Luther proved obedient
An act of dissension on Oct. 31, 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany, is still celebrated among Lutheran Christians as Reformation Sunday. The nailing of 95 Theses (debatable statements) to a church door announced the willingness of an Augustinian monk to challenge practices within the Roman Catholic Church that he considered to be abusive and misguided.
With the aid of the printing press, news of Martin Luther's dissent spread like wildfire throughout Europe.
Sixteenth-century Europe was embroiled in religious and political upheaval. Conflict had erupted over religious abuses in the dominating institution of the time, the church. Questions of authority were raised. Religious practices were challenged, and interpretation of Scripture became a key issue.
Near the center of the controversy was Luther, who eventually became a professor of Biblical studies at the newly founded University of Wittenberg, Germany. Though a committed follower of Christ, he was still highly critical of certain practices and teachings within the church. Respected church historian Jaroslav Pelikan uses the phrase "obedient rebel" to describe his activity. Luther thought that his loyalty to the church and to God lay in the very fact of his sharp protests and dissent to current institutional policies. In that way he is not unlike many dissenters today.
The legacy of this "Protestant principle," this dissenting loyalty, is still highly regarded today by many, even as that legacy has gone through many permutations and adjustments.
Seeking to reform what he perceived as abuses, Luther's life and thought is often compared to the life of Shinran (1173-1262), founder of the True Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Both of these religious leaders rejected the pursuit of merit or good works as a way of attaining a sense of acceptance or divine approval. Indeed, both Shinran and Luther placed heavy emphasis upon grace as a gift, as gratitude to Amida or to God.
With the overarching insight that Luther placed upon grace as divine gift, a challenge existed as to how one might express that notion. Words, rituals and relationships became key vehicles for the communication and experiencing of grace for Luther and his followers.
Care was given to making religious worship and the reading of Scripture available in forms accessible to lay people. Reforms were introduced in the church to improve the vitality and authenticity of the church as God's people.
Unfortunately, in the immediate aftermath of Luther's life, the political and social scene experienced continuing strife, religious warfare, and often the petrifaction of positions and teachings in a rigid dogmatism. The spirit of obedient rebellion often turned into bitter, intolerant conflict.
However, one phrase referring to the church from that time continues to attest to the presence and value of dissenting loyalty. It is the Latin phrase "semper reformanda," meaning "always reforming," which suggests there is a constant need for self-examination and reformation within the church. There is never any final, absolute or ultimate expression of faith and ethics that can be universalized for all time. No situation within society can ever say that it has arrived at a full measure of justice. No one can legitimately make a claim of possessing absolute certainty and truth. The church must always be reforming itself.
Our challenge today is not to repeat Luther's world. His perspective, as important as it has been, was limited by his 16th-century surroundings. He had no experience of democracy as a form of government, no knowledge of modern scientific research and data, no sense of a pluralistic society similar to ours. Although he was a Biblical scholar, he had no access to the results of the best of literary and historical criticism of Scripture. And from our perspective, he gave cruel and misguided counsel to secular authorities concerning strategy during the Peasant's Revolt. Furthermore, he did not have to deal with leaders whose designs were to establish some imperial hegemony throughout the world, as we experience it today.
Our challenge as heirs of the "obedient rebels" of the 16th century is to serve as the conscience of society. Aim to improve the conditions and experience of justice for all people. Continue to correct and advance our understanding of truth in the light of the improved and increasing data we have of the world. Promote attitudes and conditions enhancing mutual understanding. Remain open to a spirit of creative goodness and creative transformation. And when necessary, speak out decisively against misconceptions and obstacles blocking that spirit of creative goodness.
The Rev. Fritz Fritschel, a Lutheran clergyman for 40 years, was formerly chaplain of Hospice Hawaii and assisting pastor at Lutheran Church of Honolulu.