Five centuries after the Reformation, Martin Luther’s legacy lives on
Theologians of all denominations agree church division need never have happened
Portrait of Martin Luther: Reading St Paul and translating the New Testament into German brought about a tidal change in Luther’s personal quest for God
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31st, 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses for discussion to bishops and clergy concerning good works and the widespread abuses of the selling of indulgences in the Church.
Indulgences, used for financing the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, promised the uneducated laity the remittance of punishment in purgatory and thus functioned as a “fast track” to heaven.
In thesis 45, Luther contended in no uncertain terms: “Christians are to be taught that someone who sees a human being in need, and passes them by, and gives [money] for pardons, purchases not the indulgences of the Pope, but the indignation of God.”
Reading St Paul and translating the New Testament into German brought about a tidal change in Luther’s contemplations and personal quest for God. His central concern would be how humans develop a right relationship with God. It came to be known as the doctrine of justification.
In St Paul, Luther found answers to his question “how do I find a gracious God?” Not by procuring indulgences but by faith in the God of grace. As Paul writes: “But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed . . . the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (Romans 3: 21)
Saved by faith
Humans cannot assure themselves salvation through countless indulgences and good works. It is God’s love and grace and our faith that save. Faith, Luther stated, “is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it”.
Faith is the proper response to God’s initiative. For Luther the search for the God of love was not only theological but existential; not a matter of scholastic speculation but real. In so doing, St Paul, St Augustine and the German mystics, Johannes Tauler and Meister Eckhart, were formative in Luther’s thought.
At the heart of Luther’s theology was the notion that the human being is, and always must be, in a free, direct relationship with God, without coercing practices by the institutional church.
In one of his central reformatory writings, The Freedom of a Christian (1520), he declared: “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all and subject to everyone.”
Far from rejecting good works, as Luther was often misunderstood to have done, he asserted that for a Christian, “free lord” and “dutiful servant”, it is a given that good works will flow freely out of one’s faith.
Luther’s reformatory aims concerned the church and the education system in Germany. Christians should be taught to read the Bible and be informed about their faith; Masses were to be held in the vernacular; the Eucharist to be distributed under both species (bread and wine).
Luther’s polemics against the decadent pope and hierarchy were sharp. He did not recant and was declared a heretic and outlaw in 1521. Despite efforts to the contrary, the split with Rome became inevitable, a consequence that Luther never intended nor could foresee in 1517.
Thankfully, 500 years on, false perceptions, mutual condemnations and divisions have been overcome by the ecumenical movement and rapprochement between the churches. Theologians from all denominations now agree that on theological grounds, church division need never have happened.
The legacy of the Reformation is vast and reaches in to our own times, most especially in relation to notions of grace and salvation, ecclesiology, human and religious freedom, individual conscience, and the importance of religious and secular education.
To mark the quincentenary, a symposium, The Reformation 1517-2017, will take place on February 17th-18th in Trinity College, Dublin, and conclude with a service in the Lutheran Church, Adelaide Road, on February 19th.
It will focus on the notion of freedom in Luther’s thought and in Christian life and it will discuss the biblical and historical legacy of the Reformation.
The event is free and will include talks by academics from Germany, Sweden and Ireland, a travelling exhibition from Germany, a reception, evening concerts, and a book exhibition in the Long Room. All are welcome.
See lutheran-ireland.org for further information.