Paul Bartley reflects on his recent encounters with the tumultuous world of Martin Luther and the Reformation he sparked.
Paul is in the formation programme for ordinands in the Diocese of Perth.
My wife Peggy and I had the privilege of being supported to attend the Ridley College Reformation study tour in June to Germany, France and Switzerland. It was a special year to go, as 2017 marks five hundred years since Luther is credited with sparking the Reformation. Family and friends took care of our four small children and we flew to Germany- a first time overseas for my wife. We had both been preparing as much as the general busyness of life allowed, reading Alister McGrath1 and Bruce Gordon2 and watching Carl Trueman’s lectures. This piece meanders through my reflections of Reformation study, with a focus on Luther.
Having the trip coming up certainly helped our enjoyment of our pre-trip learning. The potentially mundane watching of Trueman’s lectures on Luther while washing dishes at home in Perth in the weeks beforehand was as much part of the rich experience as the lofty heights of singing ‘Amazing Grace’ in the monastery, standing on the very same tiles as Luther would have. What a wealth of resources we enjoy here in Australia — in our well stocked theological libraries, on the internet and in documentaries! But we loved having this time together without the kids, travelling in such stunning countryside and at locations so central to the Reformation as Luther’s house in Wittenberg and St Peter's church in Calvin's Geneva.
As far as being in Europe goes, the most meaningful site for me was the Wartburg castle to which Luther was whisked away by friendly ‘kidnappers’ after the Diet of Worms in 1521. He had been excommunicated by the church in January, and after this imperial assembly of Worms in May, Luther also became outlawed by the state — he could now be killed by anyone without fear of punishment. But his prince was ever on his side, and had him removed from public view to Wartburg. The castle sits high on a ridge, and Luther said he was ‘ensconced in the land of the birds.’3 Besides being a stunning castle, seeing the small room where Luther would have worked to translate the New Testament took me into his world for a moment, and the thought of Luther growing his hair and beard
Five hundred years on from those ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and the world has never been the same.
while at Wartburg in order to disguise himself as ‘Knight George’ engages the imagination.
With feet back firmly on the ground in Australia, my current favourite resource is Denis Janz’s A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions. Luther’s fiery rhetorical skill is on display in the following excerpt. Luther had been under pressure from a couple of friends to write a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X, which he did in On the Freedom of the Christian in November 1520, several months before the Diet of Worms. As Janz notes, it is ‘laced with sly ambiguity,’4 yet Luther is not exactly ambiguous in his opinion on the pope’s central administrative unit, the Curia. This part of the introduction is worth quoting at length:
‘I have truly despised your see, the Roman Curia, which, however, neither you nor anyone else can deny is more corrupt than Babylon or Sodom ever was, and which, as far as I can see, is characterized by a completely depraved, hopeless, and notorious godlessness…
‘As you well know, there has been flowing from Rome these many years — like a flood covering the world — nothing but a devastation of men’s bodies and souls and possessions… and the Roman church, once the holiest of all, has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death, and hell. It is so bad that even Antichrist himself, if he should come, could think of nothing to add to its wickedness.
‘Meanwhile you, Leo, sit as a lamb in the midst of wolves…’
In December, a month after publishing this, Luther would burn a copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine which called on him to recant within sixty days, and in January 1521 he was excommunicated. For Luther now any ambiguity about the pope was gone: the Antichrist had indeed come.
Through my experience I have moved from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence — beginning to see just how much I don’t know. It is an uncomfortable place. I am impressed by Luther’s tenacity, and yet struggle with the civil and ecclesiastical chaos he helped to unleash. The disunity between Luther and Zwingli and the extremes of the radicals seem disappointing. Yet by failing to reform, the institutional Roman church was steadfastly opposing the gospel, and was in this way an enemy of humankind itself. Luther wanted to empower people to know God through the Bible, and to reach out in love to their neighbors, rather than to strive towards God in futile, superstitious acts. Chaos proved necessary to achieve these aims, and we know that God was at work.
The next step for me is more reading of the primary sources and looking at the English Reformation. The tour certainly supplied momentum for study, and a desire to get to know the characters and stories of the Reformation better. Being in the priestly formation program of the Perth Diocese, I see now the profound ongoing relevance of things hammered out in the Reformation. Five hundred years on from those ninety-five theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, and the world has never been the same.
1. Alister E McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden; Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
2. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven; London: Yale, 2009).
3. Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden: Wiley- Blackwell, 2010), 90.
4. Denis Janz, A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 105.