The Protestant Reformation: state versus church?

By designating 2017 ‘Luther’s Year’, Germany concludes ten years of tribute to one of its greatest sons, Martin Luther, monk, professor and church reformer. Frank Gelli takes a look at his legacy.

Tf 500 years ago the German, Augustinian monk Martin Luther had not nailed his ultra-famous 95 theological theses to the doors of a church in Wittenberg, what would the Western world be like today? Simple answer: very different. Luther’s action fractured the spiritual unity of Europe. Until then all Christians recognised the Pope as their religious leader. Luther put an end to that. Political fragmentation, conflicts and wars of religion also followed. Protestant nations like England forged a separate identity and America, where Protestantism retains real influence, would not be the same as we know it.

The righteous will be justified by faith’ is the passage in St Paul’s Letter to the Romans which got the Reformation going. When Martin Luther, in his monkish cell, hit upon it he felt it as liberation. Until then he had been a zealous and pious Catholic, struggling to be assured of his eternal salvation. Luther had prayed, done penances, austerities and works of mercy galore, as the Church required, yet to no avail. Inwardly, he still felt trapped and feared God was not satisfied. Meditation on the Pauline letter was for him like the stunning, lightening solution of a Zen riddle: faith, a child-like trust in the infinite grace of God was all that sufficed.  It was as simple as that.

Many believe that Luther is the precursor of modern notions like the freedom of the individual in matters of belief because he rejected the supremacy of an infallible Roman Church. Actually, Luther only shifted the locus of authority: from the Church to the Book, the Bible, the Word of God. In that sense, Protestantism means placing the Bible at the centre of a Christian’s life, to the exclusion of all else, like traditions and ceremonies. The problem is that the Bible does not always accord with Luther’s one-sided views. For example, the New Testament Letter of St James says: ‘Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ The very opposite of what Luther taught! Naturally, Martin considered St James’ Letter ‘an epistle of straw’, of no value. That compelled him to deny that all Biblical books have the same importance. So, in the end, Luther and his followers had to accept that the Bible has to be interpreted. By whom? Not really by the uninstructed individual believer but by the Protestant pastors. Back to authority, eh?

Scratch an Englishman, you find a Protestant’, quipped Irish writer G.B. Shaw. King Henry VIII, of course, made himself supreme head of the Church – virtually a crowned Pope – and severed the historical links with Rome. Oddly, Henry had begun, not unlike Luther, as a most loyal Catholic. So much so that he had penned the treatise ‘Defence of the Seven Sacraments’, refuting Protestant heresy, for which a grateful Pope Leo X had bestowed on him the title of Defender of the Faith – still borne by British monarchs today. However, Britain also illustrates the diversity of Protestant Churches. The Church of England has bishops and allows plenty of room for rich liturgies and ceremonies, while the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, going back to John Calvin, a far more extreme Reformer, has neither.

Some contend that the Reformation was no radical break with the past but a gradual, evolving process. It is true that there was a Conciliar Movement in the pre-Reformation Church, aiming at stressing the authority of a general Church Council, rather than that of the Pope. Furthermore, writers like John Wycliffe and John Huss can be seen as anticipating Luther. However, when Protestantism tampered with the central Sacrament of the Eucharist – the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated Bread and Wine – and replaced it with the notion of a merely memorial meal, the break with the past was real and radical. The new, Reformed Church was definitely not the same as the old Church of undivided Christendom. More than other countries, Martin Luther’s anniversary is being celebrated in his native Germany. His translation of the Bible is a monument of national literature and has had enormous influence on the language. The Federal Government wants to use the occasion to celebrate what that Luther signifies in German history. Unfortunately, Luther’s alliance with the German princes, whose self-interested support he needed to resist Rome, was so close and uncritical that he sided with the rulers against the peasants. Stirred up by Luther’s preaching, the peasants rose in rebellion against their feudal masters. Their leader, Thomas Muntzer, was a priest who advocated a return to a primitive, egalitarian Christianity. Luther, in blood-curdling language, urged the Princes to exterminate the peasants – and they did. Muntzer himself was captured and, after much torture, beheaded.

Despite all the contemporary state rejoicing in Luther, Church historian Volker Lepkin has written that the former monk would be a stranger in contemporary Germany. I agree. Take his emphasis on the Bible. How many Germans read and know the Bible today? What is more, how many care for what the Bible teaches in a matter of politics, economics, social relations, sexual mores and the like? Not many, I would imagine. Chancellor Merkel and her party, which bears the name of ‘Christian’, would be horrified if someone was bold enough to appeal to the Bible to decide on matters of national interest. On the other hand, Luther’s adulation of political power is topical. ‘Even if my master was a Turk, I would obey him’, Martin wrote. The idea is that the State, whatever its nature, is absolutely superior to the Church, a concept beloved by the unbridled secularism holding sway in the West.

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