Christian faiths across the globe remembered the 500th anniversary since German Catholic priest Martin Luther published his 95 theses in 1517, marking the beginning of what would become the Protestant Reformation. Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge reflects on the conflict and graces that have come out of this important movement.
RECENTLY I saw an item on a website which bore the headline “No Luther, No Reformation, No Bach: It’s pretty simple”.
Well, I’m here to say that nothing about the Reformation was or is simple – to the point where, I suspect, only God sees it whole.
And when I say “it” I mean not so much an event as a process.
For one thing, the Reformation’s pre-history was exceedingly complex.
It’s not as if Luther burst out of nowhere in 1517. For centuries there had been more or less urgent talk in the Western Church of the need for reform, as the understanding of reform shifted from rooting out the weeds in the field of the Church to reform of the Church as a whole, root and branch.
Successive reforms by Popes and Councils had some effect, but they didn’t silence the call for more radical and thorough-going reform of the Church through the Middle Ages.
So pressure continued to build to the point where, by the early sixteenth century, something like Martin Luther had to happen. Ecclesiastically and politically Europe had become a powder-keg, and the explosion was bound to come.
The only questions were where, when, how and to what effect.
It came in the figure of the German Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, who is nothing if not complex. Not even his name is simple.
His surname was Luder which, beyond its rather crude connotations in German, echoed the Latin word for “game”, ludus. Martin certainly wasn’t playing games.
After 1517 he took to naming himself Martinus Eleutherius, echoing instead the Greek word for “liberator”, which was much more his style.
And so Martin passed into history as Luther rather than Luder.
Beyond his name, he was a personality of astonishing contrasts, even contradictions.
A man of deep piety and prayer, vast intellectual creativity and a huge capacity for work, he was also a formidable communicator, in the word both spoken and written but also in music.
He was known as a model of domestic virtue, a true and hospitable friend and a generous guide to those who sought his help.
Yet he could also be intolerant, obstinate and inflexible, never admitting the possibility of mistake or error.
His vehemence could become at times abuse and slander.
Through all of this Luther stands very much as the modern man, in stark contrast to, say, Thomas More with whom he disagreed violently in what looks to be now a clash between the last medieval man and the first modern man.
The effects of Luther’s protest were also extremely complex, in part because the German princes saw their opportunity and decided to politicise the protest.
This led to an intricate and enduring interaction between theology and politics, the effects of which are with us to this day.
It also led to the fateful Wars of Religion, from which the West has still not recovered.
You can hardly blame political decision-makers for thinking that, if this is what religion produces, then better to exclude it from the ordering of the state and its political life.
Yet in the midst of all that was dark and destructive, the Reformation undoubtedly produced rich fruit.
The current Prior General of the Augustinian Friars has spoken of these as “the revalorization of the individual, reaffirmed confidence in God, the centrality of Scripture, bringing the liturgy closer to the people, a healthy secularity and the need for reform understood as a return to the essentials”.
Others could doubtless be added; and the more general claim would be that a new theology and ecclesiastical polity brought to birth a new world, in which new energies were released, not all of which would have been foreseen or approved by Luther and the early reformers but many of which opened grand new horizons of possibility.
One of those energies was a finally effective commitment to reform in the Roman Catholic Church.
It probably took the trauma of the sundering of Western Christianity to stir them, but stir they did in the Council of Trent which initiated a great arc of Church reform reaching to the Second Vatican Council and beyond.
The arc continues in the figure of Pope Francis, himself a member of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, who were one of the great fruits of the Catholic Reformation, which was itself nothing if not complex.
In some ways, it seems, the Reformation is over; but in another sense it has a long way to run if we look to the task of moving from conflict to communion that lies before us.
Conflict there has certainly been, and it has left the Body of Christ wounded, seriously if not fatally.
With the heat of past polemics now diminished and the political and cultural contexts we face quite changed, the time for healing has surely come, not just for our own sake but for the sake of the world.
That process has already begun, but we still have much to do.
True healing will involve the larger understandings which are already emerging.
Sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide was the cry of the Protestant Reformation.
The Catholic Reformation spoke rather of the need for interpretation of the Scripture (what came to be known as tradition); it spoke of divine grace, yes, but also the need for human cooperation; and it spoke of faith, certainly, but good works as the fruit of grace and faith. Who was right?
Well, both were if both are rightly understood; and we’re in a better position now to understand what was and is being said in fact.
At the heart of all the complexity there lies the endlessly complex interplay of grace and sin, which God alone will be able to resolve.
As we look back across 500 years, we tell a story of both.
All have sinned but all have been embraced by the grace of God.
We may not yet agree precisely on the effects of that embrace, but surely we agree that it is grace where we start and where we end.
If we believe in the triumph of grace over sin – and surely we renew that belief in this commemoration – then we cannot but commit more passionately to the journey from conflict to communion.
That was the title of the statement produced by the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity to mark this commemoration.
Its last paragraph offers words with which I too conclude: “The beginnings of the Reformation will be rightly remembered when Lutherans and Catholics hear together the gospel of Jesus Christ and allow themselves to be called anew into communion with the Lord. Then they will be united in a common mission” (From Conflict to Communion, 245).
That at least is clear, and that at last is simple.