Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Horrible Hermeneutics of the Reformation, Redux

Did Martin Luther really understand what he was starting 501 years ago?

For millions, his efforts to reform Christendom created more pain than gain. For many Christians, especially Anabaptists, Luther’s movement was often lethal.

Here’s a Reformation story:

In 1569 in Holland, a Mennonite preacher named Dirk Willems was arrested by his Lutheran neighbors for practicing the heretical custom of adult baptism.

After 1500 years of quarrelsome Christian history, the Lutherans had a pretty good idea what God wanted them to do with heretics: burn them at the stake.

According to The Martyr’s Mirror, Willems escaped from his captors one winter night and sprinted across the frozen hillocks. The Lutherans were losing sight of him and one pursuer took a shortcut across a frozen pond. But the ice broke beneath him and the Lutheran fell into the frigid water, writhing helplessly.

Willems turned to see the man’s distress and made a fateful decision. He ran back to the pond and pulled the man out of the water. The other pursuers caught up with him and carried Willems back to the jail, where he was promptly burned at the stake.

Today the unhappy tale of Dirk Willems is rarely told in Lutheran confirmation classes but it’s worth keeping in mind. Otherwise we might be tempted to celebrate the Reformation as a beatific highpoint of Christian progress.

Five hundred and one years ago this Halloween, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg.

But the truth is, if he had his way, he’d have nailed a few Anabaptists to the door, too. And Jews. And the Pope. The defacing of the Wittenberg door was the ominous prelude to decades of burnings, beheadings, torture, and other primitive forms of hermeneutical discussion.

Luther, who spent much of his life hiding from Catholic assassins, would have readily immolated the odd Mennonite or Jew whose theology he found abhorrent. Fortunately for persons in those groups, Luther usually dissipated his anger through vivid insults which even now could exalt your Twitter tweets. (Download the Luther insult generator and tweet away.) 

Luther was complicated. Among other things, he was a bona fide prophet. God spoke through him with blinding clarity.

But Luther also spoke for himself, and on those occasions he was often wrong. He was a typical sixteenth century European Christian who bristled with anti-Semitism and xenophobia and he bristled brisker than most. Had his glowering imperfections been less obvious, his followers might have elevated him to the demigod status of Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy.

Whether Luther actually defaced the Wittenberg door with nails is a matter of dispute, but historians are clear that he sent the theses to his bishop, Albert of Mainz, on October 31, 1517. They were not a demand for comprehensive church reform but a complaint about the sale of indulgences, a papal racket for selling tickets to heaven.

The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences was the opening salvo of the Protestant Reformation. Pope Leo X, who depended on indulgences to continue living in the manner to which he was accustomed, was alarmed by Luther’s disputation and eventually excommunicated him. His Holiness also dispatched goon squads in search of Luther’s hoary head.

Ironically, the sale of indulgences has never gone away completely. There are still church fundraisers that suggest a donation of $5 will assure the attentiveness of the Blessed Mother to prayers. And scores of television evangelists, most of whom scorn both Lutherans and Catholics, raise millions by promising that contributions to their ministries will bring “special blessings” that undoubtedly include heaven.

Luther’s point was that with God’s grace, salvation is achieved by faith alone. That was a revolutionary revelation that relieved a heavy burden from sinners who saw themselves struggling futilely to please a vengeful God.

Salvation by faith remains a wonderful idea, and it’s too bad Pope Leo couldn’t see it. It’s also too bad that the reformers themselves sometimes lost sight of it. Fifty years after Luther published his theses, some of his Lutheran descendants got the idea that faith and grace only worked for Lutherans, not Catholics, not Anglicans, and certainly not Anabaptists. Luther himself, a confirmed churl, despised Anabaptists because of their adherence to believer’s baptism. Dirk Willems was not the only one to pay the price of Lutheran arrogance. These were the horrid hermeneutics of the Reformation.

But times change and we Christians are no longer immolating each other. Today Pope Francis warmly embraces Lutherans and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York (who knew he was a Luther scholar?) acknowledges “the church needed reforming” in 1517. One can even see the day in the not-too-distant future when Lutherans and Catholics will share the same communion elements of bread and wine at a common table.

The ideal result of the Reformation will be when Lutherans and Catholics share a common priesthood, but that day seems far off. Most Lutheran communions ordain women as priests and bishops, and the otherwise progressive Pope Francis has declared that will not happen in his reign.

So for those who believe it is essential for the church to embrace the gifts of all who are called to ministry, regardless of gender, there is still reforming to be done.

As we look forward to the perfect unity of a reformed church, it may be good to keep in mind that Reformation has always been imperfect, often brutal, and slow to embrace the insight that Luther saw in his more gracious moments: that persons are redeemed by faith, not dogma, and by God’s grace, not priestly intercession.

True reformation may be a long ways off, but by God’s grace it will come. 

Like the long, slow moral arc of the universe, the arc of reformation bends inexorably toward unity.