If I had a hammer: Happy Reformation Day

Standing at the Wittenberg Door

As I have mentioned in other blogs, I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran. For those not familiar with the Lutheran landscape in America, we were the “true” Lutherans, originally from German immigrants who settled in the midwest in the 19th century (though my own ethnic pedigree is 96% British Isles).  Our brand of Lutheranism was all encompassing:  Our social, theological, and gastronomical lives were Lutheran, i.e., we acted like Lutherans, believed like Lutherans, and, at our wonderful church potlucks, we ate like Lutherans!

I attended Lutheran parochial school, was baptized, confirmed and married in the same Lutheran sanctuary.  Martin Luther was our namesake and would have been our patron saint, except that, as Lutherans, we didn’t have patron saints, and we were darn proud of it!

Many decades of following Christ have led me from those liturgical roots through the Jesus Movement, pastoring in both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard churches, a couple of advanced seminary degrees and now attending and active in a non-denominational church pastored by a young, ordained Anglican priest that has embraced a liturgical form with weekly celebration of the Eucharist.  (almost forty years after being a “Jesus Freak,” I often find myself, along with my wife, serving as Eucharist ministers,  holding the chalice and repeating those familiar words, “The blood of Christ, shed for you” as fellow believers take the cup.)

Through all my church and theological pendulum swings, one thing never changed – my image of Martin Luther as a “take-that-Pope-Leo-in-your-face” sort of guy, especially when, on the morning of October 31, 1517, he grabbed a hammer and nailed the 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a small town in eastern Germany where he was pastoring and teaching.

A couple years ago, we were able to visit Wittenberg and other ‘Reformation’ sites in Germany for the first time.  One of my ‘bucket list’ photo opps was being allowed inside the “Lutherstube,” the room in the Wartburg Castle where Martin hid out from the Pope and translated the Scriptures into German.  (A personal note – my wife is half German and her great-grandfather, Bernard Hartung, was the head guard of the Wartburg castle around 1900, and we were treated like royalty when we told them this little known fact).

Nail it to the door!

My sojourn through the non-denominational, evangelical, charismatic-lite universe has always had a strong anti-Catholic, as well as anti-mainline church fervor.  Anytime we found our personal convictions or opinions confronted, we were ready to come alongside Martin and nail our grievances to the Wittenberg Door.

This Door has become iconic – even a satirical evangelical magazine used the phrase as their name.  Whenever and wherever Protestants of any persuasion disagree with, well, almost anything, we find ourselves lining up behind Martin and ready to pound those objections into the splintered door of the established church.

The sentiment is not without warrant.  Pope Leo had acquiesced to an elaborate ‘ponzi scheme’ whereby penitent medieval churchgoers were coerced into buying indulgences and thus funding the building of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome.  Luther’s initial list of grievances gave birth to a more developed ‘protestant’ theology of the three solas: sola scriptura, sola gracia, sola fide (Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone).   But is it fair to piggyback every complaint against any church ‘system’ to Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on that October morning in Wittenberg?

Martin had no intention of dividing the Church, but rather, reforming and revitalizing it.  His heart was clearly for the institution of the Church, and he was not nailing a manifesto against organized religion in favor of a ‘make-it-up-as-you-go’ personal religious experience.  But, the unintended consequences of that crisp, late October morning are still with us today.  Do we really want to identify primarily with Martin’s desperate act that morning?

Consequences of that hammer

  • Violence and bloodshed. We can spin it any way we wish, but an immediate and direct result of Martin’s actions was a series of clashes and ‘class-warfare’ battles that killed over one hundred thousand people.
  •  Splintering the Church. From The Church (ok, technically the ‘Church’ already split once in 1054 between the Roman and Eastern branches) we now have over 40,000 different ‘branches’ of Christianity in the world.
  • Elevation of human ‘will’ and choice. The democratization of the Church began.  No longer was it an attempted ‘Theocracy,’ with God working through His leadership, but with the priesthood of believers came an onslaught of personal agendas in ecclesiastical matters.

Before you think I have crossed the Tiber River and returned to home sweet Rome, I must clearly state that the positive consequences of that October morning are monumental.  Every child of God has access to Scripture and we understand that we are saved by grace, through faith, and we know that we can go directly to God without the necessity of a mediator.

Standing in front of Luther’s desk where he translated the Bible (the bare wall on the right is where he threw the inkwell at the demon harassing him. Over the centuries, visitors took portions of the wall until all that was left was stone)

As we acknowledge the role that our forefathers in the faith, including Dr. Martin Luther, had in delivering the saving message of God’s grace to us, let us remember that our goal should continue to be that of Jesus’ prayer in John 17, that we might be one and that, as a result of that unity, the world might know that God has sent Jesus into the world to save the world!

Happy Reformation Day!


10 thoughts on “If I had a hammer: Happy Reformation Day

      • Will we use hammers to beat sword into plowshares? Or will we even, through the law die to the law so that we no longer live? What if we let others’ hammers drive nails as we are crucified with Christ, as he lives within us? What if the one knocking on the door bid us come and die? What if the Lamb who was slain was worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength? What if when we saw the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, we saw Him? What if we all got something really, really wrong in how we’ve received the Gospel? What if God has sent Jesus into the world to save the world? How then would our ecclesiology be today? How then would we be semper reformanda?

  1. Amen, Steven! Have always thought that the main sound we will hear at the entrance to heaven is the smacking of foreheads. NOT ONE of those 40,000 “branches” of The Church has it “right,” and the only reason ANYONE–Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Whatever-ite–will find themselves at the proverbial pearly gates is the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ.

      • Perhaps different from the indulgences of Leo’s time, Pope Francis is said to have proclaimed:

        “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology… and ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid.”

        “And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.”

        “The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people… but it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

  2. Dr. Steven, Since we cleared up that I was confirmed at the Worms Luthern church, how did that fill in with what you shared about Wittenberg church? I wish I could be sure but I thought that I was told he nailed the the thesis on the door of the Worm’s church. I think that I have been confused all these years. Any help?

  3. Nicely stated. Being from Scot descent, I am familiar with a different branch of the Reformed faith (one of the 40,000 varieties) which is no less intent on using a hammer. I look forward to the day when the body is reunited as a whole Body of Christ–East and West, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and Charismatic and Cessationist; but I fear we have to wait for the eschaton.

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