O God, our refuge and our strength: Thou didst raise up thy servant Martin Luther to reform and renew thy Church in the light of thy word. Defend and purify the Church in our own day and grant that, through faith, we may boldly proclaim the riches of thy grace which thou hast made known in Jesus Christ our Savior, who with thee and the Holy Spirit, liveth and reigneth, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
– Collect from Holy Women, Holy Men
Martin Luther was a German 16th century theologian and monk. He was highly educated and, at the time, on the path to becoming a lawyer. All that changed when he was called to the ministry and joined an Augustinian monastic order. During his time in the order, he noticed many of the moral ills of the Roman Catholic Church under the reign of Pope Leo X. These ills included indulgences, the Biblical Text not being made available to the laity, and many others that are listed in his famous “95 Theses.”
In 1517, Dr. Luther wrote Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The document was a list of 95 charges against the Roman Catholic Church. He nailed the document to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, for all to see. Needless to say, he received backlash and was requested to recant of his statements to both Pope Leo X and Charles V. He refused, and was excommunicated. As a result, and on the heels of mini revolutions in small country towns, the spark of the Reformation became the fire that lead to Protestantism.
In reflecting on the legacy of Luther, I think about how misunderstood he is. Truth be told, I misunderstood Luther. When I was a Baptist, like many free church clergy, I had (and still have) a copy of Luther’s Writings on my bookshelf. Many free church Christians view Luther as a patron saint of sorts. They believe that Luther saved the Church from ruin and damnation at the hands of the Pope. Many Roman Catholics also have a misrepresentation of Martin Luther. I recall watching a documentary titled Hell House. A young Catholic man who was offended by an Evangelical young woman’s pleas of “coming to Jesus before it’s too late” screams something to the effect of; “You should thank us for Luther! He was a Catholic FIRST! Without him, you wouldn’t have a church!”
Luther was very important to the growth and development of the church as a whole. His run in with Pope Leo X and Charles V was NOT the be all and end all of the Reformation. There were mini reformations and revolutions occurring prior to the series of events in other parts of Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland. Henry VIII of England, like Luther, did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church, but could not navigate through the system of hypocrisy and corruption that was present in the church at the time. Although Henry VIII wrote treaties against Luther, he, and the entire Church of England left the See of Rome in 1534.
It is important to note that Luther nor Henry VIII did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church. It models for me the process of trying to work within a system prior to leaving or being pushed out. All too often, in our modern society, we are quick to “take our ball and go home” if things do not go the way want initially. We rather, as clergy, start our own churches after 1 trivial disagreement. As laity, we leave a church when the clergy preach something that we do not like and proceed to hop around until we find the “perfect church.” I believe C.S. Lewis mentioned something about this in The Screwtape Letters in the 1940s.
All in all, Luther was quite complex. His example should challenge us to look at our churches with a critical lens, as a means of improving the shortcomings. Doing this, in love, will result in what St. Ignatius has done for the Roman Catholic Church. I believe we lose the second part, and only focus on the first. It’s easy to point out the problems, it’s harder to put in the work towards solutions.