through various developmental stages as they matured. No doubt his theory was based on observing the behaviour and growth of the six children born to him and his wife Katherina, a former nun.
In medieval society the priests, monks and nuns held special status as they were considered “called by God.” Luther believed every occupation was a vocation (from the Latin vocatio meaning call) —a calling from God—whether you were a carpenter, farmer or king. "It was the Christians' opportunity to see their faith become active in love," says Dr. Kraemer. “By taking this attitude, Luther dignified every occupation.”

Professor Meier agrees. “He believed that priests and monks were no different from anyone else. They were just doing a different job in society.”

Affirming the importance of all believers is also evident in Luther's approach to music. Whenever you hear a church congregation sing a hymn, you can thank Martin Luther. A gifted singer, composer and poet, Luther moved music from the chancel to the congregation. Until that time, professional musicians or the priests provided music in the services—all in Latin. The first Lutheran book of hymns published in 1524 contained thirty-seven selections, twenty credited to Luther. The revolutionary aspect was that they were sung in the language of the people. By freeing music from the elite, everyone was free to participate in musical praise. He also encouraged the formation of choral societies in towns and villages and music instruction for children. “There would not have been a Bach without Luther,” Dr. Kraemer comments. Bach's works were often reflections of the Lutheran liturgy and his oratorios would complement the readings for a specific season.

The Small Catechism
Everyone who becomes a member of a Lutheran congregation is introduced to the church by one of Luther's most enduring legacies—The Small Catechism. This clear scriptural presentation of the basics of the Christian faith has been studied and memorized by Lutherans around the world for more than 400 years and is known in the Lutheran writings as the layman's Bible. Written after Luther discovered the abysmal state of Christian knowledge, even in pastors, he originally published the work as a series of posters. The catechism explains simply the Ten Commandments, The Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, and the Sacrament of the Altar (communion). The second section instructs the head of the house about teaching children morning and evening prayer, and prayer before and after meals. Finally, Luther provides scriptural teaching on godly living for both church officials and members. For Dr. Stephenson, this work "is the principal agent that keeps Luther's legacy alive in Lutheran Church–Canada.”

Today’s church
According to Dr. Stephenson, Luther would find some kindred souls in Lutheran Church–Canada, but in the almost 500 years since he dared question the Church on the basis of the Bible, the church which bears Luther's name has changed. Both Lutheran orthodoxy (a strict adherence to doctrine) and pietism (an individual, private, subjective faith) have had major influences on the Lutheran Church.
Of the many lessons Luther left the Lutheran Church, Dr. Stephenson believes two are the most important: “Luther would want us to cling to the centrality of the Gospel and the Means of Grace—God’s gifts of salvation and forgiveness. These are the bottom line of Luther’s legacy.”

by Ian Adnams, editor of The Canadian Lutheran, the magazine of Lutheran Church–Canada. © 2009 Lutheran Church–Canada

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