Martin Luther: why is he great?

20 Mar

Last Saturday, I was teaching a session in our ‘TransFormation’ program, which is a special program of leadership training for people from a non-English speaking background. Many of the students are refugees, and some have very limited English, and often much less education (or is it schooling?) than our regular students. But they are such a wonderful group of people.
I was talking about some of the ‘big names’ in the history of the church, when one African student asked me, ‘So what is important about Martin Luther?’
It was a perfectly valid question, asking exactly why we consider him great.
Off the cuff, what would I say?
I briefly explained that he was a priest, in the order of the Augustinians, and that he was a scholar, but most importantly he was a person who struggled for integrity or authenticity in his faith. He wanted to experience the salvation which he preached about. He wanted to know in himself, not just in his head, that it was true.
In his struggle, he would not accept ‘pat answers’. This struggle drove him to be a great biblical scholar.
It strikes me as really significant that a number of the great theologians, who have made epoch-making shifts in the history of theological ideas, have all wrestled with biblical studies, in the development and formation of their approaches. This is surely true of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth. That’s significant.

Another feature about Luther is his courage, to work to change the church. He was, in an official sense, very much part of the church. He was a priest and in a position of influence: otherwise no one would have taken any notice of him. He loved the church enough to wrestle with it for the change he believed was essential.
That he eventually was forced to move to re-form the church was not what he wanted. Like Wesley and many other leaders of renewal movements, Luther would no doubt have preferred to remain within his beloved Catholic Church.
But he did work for change, renewal, a fresh focus on the gospel taking shape in the lives of the people.
Then, also, I think Luther’s greatness rests in his conviction that all people, in all walks of life, are called to be Christian ministers. He had a vision of the whole church as ministry, not just a priestly class. Though in fact I think Luther was probably a bit frightened by the movement of the people, which he helped to unleash, he was nonetheless convinced that the church is the people and the people are the church. This is crucial, always to retain.
Finally, I added how significant it was that Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular, the language of his people. This, together with the coming of the printing press, put the Bible in the hands of the people: and my own conviction is that this is the force which is so significant in the renewal of the church.
This is why we try to make biblical studies and theological education available to all interested people, not just those who seek to be ordained. In the hands of ordinary people, in service of the ministry of all people, this study ceases to be the preserve of an elite (and a means of conserving their power). Luther’s act of putting the Bible into the hands of the ordinary people was revolutionary.
I regret, however, that the movement of ‘the reformation’ became a movement in which God’s Word, the self-giving revelation of God, has at times become entirely identified with words. The Word of God was previously known by ordinary people in other media as well, such as in the theology of stained glass windows (so many richly beautiful presentations here) and in tapestries, —which the people knew how to ‘read’, as well as in their liturgies, and so on. Many of us have lost this rich, imaginative stream of our heritage, and struggle to re-gain it. Karl Barth lamented that the Reformers had left us with only words, to shape our prayer, and we need so much more.
Nonetheless, Luther worked to ensure that we have the freedom to regain and reform our spiritual heritage. We can go back to some things which, perhaps, at the time it was necessary to set aside, in order to restore balance. Now, we can give thanks for Luther’s greatness, and move on in the freedom he asserted, even at times moving on from his own positions.

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