A mighty fortress is our God

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes…

Reformed Christians around the world celebrate Reformation Day at the end of October to mark the now famous All Hallows’ Eve of 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the main doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Theses spread like wildfire in Europe. By 1521, Luther found himself summoned to and condemned by the Diet of Worms. He would have been murdered, despite putative assurances of safe conduct, had not Frederick the Wise hidden him in Wartburg Castle, where Luther remained for almost a year under a pseudonym. He had time there to translate the New Testament into German, as well as to pray, study and reflect. Years later Luther wrote several renowned hymns including ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’). Whenever I sing the hymn, I cannot but stand in awe of Luther’s resilience in the early days of the Reformation. Not even 40 years old, he risked life and limb to be true to his conscience and to follow the Lord in ‘holiness and righteousness’ all his days (Luke 1.75).

‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’, though the first line, may not have been the hymn’s original title; in the earliest extant manuscripts it is titled ‘On Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength’. The hymn is mutatis mutandis an interpretation of Psalm 46 through the prism of Christianity and a stark reminder of the cost of following our Lord. The final stanza demands everything of the Christian:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever.

The words no doubt sprang from Luther’s own experience of paying a steep price for his faith, even to the point of fearing for his life from the homicidal hands of other Christians. The hymn’s lyrics may not apply literally to all Christians today as they did to Luther (and countless martyrs known only to God), but they certainly do apply to all Christians figuratively. 

When a man, who is obviously religiously observant and penitent, kneels before Jesus and asks for eternal life, Jesus is crystal clear. ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Mark 10.21, cf. Matthew 19.21; Luke 18.22). Jesus’ disciples are incredulous at this, yet Jesus drives the point home. ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’ (Mark 10.29–30; cf. Matthew 19.29; Luke 18.29–30). I daresay we, too, are somewhat incredulous. It is easy to dismiss Jesus’ words as hyperbole, but then along comes Luther to remind us that there is nothing essential in this life other than following Jesus, no matter the cost.

The danger, of course, is to think that the Christian Church is in better shape than it was five hundred years ago. There is little evidence of that. In fact, five hundred years later a Latin phrase coined in seventeenth-century Holland is worth recalling: ecclesia reformata, sempre reformanda, that is a reformed church is always reforming. We have many reformed institutional churches, many denominations, with sound teaching, worship and organisation, but they are robust only insofar as they serve the Lord. They are meant to facilitate the ongoing reform of our very selves under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Although Christian discipleship may differ from context to context, from age to age, from place to place, it is personal, not institutional, for God is our refuge and our strength, not the Church per se, even if the Church is meant to be the people of God (1 Peter 2.9–10) and the body of Christ (Romans 12.4–5; 1 Corinthians 12.27; Colossians 1.24).

Reformation Day is a good day for each one of us to reflect on our own Christian discipleship. It may well be that part of our reflection entails a re-examination of our consciences in terms of our institutional memberships, church wise and other wise, to the end that we do not dupe ourselves or those around us about the price of holiness and righteousness. Following the Lord is a costly activity, not a passive affiliation. The liturgical colour for Reformation Day is fittingly red to symbolise the fire of the Holy Spirit and the blood of the martyrs. It is a day for us to belt out ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ with gusto.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute (Edinburgh), the training agency for authorised ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Dr Hull also tutors in biblical studies and Christian doctrine at SEI, acts as the Editor of the Scottish Episcopal Institute Journal. He earned his doctorate in biblical theology at the Gregorian University (Rome) and has published in the field.

A native New Yorker and now adopted Scot, Dr Hull came to SEI and moved to Edinburgh in 2015, after sixteen years as a professor of Sacred Scripture at St Joseph’s Seminary (Yonkers, NY), whilst serving in a variety of ecclesiastical and pastoral roles in New York.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.