On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, a young priest and lecturer in theology at the University of Wittenberg, posted his Ninety-five Theses on the main doors of the Schlosskirche (or Castle Church), the University’s chapel. The doors were often used as a bulletin board to launch discussion. Halloween (or ‘All Hallows’ Eve as it was known then) was a propitious time because the chapel was dedicated to All Saints. Luther saw his Theses as a means of preaching to and stirring up the choir, for the entire University community would pass through the chapel doors on the following day, 1 November, All Saints Day. In twenty-first century parlance, his post went viral.
Luther hoped to stimulate debate among the whole people of God in the ‘catholic’ or universal church. He had no inkling that 31 October, which we commemorate annually as ‘Reformation Day’, would be a watershed moment. It would be the catalyst to centuries-long debates, contentions, even wars about the fundamentals of Christian life and doctrine in Europe and beyond. Over five hundred years later, it is well worth asking as millions of us commemorate Reformation Day and call ourselves ‘reformed’ — even if we Episcopalians are wont to call ourselves ‘catholic and reformed’ — What do we mean by reformed?
The first of Luther’s Theses quotes Jesus’ words as he began his public ministry among us: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matthew 4.17); the words are echoed by Peter as the Apostles took up Jesus’ mantle: ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you’ (Acts 2.38). Like many before and after him, Luther was keen to remind us of Jesus’ emphasis on the urgency of our personal repentance. Whilst the Reformers, those before and after Luther, would touch upon a broad and diverse range of theological issues, Luther began by eschewing the superficial, mechanical or complacent means of repentance that had become widespread in the sixteenth century, especially so-called indulgences. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a twentieth-century Lutheran pastor, sums up the gist of Luther’s thinking on this point in his book The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer says that in the Christian dispensation there is no such thing as ‘cheap grace’, that is, preaching without repentance; there is only ‘costly grace’, that is, following Jesus with a contrite heart.
Bonhoeffer hits upon one thing to be borne in mind on Reformation Day, namely, that to reform is to follow after Jesus with a contrite heart. Reformation is neither a fait accompli of the sixteenth century nor some solemn aeon of the past. Reform is meant to be the ongoing task of Christians and their churches, yet this task is often and easily overlooked. The twentieth-first century, like the sixteenth century and every century since the Incarnation, brings challenges, and the churches have a unique mission entrusted to them by Jesus himself to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation’ (Mark 16.15). Nevertheless, preaching begins first and foremost as we follow Jesus with contrite hearts. In other words, the choir has to be preached to and stirred up in terms of its own conversion long before it has the temerity to go out into the word and preach the good news of Jesus Christ.
Reform means taking a look in the mirror at ourselves before taking a look through the stained glass at others. It is our Lord who says that we ought first to take the plank out of our own eyes in order to see clearly in order to remove specks from the eyes of others (Matthew 7.5). Christians’ God-given duty to preach to others is predicated on their docility to a God-given summons to repentance. Too often we Christians and our churches adopt rhetoric to the effect that we are called to reform society in general, when in fact we are called to reform ourselves in particular. If there is one thing we reformed Christians and our churches need to keep in mind on Reformation Day, it is that Luther and other Reformers did not think of reformation as a one-off but as a fundamental approach to Christian theological reflection in the past, present and future.
Our brief as reformed Christians is to preach to and stir up choirs like Luther did to the end that we follow Jesus today and tomorrow with contrite hearts. The evils of the sixteenth century may have been different to ours in the twentieth-first century, but evils are surely with us today. Maybe on Reformation Day 2020 we should follow Luther’s example and post Matthew 4.17 on our church doors so that we can reflect on Jesus’ words again as we enter our churches: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’. Who knows? Perhaps the post will go viral again.
The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also Director of Studies in the Scottish Episcopal Institute.