The words about the Reformation, as we approach the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, are flowing: deep and wide. The Religion News Service (@RNS on Twitter) has had a month-long series of articles and opinion pieces about it. The Radio has got in on it with special programmes, and there was even a two-part German dramatisation of the beginnings of the Reformation on BBC Four. The Word became flesh and turned, it seems, into articles and programmes about the Reformation.
Last June my wife and I were in Wittenburg (Luther’s home town) with friends to join the celebrations around the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and more specifically, Martin Luther’s marriage to the formidable ex-nun Catherine von Bora. The weekend, which included a procession of 2000 people in period dress, as characters from the wedding, was a magical mixture of theology meets Game of Thrones meets Disneyland: it was brilliant.
We also took in a wonderful, imaginative exhibition in Luther’s house. Part of that was a really surprising range of 95 people – everything was in 95s – influenced in one way or another by Luther’s thought, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Steve Jobs. Among them was the 19th century Danish educator and religious reformer NFS Grundtvig. He wrestled (as all subsequent Lutherans do) with Luther’s legacy, and concluded that, ‘I am not of the opinion that we should stick with what Martin Luther did 300 years ago, because only death remains fixed. Life is always in motion.’
As events in world history go, Luther’s Reformation – however you view it, however you evaluate it – ranks right up there with the most massive. 500 years on and we are still living with its consequences, with the aftershocks of this religious and political earthquake. It is an event which has shaped our modern world (at least in the West…), even if not all the consequences have been savoury (think of the way in which Luther was used by the Nazis to support their genocidal pogrom against the Jews).
Standing back from the detail of what Luther said and wrote, there are big streams of ideas that emerge: literacy, the importance of individual conscience, religion without intermediaries, the centrality of the Bible. The sale of indulgences shocked Luther into reading the Bible differently than had been traditionally done. Noticing St Paul’s insistence that we are saved by faith alone (and not by works or by buying your way) gave him a new interpretive tool which transformed what he saw. Reading and interpreting the Bible differently from the way it had been read and interpreted for more than a thousand years before stands at the heart of what Luther (and his friends, followers and rivals) accomplished.
Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that reading and interpreting the Bible differently has continued to be a part of the Reformation legacy. And that legacy has led in many different directions from fundamentalism to Liberation Theology to the historical-critical scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries (it was the promotion of this new critical scholarship that gave birth to Modern Church in 1898).
Christians have found new ways of reading the Bible through their experience of God and the world and each other, and through those new ways of reading have seen the Bible with fresh eyes. These fresh readings have enriched our faith and broadened our horizons as we seek to be faithful. This is not about ‘strange doctrines’ for those ‘with itching ears’, but about what it means to follow God’s Spirit alive and active in every aspect of life and experience.
None of this is weird and is simply the natural result of opening the Bible to everyone. The fact that some people want to restrict what readings of the Bible are ‘legitimate’ is about power and not about truth. The genie of liberating the Bible from ‘official’ interpretations and understandings is well and truly out of the bottle and cannot be put back in.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that any old way of reading the Bible will do. The whole reason Modern Church came into existence was to promote ideas that will help people read the Bible prayerfully and critically – that is, through careful scholarship seeking not only to understand ‘original’ meaning in a properly contextual way, but to examine the assumptions through which it was written and through which we read it. As Socrates might have said, ‘the unexamined reading of scripture is not worth having’.
We should also not be surprised that the deep and rich texture and variety of the content of the Bible leads people in different directions in their prayerful and critical study. As we come to understand even what it means to be human more fully, let alone come to understand the universe in which we live and our place within it better, so we should not be surprised that that experience has an impact on how we (or just as importantly, others) read the Bible. Our experience and understanding of the Bible can become richer when I add your experience to mine as we read and study it together, even as we debate about its content, meaning and application.
The evolution of our understanding and use of the Bible would not surprise Luther. He was well aware that in this life we do not achieve either full perfection or full knowledge. He understood that faith and understanding and holiness are a journey, a road on which we travel and not a destination we achieve. As Luther wrote,
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing towards it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
Grundtvig was only echoing Luther when he observed that ‘life is always in motion’. To move on – in our understanding, our commitment, our openness to the movement of God’s Spirit at work in the world – is the natural state of the Christian life. ‘Only death remains fixed’.
General Secretary of Modern Church