Editorial: A journey worth taking
Two crucial events in the life of Martin Luther demonstrate what the Reformation – whose 500th anniversary we celebrate this year – was all about. One event is well known, the other, less so.
In 1521, Luther appeared before the authorities of the Catholic Church at Worms in Germany facing the charge that his Protestant teachings were heretical. Luther insisted that no council or decree of the Church could change what he read in Scripture. God had spoken in the Bible, Luther had read it, and if the Church denied what he read, so much the worse for the Church. ‘My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience it is neither safe nor right. Here I stand, I can no other, so help me God.’
So the Reformation was the discovery that the Bible allows believers to hear God directly. It gives every Christian authority to understand God for themselves, and not simply submit to the teaching of priests and popes. This way, the Reformation created the modern west, which acknowledges the right of every individual to think and speak freely.
Then, secondly, in 1529, Luther had talks with Ulrich Zwingli at Marburg in Germany. Zwingli was a fellow Protestant and led the church in Zurich, but he and Luther had a violent falling out over their understanding of the Eucharist. Luther believed the bread contained the real body of Christ; Zwingli believed it was spiritual, not physical. Luther referred Zwingli to Scripture, where Christ says: ‘This is my body.’ Zwingli referred Luther to Scripture, where Christ says: ‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.’ Luther denounced Zwingli; Zwingli denounced Luther. Luther’s path became known as Lutheranism, Zwingli’s as Reformed.
The Marburg Colloquy failed to reunite them, because, while they agreed that the Bible has the final say, they could not agree what the Bible does say. The Reformation was the discovery that those who are united in their refusal to submit to any human authority are unlikely to be united in anything else, and that any movement built on the rights of the individual, will turn into as many movements as there are individuals. This way, the Reformation created the modern west, with its fractured individualism and privatisation.
When the reformers taught us that ultimate truth is in the written Word, they freed people from control by tyrannical institutions, but made it harder for them to live together in understanding and unity. Could it be that after 500 years of accusing each other of getting Christianity wrong, we have come to realise that none of us has direct access to the ‘plain truth’ about God or ourselves, and that the only way get closer to it is by listening to each other? That will have been a journey worth taking.
This article was published in the February 2017 edition of Reform.