Luther’s challenge to the Church, then and now

The Campion Lecture 2017, St Aloysius' College, Milson's Point, NSW, 2 March 2017

Good Evening. (As you have just heard) this year marks the fifth centenary of the Reformation in Western Christianity, dating the beginning of that great upheaval from Martin Luther's outcry against the selling of Indulgences. I am delighted to have the opportunity to talk about that time, first because the sundering of Christendom is such a pivotal event in the history of the West and the world and, secondly, because it will probably not get as much attention as it deserves this year in our society which struggles to believe that a religious issue can ever have mattered much.

I am chuffed, though a little intimidated, to be delivering the Campion Lecture. Edmund Campion was a martyr to the 16th century conflict between Reformed religion and the Catholics, so there is a certain fittingness to our subject. But Campion was also a noted orator, having been chosen by Cambridge, when little more than a boy, to deliver the university's address to the visiting Queen Elizabeth, which he did with brilliant success in fluent and elegant Latin. I've decided not to attempt that! Neither will I, I'm sure, please you so much as another Edmund Campion who spoke to us here last year on the Australian Catholic Story in his own inimitable style. Still, despite having those shoes to fill, I did jump at the honour of speaking here so, let's make a start.

Speaking of reform in the church can mean many things. Often it's about practical matters: sorting out the Vatican Bank, changing how bishops are chosen or clergy trained; that sort of thing. Occasionally, however, reform is about seeking real religious change. What is it to be a Christian? How do we live out our faith? What is the Gospel message? How do we fit in the world and creation? Ezekiel was a religious reformer in that sense. John the Baptist. The early monks who turned their back on the world so as to be free to live only to God. St Francis. Perhaps our own Pope Francis who wants us to get over religious hang-ups and moralising and to live and share the joy of knowing Christ even while we are still finding our way through the mess of our lives. Martin Luther, I want to suggest, is one of those reformers who was not concerned with tinkering with structures of the church but with reforming the Christian message so that it might reform the believer. Much of what happened in the course of the Reformation, among Protestants and Catholics, was practical reform. But, at least for a while, Luther was one of those prophets who made the Christians pause to ask themselves, 'What are we really on about?'

So, we still talk about Luther. He is regarded as the Father of the Protestant Reformation. He enunciated what are still the keystones of all protestant religion. First, that one is 'saved' or 'justified' only by personal faith in Jesus Christ, not by any worth or merit in what we do in life, our 'works'. Secondly, that the only authority in religious teaching is the written Word of God, the Bible. Thirdly, that every baptised Christian is a priest and essentially does not need the intercessory or intermediary power of an ordained priest, sacraments or church to come to God and to salvation. And fourthly, perhaps, that the Mass is an act of God's grace, his gift and promise, given to build up the Christian community, not something that the community offers to God, a work, a sacrifice or even Christ's sacrifice offered by us to God. These points are Protestantism 101 — the basic framework — and they are all Luther. He does matter.

Now, the story. I have to be selective here. Every detail of Luther's life has been picked over by historians, at least one of whom will have found tremendous significance in each little incident. I can't mention everything. But Luther's story is the heart of Luther's reformation. So at least a thumbnail sketch, then.

Martin Luder, with a D in the middle — he changed it later — was born in 1483 (5 years after Thomas More, 7 before Henry VIII, 9 before Columbus sailed). He was the son of a reasonably prosperous mine owner. His father's money and connections enabled him to be sent off to university to study law. One day, however, in fear of death in a storm, he vowed that if he lived he would become a monk. He did survive and so entered a house of the more observant ('strict') branch of the Augustinian friars.

While he made relatively rapid progress in his theological studies and in his role within the order, he was afflicted by what might be called 'scruples', in his case a pervasive and sometimes overpowering sense that he was not good enough, had not tried hard enough, had not performed all his pious duties sincerely enough. He became a serial frequenter of Confession, helped somewhat by his confessor and mentor Johann Staupitz, but never really finding peace of soul. God was so demanding, so 'righteous'!

Ordained, endowed with a doctorate in theology, Luther was sent to a new university in the small Saxon town of Wittenberg to teach the Bible in the new-fangled way, straight from the text rather than the traditional commentaries. To that extent, at least, he was a man of the 'new learning', indebted to the great Renaissance scholars like Erasmus and Reuchlin who had revived knowledge of Greek, and so part of a Europe-wide movement in academia of the new men against the dusty old ways of the 'Scholastic' theologians. While teaching St Paul' letters, he came to realise, gradually at first but then in a life-changing illumination, that the 'righteousness of God' that Paul was talking about was not the perfect righteousness that God exhibits in himself, which we can never match up to or satisfy, but the righteousness that God gives to the believer, or imputes to the believer, when through faith in Christ he or she accepts the free gift of being made righteous, or 'saved'. Complicated? Let's just say it is the realisation that we can't save ourselves by trying really hard; we have to accept salvation as Christ's work, granted to us when we place our faith in him and not in ourselves or our good works.

Holding that theology, then, Luther hated the theory and practice of Indulgences. The notion that one could buy salvation from the church by buying, in effect, other people's good works, without personal faith, was not only wrong but, it actually taught people to put their trust in something other than Christ and his cross. It was leading people to damnation. To Luther it was a travesty of the gospel and a financial scam to boot, a way of enriching archbishops and the pope himself while deceiving the people.

So, on 31 October, the Eve of All Hallows, 1517, this young professor from a small university in remote Saxony began a revolution. He nailed up on the door of the City Church in Wittenberg 95 Theses, or propositions he was prepared to uphold in debate, against Indulgences. Or perhaps he didn't. The scholarly ink spent on the question of whether this famous event happened could feed a small nation for a year or two, I imagine. But the nailing up doesn't much matter, because he certainly sent the 95 Theses to his Archbishop, Albrecht of Mainz, and others. They were printed and within weeks were being read across Germany, within months as far away as England. Erasmus sent Thomas More a copy, for example. All Hell broke loose.

The new-style theologians thought they had a new champion against the dominant old-fashioned scholars — so did the old-fashioned scholars, and lined up to be the one to put him in his place. German nationalists, especially the now somewhat redundant knightly class, embraced what they saw as a revolt against good German guilders going off to Italy. Anticlericalists loved a shot at the income of wealthy churchmen. And many common or middle class people felt typical bourgeois outrage that they had been conned by the higher-ups. From the start, then, Luther had followers who didn't necessarily share his motives or meaning.

The commotion, however, had begun. For Luther the next few years were taken up with debates, in person or by pamphlet war, with numerous antagonists. In argument, he became more radical. Forced into corners in debate, he had to concede that if he were right, then popes and councils of the church had been wrong. The argument came to be about authority. And so his students in Wittenberg did what students do: they held a demo, burning the books of Canon Law. Ultimately the pope issued a bull of excommunication — Luther himself publicly burnt that. By 1520 he had concluded that the pope was the Antichrist and he, Doctor Luther, was at war with the whole papal church.

Pouring out writings in 1520, he broadened the attack. The whole sacramental system was a ruse for maintaining the power of the clergy, what he called the 'Babylonish Captivity of the Church'. He wrote an 'Appeal to the German Nobility…' to rise to their calling and bring God's favour on their nation by reforming religion and throwing off the shackles of the pope. He wrote of the 'Freedom of a Christian Man', who didn't need a priest to tell him what to believe, since he had the Bible, or to reconcile him with God, since he had access to all grace through his trust, faith, in Christ. It was heady stuff, quickly circulated through the new marvel of printing and woodcut illustrations, and the church was on the back foot.

Enter the pious emperor Charles V, lord of Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, much of Italy and Spain's possessions in the still-very-New World. Luther was summoned to appear before the Diet, or great assembly of the imperial nobility, in Worms in March 1521. This is the key moment in Luther's story. Confronted with a set of his writings, and in the presence of the emperor, the dukes and margraves, the cardinals and archbishops, the whole panoply of German and Catholic power, Luther was asked to retract. He would not. As he put it, unless he could be shown to be wrong by the Scriptures or by manifest reason, he would not retract. 'Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God Help me. Amen'. This was his finest hour. It gave him hero status to many and, even more importantly, it convinced him that, like Daniel in the lions' den, he had been preserved by God to do a great work. He was a chosen instrument.

Anyway, to everyone's amazement, Luther was allowed to live. The emperor honoured the safe-conduct he had given — Charles V was funny about such things — and Luther left town. Shortly afterwards he was 'kidnapped' by the men of his own prince, Fredrick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, and hurried off to secret safety in the Wartburg, an isolated castle. There he continued to write. Among other things he completed his German translation of the New Testament which, like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, would shape the style of the German language for centuries. Meanwhile, the Reformation went on without him.

Under other leaders the pace of the Reformation picked up, as they adopted what they thought were the practical consequences of Luther's teaching. In Wittenberg a new Mass was celebrated in German and without priestly vestments. Monks and nuns left their monasteries. Images and statues of saints were taken down and burned. Priests got married. And this happened in town after town, through German and Swiss lands in particular.

Luther was aghast. He instinctively dreaded disorder. He also distrusted anyone who thought they had a direct line to the Holy Spirit. He thought many of the rites and practices of the church actually helped simple people believe. He didn't want the baby thrown out with the bathwater. And he most certainly did not want his evangelical teaching associated with rebellion and revolution. So, protected by the Elector, he defied the Ban of Empire and returned to public life. In Wittenberg and the Elector's territory the Mass went back into Latin, the statues were replaced, Confession remained a valued practice though not a sacrament, and preachers were not appointed unless they were qualified academically, church owners' rights to tithes were respected, and so on. But the genie was out of the bottle. Luther could restore order in the Elector's domains, but beyond Saxony other reformations were driving ahead relentlessly.

And so we come to the great irony of Luther's life. The man who had begun the Reformation became the man who, more than any other, prevented its becoming a united religious force. Luther spent the rest of his life in conflict, not so much with the Roman church that he had by now written off, as with the other reformers who, to his mind, were perverting the pure gospel.

As I indicated earlier, there were many things in the second reformation that Luther didn't like or approve of. But most of these he could have lived with. On one thing, however, he would never compromise. He had taught that the Mass was not a sacrifice. His Wittenberg colleague, Andreas von Karlstadt, went further: the eucharist was not physically the body of Christ. The same conclusion had been reached independently by the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and this view spread more and more widely through reformed preachers and their towns. This was too much for Luther. He didn't hold the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, because it was merely a philosophical explanation, not a bible-truth. But of the fact of faith itself, Luther had no doubt: Christ was physically present in the consecrated bread and wine of Eucharist. Any other teaching came from the devil.

Now, some of the reformers were reasonable men, and they had besides a certain reverence for Luther's courage and his status as God's instrument. Also, surrounded by Catholic powers, they saw the need for the Reformed cities and princes to be a united force in the Empire. Accordingly, great efforts were made to reach a compromise with Luther. We won't go into all that transpired, but the attempt that took place at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529 has left another of those scenes which, like the nailing of the theses on the church door and Luther's solitary defiance at the Diet of Worms, is an enduring image of Luther: Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli seated at one end of a table explaining how the sacrament only represents Christ's body, while Luther at the other end thumps his finger on a phrase he has chalked on the tabletop: Hic est corpus meum, This is my body! At the end of the futile meeting, Luther refused to embrace Zwingli as a fellow evangelical or to receive communion with him. The Reformation could not be united because Luther could not be at peace with anyone who denied the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Thus the mainstream of the Reformation drifted away from Luther. He and his church were isolated even before his death in 1546. Later, the systematising genius of John Calvin would provide a framework of doctrine for the vast majority of Protestants down to the present day, while Lutheranism remained the dominant form only in parts of Germany and in Scandinavia. After Luther's death, Lutheranism itself rather split internally, though not to the point of schism and not permanently, between hard-line conservatives holding strictly to Luther's view and more accommodating leaders able to see a 'spiritual presence' of Christ in the Eucharist as being, perhaps, near enough. In any case, the title 'Reformed Church' came to mean the Calvinist tradition, not the Catholics, not the Anglicans and not the Lutherans.

So, you will have heard the tone of an ending. What have I left out? An enormous amount that people take very seriously indeed. I haven't stressed Luther's reliance on partnership with the civil authorities and his horror of rebellion. These led him to most bloodthirsty condemnation of the Peasants Revolt of his own time and, some would suggest, to a German tradition of deference to authority that runs directly through to non-resistance to Nazism. I haven't spoken about his notorious anti-Semitism, which again takes the blame for its 20th century derivative in Germany. I haven't spoken about his marriage to Katie van Bora and the impact that may have had on his thinking, rather confused by any measure, about marriage, women, family and sex. We haven't delved into his decidedly earthy sense of humour and how his insistence on human weakness and sinfulness actually made him a much kindlier judge of the sins of the flesh than those more refined thinkers of the Reformation who gave us puritanism, closed dance halls and a grog-free Sabbath. And I have had to think for some time about how even to allude to his enormous crudity in his angry writings and conversation, which, I think I can say in polite company, displayed a tremendous fascination with bowel movements and their products. Such a mixed bag, Luther. Such a flesh and blood character.

What has lasted? What am I grateful to Luther for? First, his insistence on faith in Christ being the heart of everything. Even today, people will go on and on about the church and its structures and rules, fight battles about different practices and doctrines. Luther said we are saved only by the grace of God, by learning not to rest our confidence in externals or our own brilliant plans and mission statement, but to be ever in need of a saviour. Secondly, Luther restored the authority of the Bible. To Catholic minds he went too far by making the Bible the only authority, but certainly he can teach us not to drift off into the clouds of our own ideas about religion without measuring our theologies against what is revealed. Is imaging God as a version of Star Wars 'Force', however attractively quasi-scientific that might seem, really coming to understand the God and Father of Jesus Christ? Thirdly, Luther is the patron saint of the individual conscience: Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. He wasn't martyred; Thomas More and many others on both sides were. Those 16th century refusals to be overawed by power, to need to be convinced in conscience, still speak to us. Fourthly, I'm also moved by Luther's refusal to impose radical change on people before they were ready for it or could understand it. He was willing to retain the practices of a church that was his enemy if that concession to what was familiar and helpful allowed the people to be led to change rather than compelled to wear it. Fifthly, I like a man to whom some things are non-negotiable. There should not be too many of these in someone's make-up, admittedly. But if you have to stick somewhere, for Catholic as for Luther, the reality of Christ's body in the eucharist is not a bad sticking point.

Today, the differences between Lutherans and Catholics on the great issues of the Reformation are paper-thin. A 2007 document of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in Australia baldly states, 'The dialogue ... takes place in an entirely new context, because of our fundamental agreements on the doctrines of justification and the eucharist'. The reference is to international agreed statements since 1999. The Australian document they were working on in 2007 was about the office of bishop in the church. Since then, the Lutheran Church in Australia has re-designated its superintendents as 'bishops'. And later this year, to mark the Reformation, I and other Australian bishops will sit down with Luther's Aussie bishops to tea and scones. Thank you.

This October will mark the 500th anniversary of the date Luther is reputed to have nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saints' Church in Wittenberg.

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Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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