When I was in the ELCA, as a pastor in Hudson County, NJ, our urban coalition of Lutheran parishes (Hudson Evangelical Lutheran Parish or HELP) had weekly Bible studies. Usually three of us more confessionally minded pastors would go afterwards for lunch and beers to de-tox after the virulent liberals held sway with their implicit and explicit denials of the faith and practice of the Lutheran Church. One week it was the study for Holy Trinity Sunday and a woman pastor sniffed that morning, “The only day of the year we celebrate a doctrine”. Even then, I could not help wonder, what’s wrong with that?! My parents taught me right from wrong and I have quite happy over that doctrine. I need Christ’s doctrine every day. I learned Jesus Christ by the faithful preaching of LCMS pastors growing up and I celebrate the “sound doctrine”.
On Reformation Day and regarding the Reformation itself on October 31st, though, we seem to be agreeing with the woman pastor. We are primarily celebrating the Reformer, rather than the reformation and it’s Doctrine. We should be celebrating a doctrine rather than a man, that is, Luther. The day we should be celebrating as the beginning of the Reformation is June 25th, when in 1530, the Augsburg Confession was presented to His Serene Majesty, Emperor Charles V. As Pr. Todd Wilkin pointed out on his blog, the 95 Theses were still quite Roman. Our hero worship of Luther as the “Saxon Hercules” does not does honor and praise for those many, known and not known, with whom Luther stood. As a saint, Luther did not act alone, as he was in the baptized communion of the saints. Those electors and princes were risking much that day in 1530. It was not and is not only “here I stand”, but “Here we stand”.
One comic book I read multiple times was one on the story of Martin Luther, probably by Concordia Publishing House. I thought the panel showing the tonsured Luther laying on the stone floor being ordained about as scary as a zombie on Halloween. I loved watching the black and white Luther movie…and still do. Please understand: Luther was a hero for me. We sure do need heroes. On the eve of All Saints, though, it is better to call Luther a baptized saint and confessor, than a hero. He and the blessed Confessors did not want to point to themselves, but Jesus Christ. The painting above by Lucas Cranach is a fine and precise portrayal of the reformation. We celebrate the saving doctrine of Christ, Luther knew he did not save.
I thought of this re-reading portions of Hermann Sasse’s Here We Stand in which he goes through the various interpretations of the Reformation and shows how they fall short. The first one Sasse tackled was “The Heroic Interpretation of the Reformer”. He wrote that this kind of historical understanding arose in the 19th century with the idea that great men form the course of history and Luther fits the bill. It was further reinforced by the fact that even in the time of Luther, followers of ‘his’ doctrine were being called “Lutherans”. Sasse cites the important quote from Dr. Luther:
“How should I, poor, stinking carcass that I am, come to have the children of Christ call themselves by my dreadful name? Not so, dear friends; let us do away with party names and call ourselves Christians after Him whose teachings we have.”
At the end of the chapter on the heroic interpretation, Prof. Sasse, writing in 1938, had a pointed critique which is still relevant in our day and for your contemplation. He wrote that
“…hero worship, or founder worship, inheres in the nature of the Lutheran Church simply because our church is the only one of the larger churches in Christendom which bears the name of a man. The truth of the matter is that it is only when the Evangelical Lutheran Church is in a manifest state of decline that such an extravagant veneration of Luther asserts itself. The nineteenth century, with its modern historical interpretation and its worship of heroes, introduced these fulsome laudations of the German Reformer to which Luther himself would have replied so vigorously that the genius cult of these eulogists would have disappeared once and for all. The more Luther’s teachings fade from the consciousness of the church, so much the more foolishly the cult of his person is promoted. And the more the people are told, in bombastic and mendacious jubilee addresses, about the “Hero of Worms,” the “Warrior of God,” and whatever else the figures and symbols might be which are drawn from the chamber of Luther-anniversary-horrors, so much the more are these people estranged from the Reformation. The Protestant churches which have tolerated and even fostered this practice really have no right to complain about their fate. The Lutheran Church of the first two centuries did not have all the means which we possess to understand Luther and to acquaint others with his life and thought. Their knowledge of the Reformer’s life was altogether inadequate, and their editions of his works were imperfect and fragmentary. They knew nothing of the “young Luther.” All the treasures which have been made accessible to us in the last two generations were still unknown. Nevertheless, the Lutheran Church existed even then. It was a vital and a living church. For, although it was still without a reliable picture of Luther’s development into a Reformer, it did have the teachings of the Reformation as a vital possession. And that, after all, was something!