Sunday, October 28, 2007

Luther's Legacy

This morning thousands of Lutheran churches will celebrate the Reformation. To some it may seem a very sectarian occasion in a more ecumenically enlightened world. Wasn't the Reformation responsible for splintering Christendom into countless scattered pieces and disrupting the unity of the church? Didn't the Reformation break with the history of the past and abandon the rich traditions carefully collected over millenia?

Certainly there were excesses and abuses in the period of the Reformation. This, like all periods of history, was not a perfect time. However, as a Lutheran, I look back positively to this era and note that much good came of Martin Luther's efforts. Yet first of all we need to note that the church was already divided at his time, technically speaking. It had been so since 1054 when Rome and Constantinople parted ways. And as to a break with the past - Yes, some of the more radical reformers did abandon all that came before and began with a blank slate, failing to see the value in many of the church's traditions. Luther, though, did not. When he returned to Wittenberg after his brief hiatus in the Wartburg castle, he was very critical of men such as Carstadt for stirring up the people and causing untold damage. Luther was not a revolutionary. He was a son of the Church calling for a return to what he understood was the true and pure faith of the Fathers before him.

Yet, aside from these issues, what might we recognize as the Reformer's lasting legacy these past five centuries?

Although far from an expert on Luther and the Reformation, let me offer a few pastoral observations of my own:
-A return to biblical study using the original languages.
-A Bible in the vernacular of the people.
-A liturgy in the vernacular of the people.
-An openness to marriage for those in the priesthood (ministry).
-A renewed understanding of the Two Kingdoms and their proper roles.
-An appreciation for the Biblical teachings of Law and Gospel and their proper division and application in all theology.
-A restoration of the importance of preaching along with the Sacrament as key aspects of worship.
-A revival of singing among the laity of the church and a beginning of new hymnody.
-A renewed emphasis on catechesis with his two catechisms.
-A restoration of the use of both elements in the Supper as a regular practice.

Of course, being Lutheran, one must mention what is considered fundamental to the Reformation itself, as well as the whole of scripture: the central doctrine of justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ. In the end we believe that what Luther desired most of all was to return to the Church to Christ. That is the Reformation in a nutshell. To the degree that we continue to place Christ at the center of worship and teaching and practice, Luther's greatest legacy lives on. For the greatest and most basic of the 'solas' will always be Christ alone! Soli Deo Gloria - To Him Alone be All Glory!


marilyn said...

Are you aware that there were many translations of the Bible into the languages of the people long before Luther produced his German translation?

See NewAdvent under Bible Translations

Rev. Don Engebretson said...

Good point. I was aware that there were translations prior to Luther's, an example being Wyclif's translation into English in the 14c. However, it was the popularity of Luther's translation despite the Church's ban that was a significant moment in the Reformation. Many did not have access to a full translation they could understand, and Luther's became the standard in this respect for years to come. Perhaps my original post could have been worded differently to reflect this. Thanks for the observation!

marilyn said...

The citation I made to the New Advent site should have been listed as being under Bible Versions. Here's a brief quote:

The history of Biblical research in Germany shows that of the numerous partial versions in the vernacular some go back to the seventh and eighth centuries. It also establishes the certainty of such versions on a considerable scale in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and points to a complete Bible of the fifteenth in general use before the invention of printing. Of special interest are the five complete folio editions printed before 1477, nine from 1477 to 1522, and four in Low German, all prior to Luther's New Testament in 1522. They were made from the Vulgate, differing only in dialect and presenting variant readings.