“Semper Reformanda” October 29, 2017, with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons
Our culture celebrates the last day of October as Halloween, but that same day is also memorable as the anniversary of the defiant act that initiated the Protestant Reformation. This week it will be 500 years since the German monk Martin Luther posted his 95 claims about the corruptions of the Catholic Church on the Facebook of his time, the doors of the cathedral at Wittenberg. We are the heirs of his audacity; but are we still Protestants?
Click here to start at the sermon.
Martin Luther used a lot more than 140 characters when he posted his now-famous propositions for debate on the local equivalent of Facebook 500 years ago this week. In modern English it runs to about a four page print out – he was, after all, a theologian and an academic. He was hoping to be somewhat controversial, because he wanted to attract people to attend a debate he was sponsoring, but he didn’t realize he was creating essentially the first viral tweet. And he wasn’t vandalizing those church doors, by the way; they were likely already filled with notices and complaints, like any public college bulletin board. But even five centuries ago, social media had a life of its own, and Luther’s 95 theses was a document of just the right length to be easily printed in pamphlet form. This meant that it didn’t have to be physically distributed from a central location, like a more substantial book, that cost significant money to publish. Rather, any local printer who got a copy could easily set it for themselves, and print up a batch to sell in their town. Copies could be mailed by both friends and opponents to correspondents far away, who could then have it reproduced in their own towns and universities. Luther didn’t so much ‘publish’ his 95 theses as the European public did – like a Youtube video, it was viewed and shared so much that it went viral, in what is generally held to be the origin of the Protestant Reformation, in 1517.
It’s a vivid image, of course; the indignant monk, flinging defiance into the face of the Catholic church, by nailing his charges up on the cathedral door – memorable, if not exactly accurate. What was Luther on about, and why did his rather academic statement resonate so widely? The presenting issue, as Jack has just reminded us, was indulgences; Pope Leo X was raising funds for wars to reclaim the territory of the Papal States in Italy, and to renovate and enlarge St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, by offering to let souls out of purgatory for a price. People could buy remissions of sins – a sort of get out of jail free cards – for themselves, or on behalf of others who had already died. Or even as insurance against sins they might commit in the future. The scholar/monk Luther disapproved of this money grubbing, and he was not alone.
But in addition to asking two pointed practical questions about this process, Luther challenged its very premise, arguing that it did not and could not work as advertised. First, he wanted to know, why was the Pope asking poor peasant believers throughout Christendom to fund his church building, when he had the largest personal fortune of any inhabitant of Europe in the day? He could have paid for his own church, and been done with it. Moreover, if the Pope had the power, as he claimed, to pardon and release anybody in Purgatory, why didn’t he just go on and do it, for all of them? Why should he have to be reimbursed to do what any merciful Christian would do for the benefit of suffering souls if they could?
But more fundamentally, Luther claimed that the whole enterprise was a scam, and essentially the entire elaborate hierarchy of the church was not only corrupt, but unnecessary and unbiblical. The popes and cardinals and bishops and priests had gotten accustomed to presenting their pronouncements as carrying all the weight of divine commands. Common people, many of whom could not read, and the vast majority of whom did not understand Latin, had little familiarity with what was and was not actually in the Bible; they tended to take all instruction from church authorities as equally imperative. Only someone with the kind of scholarship and access that Luther had was in a position to try to sort out what was actually called for in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus from the prerogatives that the institutional church had created for itself over the centuries. What was truly sensational about the 95 theses was the claim that the Pope, and by extension other church functionaries, had no real role in the process of salvation. All that you needed to know in order to get into heaven was contained in the Bible – that is the substance of the phrase ‘Sola Scriptura’; nothing but the scriptures is necessary. And the scriptures, correctly understood, teach that you do not have to learn or achieve or accomplish anything to earn your way into heaven, but only trust and believe – ‘Sola Fides’; only faith.
It was these two claims that made Luther’s argument a sensation across Europe. But it is worth remembering that the ground for that outpouring of interest and support had been cultivated for quite some time before this particular debate touched it off. As we saw in the video a few moments ago, John Wycliff in England had advocated and practiced the translation of scripture into the language of the common people – in his case, English – so that every believer could have access to what it said for themselves. And Jan Hus, in the Czech-speaking territory of Bohemia, while himself burned at the stake 1415, initiated a fairly successful proto-reformation from Prague, where his followers held off decades of invasions by papal armies, and 90% of the local population identified as Hussites a century later, at the time of Luther. Both of these earlier thinkers took issue with the church over the same problems that would trouble Luther – the corruption of the church hierarchy, and its tendency to place barriers between the believer and god. There had also been a variety of efforts on the part of lay leaders across Europe to create small communities of spiritual practice and charitable work, where the local Catholic institutions were particularly degraded or inaccessible. Such groups would spring up again in the wake of Luther’s example, most especially among the Anabaptists, to whom we owe a significant share of the origins of our own faith.
And this was the worst problem about Luther, as the Pope and his advocates came to realize. The particular challenges put forth in his debate propositions could be addressed, or dismissed as theological nit-picking, but the idea that a believer was answerable to their own conscience and their own understanding of god’s requirements, rather than to the dictates of human religious authorities, was a solvent against which the structures of power had no defense.
In the end, Luther is not really our guy, for Unitarians or Universalists or free church liberals; he was a forerunner who helped to set the stage for Michael Servetus and King John Sigismund and others who have a closer association with religious liberty and freedom of conscience as we understand it today. It wasn’t Luther himself who coined the phrase ‘semper reformanda,’ meaning that the true church is always in the process of being reformed because it is necessarily a flawed, human institution imperfectly reflecting the truth and will of god; that line didn’t gain currency until a century or so after his death. But just as he authored a document that spread far beyond his own reach or anything he ever intended with his 95 theses, so Martin Luther offered an example not just of reform, but of protest, that had a far greater influence than he would understand even in his own lifetime.
Never a particularly patient temper at any time, Luther seems to have gotten even crabbier as he got older. It’s one thing to denounce the failings of a multi-national corporation like the Roman Catholic church; it’s something else to try to build an alternative institution that will make everyone from princes to peasants happy. While he sympathized with the urban poor who were being fleeced by the indulgence con to support the pretensions of the Pope, Luther took a dim view of armed peasants rebelling against their rulers in quest of greater political rights, and he supported the brutal suppression of such revolts. Early on, he criticized the Catholic church for not doing enough to make Christianity attractive to Jews, and to convert and welcome them. But later, as he found the church under his own leadership equally ineffective at their conversion, Luther denounced Judaism in obnoxious terms, and recommended that secular rulers should outlaw and persecute all Jews. Like I said, he’s really not our guy; and his vision of a structure for the temporal church here on earth was not all that different from the Catholicism he opposed, with the exception of eliminating the Pope as ultimate authority.
And yet, we would not be here today, at least not in this particular format, if it weren’t for Luther. Without his entirely realizing it, he gave western Christianity the ideal of a church not just ‘reformata’ – once reformed at a particular moment from some specific error – but ‘reformanda’ – perpetually in the process of being reformed over and again; the church whose nature is to be inherently liable to improvement, just as an individual is always capable of spiritual growth up until the very moment of death. I also find in Luther a potent object lesson on the principle that it is far easier to point out the defects of an existing system than it is to design a new structure that eliminates those flaws.
There is something in that principle of ‘semper reformanda’, though, that also hints at democracy, and the power of each new generation to bring its own ethical insight and wisdom to bear on the institutions it has received from the past. The individual believer has a responsibility not just to follow instructions from the church as they find it at any given moment in history, but to examine it, and evaluate the extent to which it is congruent with the best wisdom available. For Luther, that would have been scripture; what he wanted was a more biblical church, in accordance with the New Testament. In our time, we look for a church that upholds and conforms to the demands of justice and right relationship as we perceive them; none of us here today expects our churches to be what they were fifty years ago, nor yet what they will be fifty years hence. In this if nothing else, we are followers of Luther’s teaching and example, but I think this is true in one other dimension as well.
We are also sympathetic to Luther’s contention that the shape of the institutional church matters. Even though the believer’s connection to god is immediate, without the assistance or interference of priests or popes or human rules, it is still important that the gathered body of the faithful express its belief not just in a private relationship to the divine, but also in the way that its members relate to each other, and to those who do not share their theology. If it is to be of any use, the faith community must have a public, institutional form; it must model the ways in which money, and power, and change, ought to be handled in the service of its values. Should that institutional form become corrupt, the loyal believers have not only a right, but a duty, to protest, and to seek reform. And that, in the end, is what makes us Protestants; we understand ourselves – humble, ordinary members that we are – as having responsibility for the integrity of the religious body to which we give our assent and commitment. So we need to keep the habit of protest handy, and call it forth whenever that institution seeks to exploit our trust.
It is hard to imagine our Unitarian Universalism being constituted on any other basis, but it is worth remembering that five hundred years ago, this was a novel idea to most people. Martin Luther’s irascible insistence on his own god-given right to question the actions of the Pope and the legitimacy of the church’s power structure turned the world of Christendom upside down, and brought forth one of the pillars of Enlightenment and modernity. There are today, as there have always been and will always be, vast forces that would like to do away with the idea of ‘semper reformanda’; who would be quite happy to silence protest, and require our meek obedience to the powers that be, whether sacred or secular or both. Thanks to Luther, we remember what it means to challenge those principalities; to bring the creative power and ethical demands of a living faith to judge the self-seeking inertia of human hierarchy. That summoning sounds along the ages of history, still calling us to new justice and new truth. In the challenges of our own day, may we honor this legacy, and gratefully bequeath it to the next generation of protestant reformers.