It was 1521.
A man by the name of Martin Luther stood in front of the Holy Roman Emperor, along with an array of other leaders representing the religious and political establishment of the day, to answer charges of heresy. “Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand the sense of scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all?” pressed the brilliant Catholic theologian Johann von Eck. “I ask you, Martin, answer candidly...do you or do you not repudiate your books and the errors which they contain?”
The words poured, first from his heart, and then from his lips in his native German: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. Amen.”
Martin Luther was born in Saxony in 1483. Schooled in Erfurt, he later fled to an Augustinian monastery. Literally. Caught in a thunderstorm, in terror before the lightning, he cried out, “Help, St. Anne, I will become a monk!” Despite this less than auspicious beginning, from that point on Martin Luther was a man of the church. And from this man of the church came the greatest reformation of the church in history.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century which altered the course of Western history in seismic fashion. As Graham Tomlin has written, there can be little doubt that Martin Luther ranks
“as one of the most influential European figures of the last millennium. Marco Polo and Columbus opened up new continents, Shakespeare and Michelangelo produced some of the most sublime pieces of art, and Napoleon and Hitler changed the political face of their centuries. Yet Luther and the Reformation he triggered have made a huge impact not just on Europe, but...throughout the rest of the world. Protestantism shaped a whole new way of life for countless people across the Western world and beyond, which coloured their approaches to God, work, politics, leisure, family – in fact, almost every aspect of human life...[including] the early development...of the United States, and in the emergence of democracy and economic and religious freedoms in Europe.”
And to think it all started with this simple monk nailing 95 thoughts on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
On October 31st, All Saint’s Eve.
The Reformation was more than theological; it was ecclesiastical. It was a reformation of the church. Even the famed 95 theses nailed onto the Wittenberg door say nothing about justification by faith, the authority of the Bible, the priesthood of all believers or any of the other well-known Reformation doctrines. Instead, they look like a treatise on church practice. And for Luther’s day, this meant a treatise on life itself. And it was revolutionary: Luther’s ultimate vision for reformation was for a church where each member could play an active and decisive part, the distinction between clergy and laity could be dissolved and every believer be seen as a priest, and thus be able to powerfully “espouse the cause of the faith” to a lost and dying world.
Luther encouraged his fellow monks to break out of the monasteries and walk among those in the world. Once there, he encouraged those in the world to see their place in life as deeply “called” as those of the monks, and to take their place in the church’s enterprise as fellow ministers.
In essence, Martin Luther felt anyone could, and everyone should, make history with their life.
And that’s worth remembering every Halloween.
James Emery White
On the life of Luther, see Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; Graham Tomlin, Luther and His World; the most complete biography to date, however, is M. Brecht’s three-volume work (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).
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