(Still) In Luther’s footsteps

This is a re-post from last year’s Reformation Day season. It’s not exactly “back by popular demand”, as it didn’t attract much attention. But it still captures where “ich stehe” as a post-inerrantist who loves the Bible so much that I feel obligated to treat it all on its own terms, rather than subjugate its many messages to our day’s entrenched inerrantist dogma.

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Last Sunday night, our church hosted a Reformation Party for the kids. It was sort of a Halloweenish deal, with lots of games and candy, and the kids were encouraged to dress up in Reformation-era costumes. My son won the prize for his age group wearing a Martin Luther costume my mother made for him.

The reason the Reformation Party was scheduled for Halloween week is quite natural: October 31st is not only Halloween but also Reformation Day, the day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the door of the Wittenburg church, launching the Reformation. When I found out about the party, I good-naturedly smiled and rolled my eyes that our proudly Protestant church would put this on. I am not near so proud of the Reformation as some, and haven’t held a particularly high regard for Luther since undergraduate school. He was a crass and divisive figure, and as such has set the tone for the fractious nature of Protestantism. Aside from disagreeing with Luther’s critiques of some of the Church’s doctrine and practices, the Church also feared that delivering the Scriptures into the hands of non-clergy would result in a myriad competing theologies based upon a plethora of interpretations of Sacred Scripture. In this, they were absolutely correct.

Indeed, I have said on many occasions that I have more sympathy for the Catholic perspective than a lot of my Protestant brothers and sisters do. But Sunday night as my blindfolded son groped around in an attempt to “pin the Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg door”, I felt more of a kinship with Martin Luther than ever before.

As much as they look up to Martin Luther’s courage in standing against a stalwart establishment intent on preserving what it believed was the very truth of God, the affinity of evangelicals with the Church of Rome is striking. It is true that the list of things they require “good” Christians to be in lockstep about is a different, much smaller list than that of the Church. But Luther’s dissent sprang from his conviction that our theology must be based upon Scripture correctly interpreted, no matter whose interpretation might be ousted as a result.

This last week I have had more conversations than ever with friends concerned about my rejection of inerrancy and the reading of Genesis as literal history. Some of my friends’ comments have had an adversarial bent, and I have actually undergone something reminiscent of excommunication by one of them that I’ve known the longest. No, they don’t want to burn me at the stake, but their indignation at my rejection of their interpretation is not at all dissimilar at its source. When I look at the tight formation of the Reformed system within Calvin’s lifetime and the unwritten list of interpretations thought to be untouchable by the evangelical community now centuries later, it seems that Protestantism never did fully embrace the notion that ecclesiastical authority must be subject to an accurate reading of Scripture. Instead, they simply changed from Rome being the ecclesiastical authority to whatever is popular and commonly accepted by their church leadership and culture. Evangelicalism, not a board of authoritative bishops but an assembly of common assumptions, is no less wont to throw someone like me out for demanding an honest treatment of Scripture on its own terms than was Rome.

A famous slogan associated with the Reformation since before the beginning of the 18th century was Ecclesia reforma semper reformanda: “The Church reformed, always reforming (lit. ‘to be reformed’).” Hilariously, I’ve seen some of the Reformed up at arms against this slogan, to the effect of, “You can’t fix perfection.” But delusions aside, is this not a worthy goal for all of us? We don’t have to reevaluate every single thing we believe on a yearly basis, or even once every few decades. But anyone who claims to love the truth and is intellectually coherent enough to acknowledge that the Church has been wrong once or twice about even major issues should be humble enough to look into divisive issues without assuming those holding views other than his/her own is a compromiser in league with Satan.

I’m certainly not holding myself up as the True Heir of Martin Luther, nor, despite my newly recovered respect for him, am I sure I really want to be; I’m fairly confident he wouldn’t spare the rod on a lot of my own views. But I do think that those who won’t be cowed into submitting to the tyranny of the majority and insist upon carefully and humbly cultivating their theology with the best information available, no matter how it horrifies others in their tradition, are following more closely in Luther’s footsteps than those who obdurately defend their inherited interpretation of Scripture against Scripture itself.

Happy Reformation Day!

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