Luther as populist and freedom fighter

Luther_(Wislicenus)Much of Europe, including Catholics, will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 theses.  But Great Britain, not so much.

The founder of the Church of England, King Henry VIII, hated Luther (who opposed his multiple marriages) and martyred his followers.  Later, when Anglicans became distinctly Protestant, they threw in with John Calvin and the Reformed tradition.

Even though the church followed Luther in adopting the Liturgy and emphasizing the Sacraments–thanks to Wittenberg student Thomas Cranmer–the Anglicans don’t do much with Luther.  So they are mostly skipping the October 31 celebration.

British journalist Peter Stanford, writing in the left-of-center Guardian, thinks that’s a shame.  He says Luther deserves to be celebrated as a populist, a champion of the poor, and the seminal defender of the freedom of speech and the freedom of conscience.  He also says Luther is a key founder of the modern era.  He was also unimaginably brave.

Now I’m not sure Mr. Stanford fully understands the religious significance of Luther, particularly, his recovery of the Gospel, and there are other things he gets wrong.  But you should read his article for an interesting secular perspective on Luther’s cultural influence. [Read more…]

Luther’s cross-cultural appeal

Portrait_of_Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_MonkSarah Hinlicky Wilson, the editor of Lutheran Forum, has been co-teaching a seminar in Wittenberg on Luther to students from all over the world.  She writes in Christian Century about the continuing impact of Luther 500 years after the beginning of the Reformation.

She gives an ELCA perspective, full of ecumenical yearnings for union with Rome, and there will be other points that Missouri Synod Lutherans will disagree with.  Though they find it  worth reading.  For example, notice how she deals with Luther’s anti-Judaism.  I was interested in how she demonstrates that the message of “inclusion”–which is very big in theologically liberal circles–has anti-Judaism problems of its own.

What most struck me was what she had to say about Luther’s cross-cultural appeal, how his theology is being seized upon by Africans, Indonesians, Brazilians, and other people of non-European cultures, who are finding his teachings helpful in dealing with the problems in their churches and societies.  I quote this section after the jump. [Read more…]

We Lutherans as others see us

480px-Lutherrose.svgI stumbled upon a tab at the Patheos site that is called “Religion Library.”  It includes information about a host of religions and Christian denominations and traditions.  So I checked out the information for “Lutheran.”  For each church category, you can click on topics such as “Sacred Narratives,” “Sacred Time,” “Sacred Space,” “Rites and Ceremonies.”  Reading them feels like being the object of an anthropological study.

The author, Ted Vial, is a professor at Illiff School of Theology, a Methodist seminary, that also serves other mainline Protestant churches.  He is a true scholar and he gets much of Lutheranism right, considering that he is writing about the whole gamut of this tradition.  He does distinguish between the confessionalism of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod from the more liberal branches.  But I didn’t notice mention of the other conservative branches, such as the Wisconsin synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Free Lutherans, etc.

Prof. Vial is good on vocation, Luther’s neighbor-centered ethic, the Two Kingdoms, and justification.  He mentions the distinction between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory but doesn’t do too much with it, and readers don’t get a sense of the distinctly Lutheran Christology that allows our confessions to talk about “God suffering” and “God dying,” which, in turn would give him more to say about the Lutheran take on “Suffering and the Problem of Evil.”

Also, you can see the lens through which Prof. Vial is seeing.  He uses the Reformed numbering in the uses of the Law–he calls the use that convicts us of sin the “First Use,” whereas that is the “Second Use” for Lutherans, the first being the use that constrains outward behavior.  And he is clearly Methodist in saying that Lutherans “don’t expect to be sanctified.”  We do, only not in the Methodist sense of achieving moral perfection.

Part of Lutheranism he “gets” very well, other parts he misses, but in other places he is just “off” a little, as is probably always going to be the case when someone tries to understand religious beliefs from the outside, rather than as someone who believes them.

Check out what he says about Lutheranism from the live links given after the jump.  Those of you who aren’t Lutheran, go to the Religion Library and read about your church and how it measures up to those anthropological categories of “sacred time,” “sacred space,” etc.

Did you learn anything about your church that you didn’t realize before?  What is the author missing about your theology and your religious identity?

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Why conservatives need Edmund Burke 

Edmund_Burke_by_James_NorthcoteIn another in our series of my-former-students-who-are-making-me-proud-by-their-writing, Gracy Olmstead explains why today’s conservatives need to pay attention to Sir Edmund Burke, the father of conservatism.

Burke, in criticizing the French Revolution, showed why social reform must “conserve” what is good in the society.  Rather than raze the society to the ground and start over from ground zero.   Interestingly, Burke supported the American Revolution, which–compared to what the Jacobins did–was actually conservative in its respect for God, insistence on English common law, and retention of traditional morality.

Some of today’s conservative activists are more like right wing Jacobins, opposing everything that represents the “establishment,” than Burkean conservatives, who, by definition, want to “conserve” something.

But my application isn’t to today’s political controversies.  I have been studying the Reformation lately.  The Lutherans really were advocating, in C. P. Krauth’s terms, a “conservative Reformation.”  The medieval church was in bad need of reform, but the Lutherans “conserved” what was good in it:  sacramental spirituality; the liturgy; the creeds; church art; the Christian intellectual tradition.  Later Protestants rejected everything that could remotely be considered “Catholic,” trying instead, in a succession of ways, to start the church all over from scratch.

Thus, in Burkean terms,  we had both a conservative Reformation and a Jacobin Reformation. [Read more…]

What the Reformation did for preaching

Evangelical theologian Timothy George has written a fascinating and illuminating post entitled “How the Reformation Recovered Preaching.”

Prof. George shows not only historical facts about how the Reformation put the sermon back into the worship service.  (Before, sermons were only given on special occasions, and often outdoors instead of in the sanctuary.)  Drawing deeply on Luther, He also explores the theology of the sermon, which is a “sacramental event.”

Read highlights after the jump.

(Painting by Lucas Cranach, Altarpiece at St. Mary’s Church, Wittenberg.  Reproduction by Torsten Schleese (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.)

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The Marburg Colloquy online

Noack_1869_MR-ReligionsgesprächDid you know that a transcript survives of the Marburg Colloquy (1529), in which Luther and Zwingli debated the presence of Christ in the elements of Holy Communion?  Did you know that it is posted online?

This meeting, attended by virtually all of the major figures of the early Reformation, was an attempt to settle the Reformation’s sacramental teachings once and for all.  Phillip of Hesse organized the event in an attempt to unify the Reformation side in the face of imminent military threat from the Holy Roman Emperor.  But Luther would not water down his teaching for pragmatic reasons. With the Marburg Colloquy, the Lutherans and the Reformed went their separate ways, with most subsequent Protestants following, in effect, a non-sacramental approach to Christianity.

The transcript reads like a play, or a screenplay.  (Suggestion:  Somebody perform this!)  For all of its theological give and take, it has quite a few dramatic moments:  Luther writing “This is my body” in chalk on the table beneath a tablecloth, continually referring to it in the course of Zwingli’s rationalistic arguments.  Luther at more than one point saying, “I’m tired–Phillip [Melanchthon], you take over,” only to erupt at the next thing Zwingli says without letting Phillip get a word in edgewise.  The emotional moments on both sides.  The ending with its pleas for reconciliation and Luther’s devastating “we are not of the same spirit.”

Read the beginning after the jump and go to the link to read it all.  Notice the different approaches not just to the Sacrament but to the Bible and, above all, to Christology. [Read more…]