Five hundred years ago this month, a Catholic monk, theologian and teacher pasted his 95 theses challenging the status quo to a grand debate. It worked, of course, in ways that Martin Luther could never have dreamed. European culture was changed by this man who was a revolutionary in more ways than you may have heard.
Not only was Luther a theological reactionary by the standards of his day, he was a pioneer in using publishing to carry his message to the common man. In essence he used the social media of his day to appeal directly to the grassroots. His pamphlets came out weekly and sold out quickly. Written in simple German they reached both prince and, indirectly, pauper in their heart tongue. His opponents insisted in slowly grinding out a few scholarly rebuttals — in Latin, for their peers, thus losing the first-ever “online” flame war.
Our Faith went in search of local modern Lutherans who could weigh in on this complex church figure and his work a half-millennia after the fact. Three area pastors share their reflections on the man and his legacy this week.
First, the Rev. Jon Petering of Friendswood’s Hope Lutheran summed up his insights on Luther.
“What happened in the Lutheran Reformation 500 years ago,” he asked. “Many would say it was a break from Church teaching — that Martin Luther was a revolutionary that started a movement. Both, in a sense, did happen. But what was most important about the Reformation was this: it was all about Jesus Christ.”
And he was clearly a man ahead of his time both theologically and technically, Petering said. And one with a determined focus on his faith’s author.
“Some of the things he began have had a big impact on our society: the Scriptures in many languages, the importance of education and literacy of the masses, the use of the latest technology to communicate the Gospel (Luther used the printing press, we use the internet), the importance of vocation — serving God by serving others in the “vocations” within which God has placed you: family, work, community and so much more. But the most important thing to remember about the Lutheran Reformation 500 years later is this: it’s still all about Jesus Christ. The word of God freed Luther’s conscience and gave him peace.”
Next, the Reverend Deb Grant of Dickinson’s Faith Lutheran Church explained how she believes that Luther was the right person at the right time — an inflection point in the vast curve of church history.
“Books were not plentiful and those who could read wielded enormous power over an illiterate populace,” Grant said. “Then the printing press was invented. More people were learning to read. Martin Luther’s voice for reform in the church went viral. He wrestled the Bible away from those who were using it corruptly and put it into the hands of the people. Luther was a flawed human being like anyone else. He used his voice at the right time and the right place to speak the truth that Luther himself desperately needed to hear every day: he was saved by the grace of God apart from human works.”
The Rev. Richard Rhoades of Galveston’s First Lutheran Church brings all this up to our day and age.
“What might Luther mean for the 21st century? He lived in the 16th century, yet, in his theology we find direction and answers to questions that are universal and valid in every age. Today there are spiritual and even Christian teachings which push people to make decisions and act so as to earn God’s love. Luther’s Holy Spirit-given discovery of God’s grace points any and all today to a loving God who has given his very own son in order to restore us to God independent of our efforts. Shaped by this theological understanding today people can discover God’s peace. And, because we are freed by God’s grace, we are able to love and serve God as we love and serve our neighbors. Luther points us back to the living the way of Jesus Christ in whatever age we find ourselves living.”
Next week in Our Faith: Part 2 of Lutherans on Luther including some nationally known figures.