The Reformation began 500 years ago this October when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk with serious digestive issues, nailed (or less romantically pasted) ninety-five theses for disputation to the door of the Castle Chapel in Wittenberg. Luther and his colleagues set Europe buzzing with new ideas and new approaches to faith, theology, and the Bible.
But Luther, ever the polemicist, was also the source of bitter conflicts, deep divisions, and broken relationships. In her recent biography of Luther, British scholar Lyndal Roper writes: “Anger seems always to have energized Luther, enabling him to sweep away tradition and open himself to new religious truth.” Luther found it difficult to back down from a fight, even with some of his most dedicated followers—and he could be brutal. Roper observes that the same qualities that fueled his creativity “made it difficult for him to appreciate the views of others, or to see that not every theological battle is a fight for Christ.”
Luther bequeathed this combativeness to Protestantism. As I suggested in an earlier column, we Protestants are both lovers and fighters. We love God and we fight with everyone else. These fights are often, quite understandably, over what the Bible means and how it might be interpreted and applied in any given circumstance. Luther was sure that the Bible was perfectly clear. If we could understand the words and the grammar, the meaning would become apparent. For Luther this clear, unambiguous text would set aside the need for popes and councils.
While some battles are worth fighting, not every issue threatens the survival of the faith or undermines the integrity of the church.
In his wonderful new book, Reading Paul with the Reformers, Stephen Chester, professor of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, describes the conflict between Luther and the great European humanist scholar Erasmus. Luther had seen Erasmus as a natural ally in his battle with Rome, but the two eventually came to intellectual blows. As early as 1526, less than a decade after the publication of those famous theses, Erasmus complained to Luther, “If the Holy Scripture is perfectly clear in all respects, where does this darkness among you come from, whence arises such fights to the death about the meaning of Scripture?”
Erasmus would accuse Luther of wanting to “impose on us the law that we believe whatever your interpretation is” and of wanting “to be the lord, not the steward of the Holy Scripture.” One might cite as evidence of this the fact that Luther, in spite of his commitment to the Bible, had serious reservations about certain books—most famously the letter of James and the Revelation of John. One of his heirs, Covenant leader Paul Peter Waldenström, seeking an unambiguous, apostolic authority from the New Testament, eliminated seven of the books from his canon!
But the authority and truthfulness of the Bible does not mean there are no ambiguities and will be no differences of opinion. The history of Protestantism has demonstrated that clearly enough. And while some battles are worth fighting, as Roper put it, not every battle is a battle for Christ. Not every issue threatens the survival of the faith or undermines the integrity of the church.
Christians on the right and on the left have selected biblical and theological hills upon which they are willing to die—or, more troubling, kill (if only metaphorically). In the end it is important to note how modest the creeds actually are. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds concern themselves with belief in God, his Son Jesus dead and resurrected, the coming of God to set the world right, the church, the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the body. These are the matters of orthodoxy, and even they have their ambiguities!
At the end of his book Protestants, Alec Ryrie suggests that it is unlikely we will ever give up being fighters. But if we ever give up being lovers—lovers of God, lovers of each other—we are doomed. He is right.