Reformation 2017

Symphonic Meditation on “Ein’ Feste Burg” W. Zeitler

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday — Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle. But I wonder if ’Reformation Sunday’ is not so much an ‘event’ as it is a ‘process’.

In Luther’s day, the view was that salvation came through the Catholic Church (the sacraments, indulgences, etc.). To Luther, salvation came by a direct connection between God and the believer through faith. This profoundly undercut the ’monopoly on God’ the Catholic Church asserted at the time. Luther’s declaration clearly cut right to the heart of the Catholic Church’s “value proposition”: “Church: We’re the only way! Luther: no, you’re not.” But Luther was hardly the first person in the history of the Church to assert that.

Furthermore, when Luther asserted that a believer only needed Faith and not the sacraments of the Catholic Church, he essentially asserted that the Pope was wrong. And if the Pope could be ‘wrong’ about that, well, he would be wrong about pretty much anything. This conclusion not only undercut the Pope’s ‘theological/spiritual’ power, but also his ‘secular’ power. The Church was demanding too much in taxes and worse of the kings and princes of that day, and seemingly more daily. Luther provided the ‘theological cover’ they needed to reject the Church’s political power. (Unfortunately that resulted in some of the most devastating wars of European — as measured by percentage of population casualties (both civilians and soldiers): for example the 30 Years War with casualties of about 30% of the affected population, vs. WWII: about 3% ).

Another reform of Luther’s was his translation and publication of the Bible in his vernacular (German). Meanwhile, translations of the Bible into German date back to the 4th century. Sometimes it is asserted that “the [Catholic] Church didn’t want believers to have Bibles,” but the reality is that before Gutenberg they were simply ridiculously unaffordable. (Think about how much a Bible copied out long-hand would cost you.) Arguably the extreme expense of Bibles before Luther agreed with the Catholic Church’s agenda, but Gutenberg’s press was also arguably the single most disruptive technological innovation in Western history, and Luther put it to good use.

Meanwhile, as we focus on what Luther changed, it’s worth noting what he DIDN’T. And so you find Bach two centuries later — as staunch a Lutheran as you’re ever likely to find — Bach went to his local LUTHERAN church for confession every week.

In no way am I trying to minimize Luther’s achievement. He was truly the right person at the right time – with the intelligence, wit, endurance and shear guts to pull it off. (And luck/providence too!)

Meanwhile, like Luther, we today are trying to apply God’s Eternal Truths to our own peculiar time and place. It’s not that those Truths change. But the problems we face, and the cultural lens through which we try to comprehend God and the world (America in 2017), and the very language with which we try to understand and express that (English) – all of that changes from age to age.


Luther opposed an oppressive power structure of his day. What unrighteous power structures can WE challenge?

Luther was committed to disseminating the Truth as he saw it using whatever means available (including the new-fangled printing press). How can we disseminate our own message of the Christ more effectively?

Luther was also thoughtful about not throwing out what was worthy which he had inherited from the Catholic Church. How can we be thoughtful about doing the same, preserving “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…” (Phil 4:8), and yet responsive to the ongoing metamorphosis of our world and Church?

In short, how can we apply Luther’s example (and Calvin’s and Wesley’s), and lessons learned, to the unique challenges we face today? Even if we choose just one thing to do…