500 years ago, an obscure German Augustinian monk and university professor nailed a piece of paper to the smooth wooden door of Wittenberg Castle Church (also known as All Saint’s Church). This was common practice; in an era without the internet or social media, the main doors were often used by university staff as a sort of bulletin board. Roommate wanted. Have you seen my cat? Here’s 95 reasons why indulgences are stupid and Tetzel sucks.
Did Martin Luther mean to ignite the Reformation? Probably not. Was he the only one in Europe who thought that the Catholic Church needed cleaning up and cleaning out? No. Did he have issues? Uh, yes. Some pretty big ones, in fact. Is God in the business of using deeply flawed people to accomplish His purposes? Yes, forever, amen and praise His Name.
It is impossible in this, the concluding entry of a month-long series, to do the Reformation justice. Thick and heady scholarly tomes have been written, as have popular histories. There are documentaries galore. The debate over just what this Reformation is and what it all means rages just as hotly as it did in those first days of November 1517, albeit without entire countries going to war or heretics being burned at the stake. So many forces, spiritual and secular, converged and exploded that it’s hard to know where one begins and the other ends.
Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I did not mark this anniversary.
Before Luther came John Wycliffe and the Lollards. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi competed for the right to create some doors in Florence. Jan Hus and the Bohemian Reformation. Gutenberg and the movable type printing press. The Battle of Bosworth and the end of the Plantagenets. These people lived and events occurred during the shift from Medieval to Modern, the shift known as the Renaissance.
Here I could go on a lengthy tangent about Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Durer, Cranach and Holbein; about Charles V, Henry VIII, Julius II, Clement VII; about Jonson, Marlowe and Shakespeare; about the Radical Reformation and the Wars of Religion…but I’ll trust that you have access to Google and the local library.
We Protestants are indebted to Luther, to be sure, but would his beef with the Church have caused such a cataclysm without the larger Renaissance in which it occurred? A question that people far smarter than me have debated for centuries, but I lean toward a soft “no.” There’s a reason that he was excommunicated and branded a heretic – but not martyred (though by all accounts he was prepared to be killed). People were ready for Luther and his Theses.
In this, I see God’s prevenient grace. By no means do I think that 1200 or so years passed without a single person being saved (roughly the years between the conversion of Constantine and the nail through the door), as the more gloomy and doomsdayish sort claim. God has always seen beyond the surface and into the heart. Rather, just as He used Hellenism and the growth of the Roman Empire in the spread of the Gospel, He used the Renaissance and a hot-tempered monk.
For God has drawn, is drawing and will continue to draw people to Himself by whatever means He deems fit. Sunsets, songs, quiet conversations, words on a page, the echo of a hammer across a quiet church.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am neither smart enough nor wise enough to unravel the complex mystery of man’s will and God’s will. All I know is that the series we’ve just finished wouldn’t exist without the Lord’s use of the man in the black robes who walked up the steps and tacked his page on the weird-to-modern-eyes form of a bulletin board. We would not be able to read the Bible in our own languages without Gutenberg, Wycliffe, Hus, Luther and the Renaissance. We would have no concept of prevenient grace without Arminius, the Remonstrance and Wesley. I would not have had the freedom to pursue this love of theology and Bible study had not all of these people and things come together in that specific time and place.
I am profoundly thankful for Luther.
More importantly, I am once again reduced to a humble, whispered “thank you” to God.
It has been my honor and delight to share this month with you. If I have taught you even a little something or prompted you to study for yourself, then I have succeed. I know; I didn’t get into the “good stuff” like eschatology, the wildness that is the book of Ezekiel or what it would have been like to be Enoch’s companion the day he disappeared. The disciplines of theology and Bible study – they are bottomless wells. If I may be so bold, I pray that your appetite has been permanently whetted and that your thirst is never satisfied.
God is good all the time and all the time God is good.
Let’s close this out in worship.
For all entries in the 31 Days of Feasting on Theology series, go here.