Interpreting the Reformation 500 Years Later

We Lutherans make a big deal about the Reformation.  We celebrate it on October 31, the date in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

These very scholarly statements challenged the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church at that time, which was the only institutional Christian church in northwestern Europe.  Within five years his invitation to debate had set off a fire storm throughout all of Northern Europe.  Nothing was the same afterwards.

Because of our ethnic origins, Lutherans have been a marginal force in American Protestantism.  John Calvin launched a second reformation ni;;neteen years later with his summary Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The descendants of John Calvin have had much more influence.  But now Luther’s emphasis on grace is providing new focus for pastors and churches intent on reaching out to our changing society.

During my years as an administrative leader at Fuller Theological Seminary, I spent a lot of time and conversations trying to figure out the difference between Lutherans and Calvinists.  Fuller was founded as an interdenominational seminary that has long felt the influence of moderate Reformed theology.  Baptists, too, have a Calvinist outlook on living out the Christian faith.  “Should” is a key part of the Calvinist vocabulary.

Here is a basic insight:  Martin Luther was trying to reform the church and its teachings.  John Calvin was trying to reform the behavior of Christians.  These are two very different outlooks on Christian church life.  Personally, I think that the Calvinist heritage no longer fits well the new American culture the way it did several generations ago.

Admittedly, I am biased.  But this bias is not only by heritage but especially toward more effective ministry today.  Whose platform—Luther’s or Calvin’s—will better reach more people in our times?

Here are some other differences:

a.  John Calvin wrote about grace but took away much of its meaning by his dominant emphasis on reformed behavior.  Martin Luther was a Bible scholar who re-discovered and explained Paul’s concept of grace, letting the chips fall where they may.

b. Calvin relied on politics to establish his view of reformed church life.  It was the Geneva town council that allowed him to enforce his theocracy.  In his early years, Luther did not try to manipulate political forces.  They just happened to work in his favor.  He was protected by a key prince of his day in the very complicated politics of the Holy Roman Empire.  What a great reminder that we live by faith, not by politics.

Which is a better platform today?  Is it staking out a Christian ethical position and trying to enforce it on a whole nation?  Or is it focusing on the Kingdom of God and adjusting to whatever politics emerge at a given time.  A Calvinist approach is turning off greater numbers of bystanders and raising increased hostility to institutional churches.  What happened to grace?

c. Martin Luther was a much better communicator than John Calvin, who was a lawyer writing in dry legalize.  Floating around in Calvinist circles, I noticed that Luther got quoted much more than Calvin. Among his many gifts, Luther could turn a good and memorable phrase.  He worked hard at appealing to his growing audience.  That’s a big part of why it grew.

A take-away for today is the increased importance of good preaching in a media age.  Effective preaching is not just a matter of content; it is also grabbing and holding attention.  Such ability is a gift.  Discover who has it and feature that preacher as much as possible.

d. Martin Luther himself had a great appreciation for the Holy Spirit, at least in his early years.  A Bible scholar, he did not have to fit the unpredictable Spirit into a rational scheme.  John Calvin, in contrast, was a systematic theologian who had little appreciation for what was not rational.

In this post-Modern age, young adults in particular have a greater appreciation for the supernatural.  Most “get” the Spirit and are looking for a better Spiritual life.  They also appreciate the world of grace that sets them free.

Let Martin Luther lead the way into the future of Protestant churches in America.

What do you make out of the distinction between reforming the church vs reforming Christian behavior? Which approach makes more sense in our current American culture?

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