So, this week we mark the 500th anniversary of that famous, brave and necessary protest by a German monk and theologian called Martin Luther, when he nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517. Or did he? It seems there is doubt about the nailing up bit, as this might have been added to the story later. No matter though, as there is no doubt that what he wrote lit revolution across the Christian world.
Most from a Protestant persuasion and many from the Roman Catholic world too, would regard Luther as a hero (of course we do not use the word ‘Saint’ as this would be rather against type.)
But back to that word ‘revolution’. This is not exaggeration. Firstly, there was a theological revolution. The power of the Church to dictate and control salvation, orthodoxy and patronage was fractured. What we would regard now as heresies that had become common practice in the church of the time were directly challenged. It excited the highest passions and brutal opposition. People like Patrick Hamilton were burned at the stake unwilling to relinquish the new truth they had found in the protest against the religious powers of the day.
I used the word ‘necessary’ earlier. The Reformation started out as a protest against corruption, injustice and the rampant, systematic miss-use of religious power. It proclaimed that individual salvation was available to all, by faith, and was not mediated by church or state. It liberated the Bible from the priesthood and thanks to the invention of the printing press, weaponised it as an instrument of mass sedition.
In turn, the children of the revolution also turned to violence (Remember the Covenanters?) 500 years later, the splinter lines are still visible in our communities- particularly in Scotland and Ireland.
But this is not a history lesson- rather I reflect on the legacy of The Reformation in our country now. For 500 years, the Protestants have been scrabbling to reform again and again and again in pursuit of purer and more exclusive versions of the truth. However, I would contend that in doing so, we still stand in dire need of a new Reformation. A new break from the power of the Orthodoxy. A new break through into a new landscape of faith that engages with systematic abuse of religious power. Dare I say more?
Luther wrote 95 lines of protest in his Theses. I am no Luther, but I would start with 6…
I would suggest that the Reformation has now accumulated new heresies. These need to be named and nailed to the doors of our churches;
- The relationships between Church and State. Think about the relationship between muscular Evangelical Christianity and Imperialism. Greed and slavery justified on the basis of saving the Heathen. Think about Donald Trump quoting the Beatitudes in his inauguration speech. Think about how the new colonial power (the USA) conflates and confuses God, the flag and the State, as if God is a protestant white American.
- The promotion of the Bible above all other sources of religious truth. Stay with me on this. I don’t just mean the old fundamentalist/liberal dichotomy, rather I mean the way that we have come to revere the Bible as the fourth person of the trinity. How we forgot that it is a library of books of history, poetry, wild prophetic utterances, sectarian eye-witness opinion, ancient legend. But remember that until the revolution, for one and a half millennia, followers of Jesus did so without the Bible, or at least the Bible as we know it. I say this not to devalue the Bible, but to suggest that we take it out out of the glass case and actually read the thing. It was not dictated by God, it was inspired.
- The promotion of doctrine over the defining principle of love. Perhaps because of number 2 above, somehow the Church came to believe that our job as Christians was to define the saved from the unsaved. We used our own narrow readings of Scripture to define and police a binary world in which correct belief (doctrine) was more important than anything else. Sexual sin gets special attention. Other sins such as greed, avarice and religious bigotry (the things that Jesus got really angry about) hardly register by comparison.
- A distortion of the Great Commission. ‘Go ye therefore and make disciples’ were the last words Jesus is recoded as saying to his friends. The implication being that they, and we, are to seek to encourage people to be like him. But somewhere in the depths of the reformation this was reduced to saving people from hell when they die by getting them to say the sinners prayer.
- Moralistic therapeutic deism. Religion reduced to ‘feeling good’ and ‘doing good’. Faith that fits neatly into a lifestyle that values most the attainment of a life full of ‘me’ experiences, ‘me’ relationships, a great job and a great house in a great location. God is employed as a talisman, or a life coach for our attainment, our success and our consuming power.
- Wealth and excess became synonymous with the WASP world. We may eschew gold encrusted minarets, but the protestant world has fitted in neatly with an industrial revolution driven by forces of exploitation, division and wealth accumulation that is as far removed from the poverty of Jesus as it is possible to imagine. From the ‘Protestant Work Ethic‘ to the pervasive power of the prosperity gospel heresy, earthly success and accumulation has never really been seen as problematic, despite all evidence to the contrary from the words of Jesus in the Gospels. At a time of increasing inequality, denudation of resources and global warming, this is perhaps the greatest indictment of the legacy of The Reformation in our times.
There are signs that things are changing, that things have changed. But the world is very different now. The Church is a shadow of its former self- we no longer can claim to be the arbiter of morality in what is no longer (was it ever?) a Christian nation. Perhaps the final reformation has to be one of rediscovery of passion. A re-encounter with the way of Jesus, not the religion we tried to form around him.
Hmmm- I’m off to the local Church with a hammer and nail.