I was going to say “happy Reformation Day,” but then I read Stanley Hauerwas’s Washington Post article. He’s right: division is not to be celebrated. Reform is, though, even if it’s not usually a happy process.
As a member of the Stone-Campbell Movement, I stand in a tradition of reformers. As a student of Scripture, I stand in admiration of Luther’s audacity. As Campbell said: “The Bible was brought out of prison, and Luther bid it march. He made it speak in German, and thus obtained for it a respectful hearing.”[1. Alexander Campbell, “Prefatory Remarks,” Millennial Harbinger 1, no. 1 (January 1830): 3.] Furthermore:
(See more about the relationship between the SCM and the Reformation from John Mark Hicks.)
This post is for the enjoyment of my friends who do not often think about historical matters such as Martin Luther and the Reformation. If there is a good time to take a moment, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation’s beginning seems like it.
Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the the Castle Church in Wittenberg (which was basically like a town bulletin board) on October 31, 1517. After that, things got a little tense for a while.
If you’ve never read the theses, you should, to be like, you know, informed. (There are lots of not-so-readable versions online. This one is easy on the eyes.) Just think of them as consecutive tweets. Now that I think about it, I’ll be shocked if someone isn’t already tweeting them. In any case, I’ll add a few tweetable theses at the end of the post.
One of the things I love about Luther is his flamboyant rhetoric. Not just because it’s surprising or entertaining but because his personality and style would be rejected outright by most Protestant churches today, not because of his unconventional theology but because of his impious manner. And in this there is an important lesson for the pious despisers of both unvarnished forthrightness and devious good humor.
Bodily functions played a significant role in Luther’s rhetoric, not least when talking back to his accusers. This imaginary repartee from his late work Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil is representative:
“Silence, you heretic! What comes out of our mouth must be kept!” I hear it—which mouth do you mean? The one from which the farts come? (You can keep that yourself!) Or the one into which the good Corsican wine flows? (Let a dog shit into that!) “Oh, you abominable Luther, should you talk to the pope like this?” Shame on you too, you blasphemous, desperate rogues and crude asses—and should you talk to an emperor and empire like this? Yes, should you malign and desecrate four such high councils with the four greatest Christian emperors, just for the sake of your farts and decretals? Why do you let yourselves imagine that you are better than crass, crude, ignorant asses and fools, who neither know nor wish to know what councils, bishops, churches, emperors indeed, what God and his wordage? You are a crude ass, you ass pope, and an ass you will remain!
Luther also said some cheeky things because he reveled in his freedom, so to speak. He preferred to throw sin in the devil’s face than to let it be more than “trifles” in light of God’s grace.
Whenever the devil harasses you thus, seek the company of men, or drink more, or joke and talk nonsense, or do some other merry thing. Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all. So when the devil says to you, “Do not drink,” answer him, “I will drink, and right freely, just because you tell me not to.”[2. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), 324–25.]
And of course, he also thought and said and did a lot of things that were wrong. Let these be thrown in the devil’s face too. In any case, I celebrate him and all those like him whose consciences were taken captive by the Word of God. So I’m going to raise a pint of German beer tonight to the continual reformation of the church. Prost!