Today is Reformation Sunday (except for the Orthodox who celebrate it next week*). That means it’s the nearest Sunday before October 31st, which was the day in 1517 on which Martin Luther—an incredibly brilliant if imperfect man—nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, creating a stir which continues in motion to this day.
The notion of this as a holiday to celebrate is strange to some Christians, and I understand that well, having been brought up Roman Catholic and only in relatively recent years having learned to embrace the Lutheran I always was. Why celebrate schism? I have a simplistic way of looking at these matters, but I’ll share it since we’re going to press and there’s nothing else to put in this space.
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” So says Jesus in Matthew 16:18, and in the original Greek in which it was written it is also a pun, since “Peter” is derived from “petros” meaning stone or rock. What exactly is that church—the church of Jesus Christ which he announced he would build that day? It is commonly understood as a source of sorrow that the church of Christ is divided, that Christians are divided, and such a division surely has to be a source of sorrow to some extent. However, the key question for this believer is this: At what point was the church “undivided” in our ordinary human terms? The Reformation was not the first incarnation of deep disagreement amongst people who otherwise agreed that Jesus is the Son of God and our redeemer. The Eastern Orthodox churches had split centuries before from the concentration of power in Rome. Even among the early church fathers, there was much disagreement and controversy. And then there’s this: While Jesus himself walked the earth, the gospels record that the apostles argued amongst themselves about who among them was “the greatest.” Jesus endeavored to correct them, and he had a great deal of influence in these matters, but still I believe that history does not record a period of time during which there was no serious disagreement amongst Christians over anything.
Perhaps, instead of the angst over disagreements, there ought to be a little more appreciation of the value of differing perspectives. Beginning with the Bible, after all, we are presented with a revelation that does not fit on a business card, but instead comprises many books of varying purpose, including the historical, the prayerful and the prophetic. Nothing can be extracted from it of which to say, “This is the whole.”
By 1517, the Roman Church had surely fallen victim to something that assails to varying degrees all churches at all times: a tyranny of human artifice over the Word of God. Martin Luther introduced a challenge to this that can be seen with hindsight as inevitable, in the context of the development of Western civilization, the printing press, and the Enlightenment. What has come out of this is not some perfect new institution, but a plethora of varying perspectives on the Word of God and on the Christian idea (that is, on Jesus Christ). The Protestant churches have had their own schisms, and in very recent years many Protestants look enviously to the Roman church which has held so steady in its catechism amidst the shifting fads of the masses and the profusion of strange modern doctrines. Yet the Catholic Church has its own ongoing burdens and challenges and many Catholics feel it has reformed far too little in some areas and far too much in others. I do respect those who will maintain that it is the One True Church, but I respectfully disagree. The one true church, I think, is a church we can neither label nor see, but one that Jesus leads all the same.
And so, the positive angle on the whole question, which I choose to adopt today, is that all of the various Christian perspectives, taken together, give us who call ourselves Christian at least a small glimpse of the overwhelming beauty of the truth. And today, here’s to Martin Luther for getting so much of the spade work done back in the sixteenth century.
*That was a joke and a pretty good one I must say.