Listening to Martin Luther’s famous hymn “Ein Feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress),” I remember the courageous, larger-than-life priest and theologian who nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on All Hallows’ Eve, Oct. 31, 1517.
This Sunday, churches in the Lutheran and Presbyterian communion will observe Reformation Sunday marking that dramatic declaration that eventually led to the birth of the Protestant Church based on justification by faith through grace and proclaiming the authority of the scripture as more important than the authority of pope and church.
Whether one is Protestant or Catholic or even Christian, one must recognize the impact this singularly gifted German priest made in our world. Luther once described his mission, “I was born to war with fanatics and evils. Thus my books are very stormy and bellicose. I must root out the stumps and trunks, hew away the thorns and briar, fill in the puddles. I am the rough woodsman, who must pioneer and hew a path.”
Protestants and Catholics have long since abandoned the language of war, though never the pope and the church. In most communities across the United States, Catholics and Protestants live together, work together, marry one another, serve together in food pantries and ministries of service and even worship together on occasion. The long, shameful history of American anti-Catholic bias, though not completely eradicated, has dramatically receded in our nation.
Without intending to resurrect the bitter animosities of Luther’s day, it is worth remembering that this man of deep and abiding conviction stood against the authority of church and state to proclaim and defend his understanding of what it meant to follow Christ. Summoned to appear in Worms, Germany, in 1521 before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V surrounded with his elite soldiers and representatives of the pope and the church, Luther was shown a stack of his writings and asked to “give a simple, clear and proper answer. ... Will you recant or not?”
Luther replied, “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct ground of reasoning ... then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience.” Luther may have concluded, though historians doubt that these words were actually spoken at the hearing, with these famous words, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me! Amen.”
For this rebellious impertinence Luther was declared a heretic and the Protestant and Catholic division in the Western Church is probably irreparable. Today, Protestants remember that Luther loved the church; he loved and embraced the traditional faith of the church; he affirmed the ancient creeds of the church. But they continue to claim the worthiness of a struggle to build his faith on a carefully reasoned and prayerful examination of the scriptures rather than meekly and obediently acceding to the teaching and authority of the church.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.