The whole Lutheran world is absorbed this year in the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, and much of the rest of the world is also taking note to a greater or lesser extent. The editorial council of Let’s Talk is providing an opportunity, especially for the members and friends of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the ELCA, to reflect on what’s important about the Reformation to them.
We propose to devote several issues of Let’s Talk to the Reformation Jubilee. In each issue we offer three different categories of articles to help stir the creative juices of church leaders and lay persons. Articles that relate to the Reformation Jubilee but don’t fit these categories are also welcome.
1. Appreciating Luther
The Reformation begins with Martin Luther’s calls for reform of church and society. Luther is unquestionably the Great Reformer. We invite readers to respond to the question: what do you appreciate (or not appreciate) about Luther?
There’s an obstacle, however. Luther, like many great historical figures, had clay feet, and this undoes the ability of some people to appreciate his genuine and enormous contributions to theology, Christian life, church practice, and social renewal. Frank Senn recently taught a graduate student who had difficulty giving a class presentation on Luther’s German Mass because she had read his anti-Semitic writings in another class. Is there a way to deal with this and other issues up front and head on?
For this issue we invited a veteran professor of history with a sometime association with this journal, Dr. Gregory Singleton, to write an article precisely dealing with this problem of how to handle heroes with clay feet. Although he is not an expert on Luther or the Reformation (but not ignorant of this history either), he has experienced over forty years of teaching American history, frequently dealing with cultural icons who have fallen from their pedestals. Singleton’s “Martin Luther, the Peasants’ War, and Anti-Semitism: A Quincentennial Rumination,” provides an approach to dialogue on the hermeneutic of dealing with the whole Luther, who would be the first to claim that he was a sinner as well as a saint.
Another article also deals with what some people regard as an unsavory part of Luther’s character. Robert Saler, who teaches in an interdenominational seminary in Indianapolis, points out how offended his colleagues are about the way Luther demonized his theological opponents. In answering the question “Why Did Luther Demonize His Opponents?” Saler draws us into traditions of how the church has sometimes regarded heresy as a moral failing. Luther’s own real belief that the Devil was at work in the contemporary church to undermine faith and doctrine, sometimes even among one’s friends, drew utterances from Luther were not unlike exorcisms.
Two additional articles also deal with what could be regarded as unflattering aspects of Luther’s speech. These are characteristics many Lutherans chuckle over even though the pressure is strong not to emulate the Great Reformer in these ways. Francisco Herrera takes a look at the earthy remarks found especially, although not exclusively, in Luther’s Table Talk: the sheer earthiness and body-orientation of his language. Herrera proposes that this provocative speech was “More than Just Table Talk.” It was needed to provoke reform and renewal. Herrera sees parallels between Luther’s provocative talk and methods of the burgeoning #decolonizelutheranism movement.
What began as a class project for Tyler Rasmussen, of ferreting out “Luther’s Insults” from his voluminous writings, and posting them on a blog, the Lutheran Insulter website, became an instance of internet celebrity. Overnight this site was getting tens of thousands of hits. Maybe Luther’s insults provide models for people today who are living in a highly contentious culture, but Luther said things about people that we wouldn’t dare say today—and he said it print! The trick, Rasmussen proposes, is to show how Luther used insults to draw people from error into truth.
Anna Marie Johnson appreciates the more positive aspect of Luther’s career in his pastoral writings. Luther wrote innumerable tracts laying out an agenda for the reform of the Christian life. His proposals were often based on the Ten Commandments. Discouraging the more ostentatious good works, like going on a pilgrimage, Luther gave guidance to ordinary Christians on helping their needy neighbors.
The Let’s Talk editorial council established a second category of articles: in which writers indulge in their favorite Reformation figures, documents, or ideas.
We need to be reminded that there were precursors to the 16th century Reformation. Benjamin Dueholm writes about the 14th century Lollards who anticipated many later Protestant ideas. The Lollards were hunted down and suppressed by kings and church hierarchy in England, yet they made a profound contribution to the development of the English language in their Bible translation (from the Latin Vulgate) and other writings.
Theodor Dunkelgrün writes on the humanist Hebrew scholar Johann Reuchlin. What would Reformation Bible translation and scholarship have been without Reuchlin’s critical edition of the Hebrew Bible and Erasmus’ critical edition of the Greek New Testament? Neither Reuchlin nor Erasmus left the Catholic Church, but their work was essential to the work of the Protestant reformers.
Frank Senn writes about another humanist, the Swedish King Johan III, who pursued ecumenical relationships between the Lutheran Reformation and the papacy. His “high church” inclinations are evident in an evangelical catholic Liturgy he prepared for the Church of Sweden. It was promulgated in 1576, although not without anti-liturgy antagonism from the theologians.
Episcopal rector Pamela Dolan tells of acquiring the 1549 Book of Common Prayer when she was a Roman Catholic and what the Prayer Book has meant to her over the years. Yes, The Book of Common Prayer is a Reformation liturgical book. It reflects the enduring editorial and translation skills of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
We invite readers to submit brief articles about a favorite Reformation figure, document, or idea. Kathrine von Bora Luther? Philip Melancthon? John Calvin? The Formula of Concord? The Heidelberg Catechism? Justification by faith? Write and we will grant you an indulgence.
3. Commemorative Projects
A number of activities and programs are occurring in synod congregations or in ecumenical clusters. We would like to spread the word about what is happening in and through our synod. We include in this issue of Let’s Talk two reports.
Dawn Mass Eck reports on the Castle Church Door project at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda and how unity and reconciliation among local churches led to them jointly dealing with the challenges of chronic homelessness in Lake County.
Pastors Betty Landis (St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Evanston) and Joseph Tito (St. Nicholas Catholic Church, Evanston) report on how four ELCA congregations and four Catholic parishes in Evanston, plus Lutheran and Catholic campus ministries at Northwestern University, entered into dialogue that resulted in ambitious programs of joint study with guest presenters, joint worship, and joint social action.
Both of these activities were a response to the ELCA’s Reformation 500 initiative. If your congregation is engaged in a special commemorative activity within the parish or with other churches, please send us a report.
Help us celebrate Reformation Jubilee 500
Articles on what I appreciate/don’t appreciate about Luther, indulgences, and projects, or articles that don’t fit any of these categories, may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We plan to publish two more issues of Let’s Talk devoted to the Reformation Jubilee 500: in the fall before Reformation Day (deadline September 1) and after Reformation Day (deadline November 15).