Day 08 - A Retrospective on the GTI/Pathfinders Reformation Tour
The Reformation. A seminal event in church history. Because it happened so long ago, we as Protestants living in the 21st century may not appreciate just what a monumental event that was, and how much we owe to our forebears who worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition.
Nine days ago, 24 of us from across the United States and Canada joined together on a tour of Germany that sought to bring to life in our day the places and events of the Reformation from half a millennium ago. We were ably led Drs. Erik and Donna Thoennes as they supplemented the historical insights provided by our local guides with the theological implications of that history.
Martin Luther is of course the principal figure associated with the Reformation, but he did not labor in isolation. In his own country, he had an invaluable partner in Philipp Melanchthon. Across the English Channel in England, William Tyndale did similar work for the English-speaking people. The Reformers sought to correct the significant errors of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was teaching a works-based righteousness, wherein one was saved by keeping the requirements as taught by the Church. Egregious doctrinal errors and abuses had crept in, such as the practice of Indulgences and the doctrine of Purgatory.
But a providential series of events paved the way for the Reformers to embark on their reforms. First of all, Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press. Secondly, Erasmus completed a new manuscript of the New Testament in the original Greek language. This allowed Martin Luther to read the original texts rather than the Latin translation that had been the official text used by the Catholic Church for centuries. I am reminded of what Paul wrote in Galatians 4 about God sending his Son when the fullness of time had come. I suppose it could also be said that the Reformers lived at the intersection of another fullness of time; the time when a Greek New Testament manuscript was available, and a revolutionary mechanical invention now made it possible to disseminate writings quickly and in large quantities. Had the Reformers still lived in the era of hand-copied manuscripts, their work may not have had the same reach.
As Luther read the Greek text, Romans 1:16-17 proved to be a transformative passage for him. On our trip, we as a group memorized these two verses. The insight that “the righteous shall live by faith” is the foundation of what has become known as the Five Solas of the Reformation: Christians are saved 1) by grace alone, 2) through faith alone, 3) in Christ alone, 4) as revealed by Scripture alone, 5) to the glory of God alone.
Luther believed that every person was capable of reading the scriptures and being able to understand it rather than relying on the “official” priests of the church. This is known as the priesthood of all believers and is based on 1 Peter 2:9, which teaches that we as Christians are a royal priesthood. When Luther was called to repent of his “heresies” at the Diet of Worms and recant his teachings, he said:
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
We learned that Luther was so committed to salvation by faith alone that when he was dying, he refused to receive the Last Rites. The Catholic Church taught that a person who died without receiving the Last Rites was in mortal danger of hell. Some urged Luther to receive the Last Rites “just in case.” Luther was unwavering in his belief that faith alone was all that was necessary for salvation.
We were also impressed to see the outworkings of the fourth and fifth solas (Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone). As to Scripture alone, in Worms, we visited two churches directly across from each other. One was St. Peter Catholic Church, which is where Martin Luther testified at the Diet of Worms. Entering this church, we were immediately struck by the ornateness of the interior furnishings and the iconography that is quite typical of medieval Catholic churches. But across from St. Peter’s is a Protestant church named Trinity Church. The interior of this church was noticeably different. There was no iconography of any kind. Instead, the walls of the church were inscribed with the words of scripture and the catechism. It was a living testament to the Reformation belief that Scripture alone is what matters.
As to the fifth sola, “to the glory of God alone,” we saw how this belief deeply shaped the life of a man who lived almost exactly two centuries after Luther: Johann Sebastian Bach. The Latin for “to the glory of God alone” is “soli Deo gloria” (only to God be the glory), abbreviated “SDG.” Bach famously inscribed the letters SDG on all of his composition manuscripts. His principal work was carried out in Leipzig, where he worked as the cantor of the Thomas Church for 27 years. We had the opportunity to visit the Thomas Church and see the exhibits devoted to Bach’s life and work. We sang two hymns in which Bach has played a role. He wrote the harmonization for the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” and incorporated that melody at multiple points in his St. Matthew Passion. We also sang “Now Thank We All Our God.” Although Bach did not write the melody for this hymn, he did compose an organ prelude arrangement of the hymn.
We also owe a great debt to another composer, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, for saving Bach’s music from being lost to history. Mendelssohn also worked at the Thomas Church about a century after Bach and revitalized interest in Bach’s music. Mendelssohn also devoted his Fifth Symphony to a celebration of the Reformation. In 1830, to mark the tricentennial of the Augsburg Confession, Mendelssohn wrote this symphony and named it the “Reformation Symphony.” Its final movement is an orchestral adaptation of “A Mighty Fortress.”
Having learned so many important things about Luther and the work of the Reformers, it was also fascinating to consider the similarities between Lutheran and the Apostle Paul. Another member of our group pointed out the following similarities between the two men:
1. Both had a radical conversion experience.
2. Both fought against the prevailing religious power structures.
3. Both saw the need for the Word not just to help guide or assist us but also to radically rescue us.
4. Both were convinced that the gospel was under attack and being perverted, and both fought that.
5. Both were bold, even at the risk of their own lives.
6. Both lived during a time when salvation by works was a major heresy.
7. Both lost their existing religious community and had it replaced by another one.
Consider especially, Point #6 above on salvation by works. Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written specifically to combat this heresy. The Galatians were falling back into legalism and were seeking to be justified by keeping the Law. Paul warned them strongly about the futility of trying to be saved by the Law. In a separate letter (the letter to the Philippians), Paul spoke of how he had given up placing his confidence in his earthly credentials. Read Philippians 3:4-7. Paul could have boasted in his Jewish heritage, his nationality, his ethnicity, his religious pedigree, and his scrupulous observance of the Law. But he counted all of that as nothing.
Now consider the following statement by Martin Luther: “If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.” In other words, Luther said that he had been more diligent in observing all the monastic rituals than any of his fellow monks, and that if anyone could have been saved by that, it would have been him. But like Paul, Luther also came to realize that salvation is not found in works but by faith alone.
We who live in the 21st century owe a tremendous debt to a number of people. Paul influenced Martin Luther. Martin Luther influenced Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach influenced Felix Mendelssohn. Felix Mendelssohn paid homage to Luther. And Luther also influenced a more recent theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Although we did not have the opportunity to learn about his life and legacy, his ideas have also shaped contemporary Christian theology. I have been personally blessed by reading “The Cost of Discipleship.” And now, having been on this 9-day Reformation tour of Germany, I come away with a much greater appreciation for the contributions of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before me and whose work was so vital in ensuring that we rightly understand scripture. A heartfelt thanks to all who made this trip such a meaningful experience.