Last year, in a post of my own, I referenced an argument made by my friend Jon about why he would not be celebrating Reformation Day. Reformation Day in many Protestant Churches is celebrated on the Sunday before October 31, the day that, according to legend, the Roman Catholic monk and professor Martin Luther nailed a debate proposal to the door of the Wittenberg church consisting of 95 theses (debate topics). At the time, I had feelings similar to Jon’s. This year, I’ve taken a broader look at the Reformation.
I think it is important to acknowledge and give homage to the Reformation. Yes, it had some tragic results. The Western church (which, even at the time, was not the only church) fractured, perhaps irreparably. While not the intent, the Reformation gave legitimacy to any group who decided that they wanted to strike out on their own. The reality of the Magisterial Reformers such as Luther and John Calvin was that they were not seeking to form their own church. Luther especially was devoted to remaining a Roman Catholic and had to be excommunicated.
Every human institution, including the church, is flawed. We can’t help it. We fall prey to our own desires, especially for power (tied often to wealth), and we corrupt whatever we touch. It’s just what we do.
But human beings also have the remarkable ability to stand up in the face of oppression and corruption and claim, as Jean-Luc Picard famously did, “The line must be drawn HERE! This far, no farther!” (I’m a geek, deal with it).
The history of the Israelite people in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament to Christians) is recorded in two ways: historical accounts and prophetic accounts. Even though often not historically accurate, books such as Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles attempt to give an orderly account of the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as best they can, telling us what happened and who was involved.
Then there are the prophetic accounts. Throughout Israelite history, God has called individuals to be prophets, to speak God’s words to those who often refuse to listen; to challenge powers and authorities that warp and thwart God’s reign in the world; to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed; to express God’s anger and to usher in God’s grace and love.
Martin Luther may not have been a prophet (he was just as often an ass as he was a theologian), but that he spoke with a prophetic voice cannot be denied. Luther lived during a time when the Roman Catholic church was not the Roman Catholic church of today. It was a truly oppressive institution, wielding a great deal of political power with which it bought and sold bishoprics, started wars, crowned and deposed emperors, and took advantage of the blind faith of the masses. The human expression of the universal church across time and space was no longer the shining star it desired to be. Like all human institutions, it was bloated with its own power and wealth.
Luther was not the first to stand up to the abusive practices of the church. Jan Hus and John Wycliffe are two well known predecessors to the Protestant Reformation who were not able to move the Roman Catholic Church. Why Luther was able to cause much more a stir is due to a number of factors, but one was his inability to back down–both a blessing and a curse. At the Diet of Worms, when asked to recant his teachings, Luther declared:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.
The church is called to be a prophetic voice in the world, to challenge the world when it falters and to minister to it through service. When it fails to do so, as the kings of Israel and Judah failed to, those within it are called to be a prophetic voice to it. Just as the Holy Spirit moves through the church and inspires it, so too does the Spirit move and inspire those within it when the church falters and turns away.
The important lesson from the Reformation is that the church, like everything else human in the world, needs a mirror. Contrary to popular Protestant belief, the Reformation didn’t get it all right. The universal church of Christ still needs a mirror, still needs to hear the voices of prophets, and still needs reformation. If we deny that we are imperfect, we learned nothing from our own movement.
So this year, I will remember Reformation Day not only for the changes it ushered into Christianity, but also for the call it still proclaims for the church to constantly evaluate itself and correct itself. We’ll never be perfect–but we can’t stop trying.