Just one year from today, on October 31, 2017, we’ll celebrate the fifth century anniversary of Martin Luther’s publication in Wittenberg of 95 Theses—his 1517 protests against a church scheme to offer God’s grace in exchange for money.
Is there some way I can get to Germany for the occasion? I doubt it, but stay tuned!
In a related question, who, today, even knows what happened 499 years ago; and knows why it’s still important? As I ask the question I’m all too aware that by now any mention of Martin Luther more likely brings to mind Dr. M. L. King than the German hero after whom he was named.
I ask the question because I know how important history is to our Christian faith. And I also know how historically uninformed most Christians tend to be.
But many readers will respond with another question: “So what?” Does the history of faith matter in the same way a present day faith in Jesus does? Weren’t we buried by information in school days? And as adults we’re doing just fine without retaining much of what we learned; so why fuss about dusty data from the past?
Actually, I get that. Any answer to our question about the importance of history has practical limits. So my concern here isn’t about how much information we have—but whether the information we do have is sound. Is our immediate spiritual environment—what’s needed for faith to exist—still offering Christ? Or is authentic Christianity being marginalized?
I ask the question with Martin Luther in mind. He was a monk whose early vision of God was hugely distorted. An overview of his wrestling with false—but common in his day—ideas was well portrayed in the 2003 movie, Luther. It’s worth chasing. There are also biographies of Luther by outstanding historians like Roland Bainton and Heiko Oberman that make the same point in much greater depth.
Luther’s problem was his own historical environment in the first two decades of 1500. He was swimming in a Christian river that had many tributaries. Different—though partly overlapped—versions of faith were being promoted in his day. He was a monk in an Augustinian order. There were also Dominican and Franciscan orders. Imported ideas of pagan Greek philosophy—from Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in particular—saturated Christian faith in his day. Renaissance and Humanitarian scholars also had lots of new ideas in play.
As Luther the student wrestled with what he read he was increasingly captivated by the writings of Augustine. The ancient bishop of Hippo in North Africa was closely aligned with what Luther was discovering in the Bible. And the God of the Bible was very different to the God being offered by Thomists, Scotists, Erasmians, and others. So he started writing feisty theses in order to raise questions with other theologians.
His first effort—97 Theses labeled as his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology—was written weeks before his famous 95 Theses and didn’t draw a response. Feisty is a good description for his sentiments. In sending the Disputation off to another scholar Luther commented: “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself. My wish would be for [scholastic Christian scholars] Usingen and Trutfetter to give up their teaching, indeed stop publishing altogether. I have a full arsenal of arguments against their writings, which I now recognize as a waste of time.”
Getting back, now, to why Luther is still important to us half a millennium after he started to publish his concerns: many of the same claims he called “a waste of time” are still prospering in current forms of Christianity. My own academic work points to a division among the English Puritans in the 17th century. And the basic debates continue to exist today.
The theology of Richard Sibbes in the 1620’s, as I discovered in my research, offered a Luther-like alternative to what other Puritans were promoting. As did the theology of his convert, John Cotton of Boston, in the 1630’s. And the later theology of Jonathan Edwards in New England.
What linked these men to Luther was their reading of the Bible in ways that aligned with what they also read in Augustine. And their opponents held to views that relied on a version “enabled” human morality that reflected Thomas Aquinas’s reliance on Aristotle’s Ethics.
The same stuff that fired up Luther 499 years ago is still alive and is still “a waste of time.” I’m happy to be feisty too, given my own Bible reading that aligns with what I’ve read in Augustine, Luther, Calvin—not to be confused with much of today’s “Calvinism”—Sibbes, Cotton, Edwards, and many others: this, an Augustinian tradition, portrays a different God to what many others are offering today.
But please, don’t trust Luther’s claims or my endorsements. Instead start to read some church history and lots of Bible for yourself. There are still some crucial Reformation lessons to be learned!