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The Reformation 500 years later: being religious

Martin Luther’s impact and influence on Western society is still deeply felt even now 500 years later. Never would he have guessed that singular act on Oct. 31, 1517 — posting an invitation for an academic disputation on the theology and practice of indulgences (the so-called “95 Theses”) — would have led to the tumultuous movement that we now recognize as the Reformation. After all, calls for reform were not infrequent throughout the church even before Luther. But it would seem that the arrival of the little monk from Wittenberg was auspicious. Europe was “charged like the atmosphere with electrical tensions before a thunderstorm. With the advent of Martin Luther the lightning struck. Fire fell from heaven” (The Protestant Reformation, 1517-1559, Lewis Spitz, Page 58).

Over the past year in the Concordia Seminary magazine we’ve highlighted some of the far-reaching impacts of Martin Luther. Sure, we all know that Luther gave us the Christmas tree, nine-pin bowling and the “News from Lake Wobegan,” but we’ve tried to focus on those aspects that were a bit more intentional and less incidental. Because Luther’s reforms occurred at a time when church, society and politics were deeply and intentionally enmeshed, it was impossible for the Reformation not to have an enormous impact on all facets of life. Luther did not just unravel that which was intertwined, but he reordered it so that all of life — social, economic, political — was animated by a renewed vision of God’s love. While we tend to distinguish Luther’s influence on the church and spiritual life from secular life, for Luther such a distinction meant something quite different than what we tend to mean by it. Our society often relegates religion to private life. It’s something we are free to pursue within the confines of our souls, but publicly, religious opinion is to be muted, an unwelcome voice in the secular sphere. Such a compartmentalized view of life into spiritual and secular would have been strange to Luther. Indeed, the modern notion of the “secular” has been called by some a “Christian heresy.”

So what was at the foundation of Luther’s reform? We often summarize it as a seeking after a gracious God, or a search for the good news of faith in Christ. These descriptions are not wrong, but I think we can extend it into a larger question, namely, what does it mean to be religious? For Luther, the world he lived in was too religious — and not religious enough.

In the late-medieval context, to be “religious” had a very specific connotation. It meant that one had taken monastic vows and lived a specifically defined “religious” life. This also meant that within Christianity, there were essentially two-tiers: religious Christians and nonreligious (or less-than-religious) Christians. The top tier was the spiritual elite represented by members of the monastic life and, by derivation, the priestly office. After martyrdom, monasticism was long regarded as the religious ideal of Christianity. In an attempt to embody the more sacrificial, radical tenets in the Gospels, the monastic distinguished himself from the ordinary Christian by his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The Ten Commandments were important, but “if you would be perfect” said the Lord, “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21 ESV). Thus, the monastic ideal was to live as a beggar — both a physical and a spiritual beggar. Physically, his worldly possessions were forsaken for the cloister. Spiritually, he lived as a penitent, confessing sins sometimes daily.

At its best, monasticism could set forth a powerful image of Christian discipleship. But the image could also divide, filling monks with pride at their superior spiritual achievements and leaving others in despondency. Still, when the common people sought a more religious, devoted life, monasticism was the primary standard. In the 15th and 16th centuries, lay piety grew into a so-called “modern devotion” (devotio moderna), an adaptation of certain habits and practices found in the monastery to the common person. People would imitate the monks by starting their own communities that would focus on reading the Scriptures together or carrying out works of charity. Sometimes particularly pious married couples sought to raise their religious standing by making vows of celibacy. Regardless, what seemed clear was that religious life was not common life. The common and ordinary was de facto not religious.

It is here that we touch upon perhaps the most far-reaching impact of the Reformation; namely, its subversion of the saint, its redefinition of the religious life, its sacralization of the secular. And Luther did this through a single, biblical assertion: Neither ordination nor religious vows make one spiritual or religious; rather, it is faith. Against prevalent piety, the common people are spiritual. The common people are the priesthood. All Christians are called to be “religious.”

On the surface, when Brother Martin Luther, the observant Augustinian friar, argued that all ordinary Christians ought to be spiritual and religious, this was not necessarily that unusual. Devout, observant monastics were often calling all Christianity into a more authentic, religious observance. But because Luther argued that faith rather than love made one spiritual and religious — faith in God’s promise in Jesus Christ — and faith alone — he had redefined religious life at its core. For Luther, the renunciation of the monastic person, expressed in his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, was now the radical renunciation of everything that belongs to oneself — giving up even one’s own righteousness — so that by faith one can be found in Christ. As he notes in his treatise on The Freedom of the Christian, 1520: “Christians live not in themselves, but in Christ and their neighbor. Otherwise they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith, in their neighbor through love. By faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God. By love they descend beneath themselves into their neighbor.”

So it was that Luther focused so strongly on bringing the Word of God to the common person. Only through God’s Word could a person come to faith. Whether through his sermons, devotional treatises, catechisms or the translation of the Bible into German, Luther was devoted to bringing this center of religious life to all people. In doing so, Luther was not an advocate for a lay piety or a secular spirituality; rather it is better to say that he brought religious life into the world in a way that his predecessors could not. All people are spiritual beggars before the Word of God; all are penitents confessing their sin; and all are saints, justified by the free grace of God in Christ Jesus. Perhaps it should be no surprise to us that thesis number one of the 95 Theses began with this theme: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘repent!’, he willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” Nor should we wonder at the fact that his final written words, reflecting on the inexhaustibility of the Holy Scriptures, would close with a similar echo on the religious life: “We are beggars. This is true.”

Perhaps it good to remember that 500 years later, in spite of all our prosperity and progress, Luther’s reform of religion still begins and ends with Christ, “that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9 ESV).

Dr. Erik Herrmann is director of the Center for Reformation Research, associate professor of Historical Theology, chairman of the Department of Historical Theology and director of theological resources and special projects at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.