Martin Luther Wasn't Warm and Cuddly? And Other Questions About the Reformation


2017 - 2018 is a momentous time period for celebrating or commemorating important anniversaries. The renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein was born in 1918. The US entered World War 1 in 1917. This month is the 500th Anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. For some Protestants, there will be much celebrating. For Catholics, there might be a mix of other emotions or none at all. Some non-Christians may not even be aware of the Lutheran Reformation or Martin Luther.

While some may associate it with Martin Luther, the Reformation doesn’t solely refer to one event. Certainly the posting of the 95 Theses in Wittenberg was an important catalyst. On the other hand, there were reformers before Luther, such as Jan Huss. At the same time as Luther, Jean Calvin and Zwingli were also reforming the Christian faith. In every generation, there have been theologians and clergy who have shaped and changed our understanding of the Christian faith. Even today, the Christian faith and our individual faith are still reforming.

The Reformation ushered in sweeping changes to the church, society, and politics. These changes were ushered in because of questions that Martin Luther and others asked. Luther was a no-nonsense individual, asked very pointed questions, and was not exactly a warm and cuddly person. In fact, there is a website (http://ergofabulous.org/luther/?) that gives you many of Luther’s insults he used for people he did not care for. To one individual, he said, “You are the devil's donkey.” To another, he asks, “Are you ignorant of what it means to be ignorant?” And those are just the G-rated ones!

On the other hand, Luther did not intend on creating huge change when he started his career as a priest. It wasn’t like he emerged out of the womb with printing press, hammer, and nail, and ready to post the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg church! First a law student, then a very devoted Roman Catholic monk and priest, Luther only arrived at the conclusions that he did through asking questions. Questions are peppered throughout Luther’s writings. In both the Small Catechism and Large Catechism, he constantly asks “What does this mean?”, “What is this?”, as well as many other questions.

I’m thankful that Luther provided a model for asking questions. Luckily our search for answers won’t yield excommunication as they did in the case of Luther, although what we ask ourselves may yield answers that change our perspective in drastic or subtle ways. Sometimes figuring out the right question is more challenging than figuring out the answers. Regarding Luther, the questions he asked lead to a lot of reforms in the church.

What questions do we need to ask? Because reform is part of the Reformation, we can start by asking, “What needs reforming?” Within in ourselves, within our faith, within the church and within the society we live in? Christ requires that we live a life that’s counter-cultural and that’s sometimes at odds with societal values. It’s counter-cultural to self-reflect, to ask questions, and to examine one’s motivations. I’m still on a journey of figuring out what needs to be asked in this time. However, I believe that this journey leads to a fuller and more profound life.

No matter one’s theological bent, I believe that Luther wanted to know Christ more and wanted his questions and answers to point to Christ. From my perspective, any celebration of the Reformation needs to point to Christ. If not, then what or who are we celebrating?

One of the hallmarks of Luther’s work was in empowering congregational singing, which is an important way of proclaiming and teaching the Christian faith. In the next post, we will celebrate and give thanks for Martin Luther’s gift of focusing on congregational song.