Protestantism after 500 Years
Oxford University Press, 2016
384 pp., 52.00
Mary Noll Venables
500 Years and Now What?
Wittenberg, a small Saxon town in the former East Germany, is getting ready for something big. All over town banners with an image of Luther and the text "Luther 2017 / 500 Years Reformation / in the beginning was the word" hang from buildings and streetlights. The castle and castle church are being renovated at immense expense. Churches and faith communities from around the world have been invited to plant five hundred trees in a Luther garden. Gift shops sell a Playmobil figure of Martin Luther, complete with academic beret, feather pen, and miniature German New Testament. It doesn't take too much cynicism to ask, why this frenzy of branding, building, planting, and selling to commemorate the 500th anniversary of when one Dr. Martin Luther, an unknown German monk, pounded (or perhaps didn't pound) 95 theses about indulgences to the door of a church?
Luther 2017 is a big German production; internationally, smaller groups have also been considering how to mark 500 years of Protestantism. Four years ago, Thomas Albert Howard and Mark Noll gathered historians, theologians, and a legal scholar at Gordon College, far away from Wittenberg, to ponder how the Reformation ought to be commemorated in 2017, not in building projects but with intellectual consideration. Their replies created Protestantism after 500 Years. A brief review cannot even mention all the chapters, but it can suggest useful wisdom to prepare for this important anniversary.
An opening essay by editor Howard traces the history of Reformation anniversaries, illustrating that Reformation commemorations reveal much about the commemorators. Howard contrasts the first large-scale Protestant commemoration of Luther posting his 95 theses in 1617 with celebrations two hundred years later in 1817. In 1617, members of the Protestant Union, a defensive alliance of Reformed and Lutheran territories within the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, felt threatened by a resurgent Tridentine Catholic church, Catholic rulers, divisions between Reformed and Lutheran Protestants, and disputes within Lutheranism. The Reformed Elector of the Rhineland Palatinate and leader of the Protestant Union, Friedrich V, was the first to call for Protestant territories to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their liberation from Catholic darkness. The Lutheran Saxon elector, Georg I, issued his own orders for competing celebrations from October 31 to November 2, complete with bell-ringing, sermons, speeches, and souvenir coins, medals, and pamphlets, all of which sought to strengthen Lutheran confessional cohesion and his own political position. Skip forward 200 years, and 500 students from 11 German universities met at the Wartburg castle, where Luther had been protected by the Saxon Elector Friedrich and translated the New Testament into German, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the fourth anniversary of German victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nations in Leipzig. The students rejoiced over Germany's religious and political liberation. The theological and political jubilee in 1617 became in 1817 a nationalistic and political celebration of German-ness.
If students, rulers, and theologians can celebrate the Reformation in differing ways, historians can also propose divergent interpretations of Reformation events. Matthew Lundin's essay surveys the broad scope of recent Reformation historiography. Social and church historians have set the Protestant Reformation in a wider context, not just looking at Luther and other leading reformers but examining the appeal of reform among clergy, artisans, women (nuns in particular), and children. Since many historians now question whether the Protestant Reformation led to modernity, the transition from medieval to modern seems harder to identify. Yet at the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, scholars have located the origins of modern social discipline in the similar methods Protestant and Catholic regents used to rule their subjects. In another paradox, Lundin reports that scholars now work to put religion back into the history of the Reformation and strive to avoid "both a social reductionism and a religious reductionism."
While the essays by Howard and Lundin address previous commemorations and historical accounts, other contributors ask how to remember the Protestant Reformation now. Brad Gregory wants us to see all its consequences, especially the unintended ones. By far the most unintended outcome of the Protestant Reformation, at least in a European context, was state involvement in the church. To sum up Gregory's argument, when early Protestant reformers adopted Scripture as the sole and sufficient guide for Christian life and abandoned faith in a universal church as final arbiter, who then adjudicated between many conflicting interpretations of the Bible? Into this gap stepped political rulers. The prime example was Saxony in the early 1520s. Four years after Luther posted his theses, he had been declared an outlaw by the emperor and was hidden in the Wartburg. In Wittenberg, Luther's one-time friend and colleague Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt celebrated the mass in German and distributed bread and wine to the laity on Christmas Day 1521. In January 1522 Karlstadt pushed to remove images from churches and took a wife. Friedrich recalled Luther to Wittenberg, where Luther preached a series of sermons outlining a more moderate course of reform. Karlstadt was forced to leave Wittenberg. Two years later, another related crisis arose when German peasants inspired by the freedom of the gospel also looked for political freedoms. Luther, fearing damage to the cause of the gospel, called for their destruction. For lack of better alternatives, Luther designated political rulers as emergency bishops (Notbischöfe), distinguishing between the ruler as a secular authority in the kingdom of the world and the ruler as a Christian in the kingdom of the spirit, a distinction few princes, once given increased authority, ever heeded.
The role of secular rulers as spiritual authorities is a major connecting theme throughout the book. Legal scholar John Witte notes that "the Lutheran ideal of the magistrate as the father of the community called to care for all his political children" gave rise to the modern Western welfare state. Carlos Eire argues that the disestablishment of monasteries and convents was the largest European transfer of property before the Bolshevik revolution. Karin Maag records that for a while the French king financially supported five Huguenot academies as compensation for the tithe these French Protestants still paid to the Catholic Church. Sung-Deuk Oak reports that Koreans welcomed Protestant Christianity for nationalistic reasons, because non-Christian Japan was Korea's colonizer.
When considering contemporary commemorations, it is worth remembering two monumental changes in Christianity over the last hundred years: the flourishing of ecumenical relations, especially after the Second Vatican Council, and the spectacular growth of two-thirds world Christianity. As Thomas Albert Howard pointed out in a previous essay, more than 70 percent of Protestants now live in the non-Western world. Unlike European Protestantism, much of which was nursed by princes, Christianity in non-Western countries often has grown in the face of opposition or indifference from political leadership. Might the history of world Christianity over the last hundred years in some ways be "take two" of the Protestant reformation? It shows what religious reform (or often Christianization) looks like when not being regulated by German princes, French and English kings, or Swiss cantons. And the process is ongoing. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson reports that Luther is now being translated into Amharic in Ethiopia, Portuguese in Brazil, and Estonian; "we are just now beginning to see the first fruits of a globally interpreted Luther."
Philip Jenkins makes a similar point by showing how music works powerfully today as it did for early Protestants. Luther's "A Mighty Fortress" described the Saxon landscape, where strong castles dominated a central plain. Now a much-loved Luganda song, "Tukutendereza Yesu," resonates with East African singers who are familiar with animal sacrifice and blood offerings:
Tukutendereza Yesu / We praise you Jesus
Yesu Omwana gw'endiga / Jesus Lamb of God
Omusaigwo gunaziza / Your blood cleanses me
Nkwebaza, Omulokozi / I praise you, Savior.
Yet as if to temper triumphalism from looking at the global growth of Protestantism, Ronald Rittgers ends the book by reminding readers that while Protestant missions encouraged the spread of the Gospel, those very same missions were harmed by incessant squabbling, sometimes between Protestant groups, at other times between Protestants and Catholics. Rittgers laments these wounds to the body of Christ, but also points out that Protestants broke away from a church that in 1054 had already fractured into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In his view the Reformation remains tragic, but it might also become salutary if Protestants could offer an ecclesiology of brokenness to help mend the schism of 1054 as well as 1517.
In Wittenberg's Luther garden, small shoots of healing have in fact appeared. So far 335 trees have been planted. The first five trees demonstrate the growing connections between Christian communions; they were planted by the Roman Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; the Orthodox Church, Patriarchy of Constantinople; the Anglican Communion; the World Alliance of Reformed Churches; and the World Methodist Council. The last trees to go into Wittenberg soil represent Protestantism worldwide. They were planted by the China Lutheran Seminary in Hsinchu, Taiwan; the Samoa Methodist Church; and the Gangnam Methodist Church in Gangneun, Korea. One hopes that when later generations of theologians and historians consider the Reformation commemorations of 2017, they will take note of "Tukutendereza Yesu" and what Christians were singing in Istanbul, Taiwan, Samoa, and Korea, as well as Rome and Wittenberg.
1. Thomas Albert Howard, "Preparing for 2017," Books & Culture July 2012, www.booksandculture.com/articles/2012/marapr/preparing2017.html.
Mary Noll Venables received her PhD in early modern European history from Yale University. She and her family just spent a year in Leipzig, right down the road from Wittenberg.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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