Reformation for Whom?
Much ink has been spilled and much money has been spent to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses and the ensuing Reformation. Church bodies that identify with the Reformation movements have devoted significant resources to the celebration, but seminaries and universities across the United States have also poured substantial time, money, and energy into celebrating the Reformation. They have commissioned musical pieces and artwork, organized concerts and convocations and symposia and exhibitions, sent their faculty out to speak or appear in film and online resources, hosted trips to Germany, and more.
The deep engagement of universities with the Reformation celebration is not surprising—not only because university faculty tend to have a deep understanding of the ways in which the Reformation rode the wave of and contributed to the changes that brought the Western world into the modern era, but also because the Reformation was in part, in the words of Ernest Schwiebert, “a university movement.” Luther’s debts to the via moderna, the Renaissance, and humanism are well documented; all three movements had a significant impact on the reform of theological education in the universities, especially the one in Wittenberg. The University of Wittenberg was founded specifically to provide a Renaissance education rather than the traditional scholastic one; Luther and Melanchthon were called to teach there because of their commitment to these newer methodologies. They led curricular revisions in theology that put the university squarely in the center of the Renaissance and humanist movements. The Reformation thus rode the wave of university reform movements.
Yet Luther found in the 1527 and 1528 visitations of the congregations throughout Electoral Saxony that a Reformation of the university had not accomplished all that needed to occur. He wrote in the preface to the Small Catechism, “The ordinary person, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about the Christian faith, and unfortunately, many pastors are completely unskilled and incompetent teachers.”1 It is no accident that Luther tells preachers later in the preface, “urge governing authorities and parents to rule well and to send their children to school. . . . Explain very clearly what kind of horrible damage they do when they do not help to train children as pastors, preachers, civil servants, etc.” Luther’s words reveal a particularly pastoral understanding of the relationship between university and church: the former exists for the sake of the latter. For Luther the reform of the university curriculum—and in particular the reform of theological education—arose not merely from a commitment to Northern European humanism or the via moderna. Curricular reform arose from a deep desire to ensure that the people in the pews would hear the Gospel in all its purity and would receive the Sacraments in accordance with Christ’s institution. Reformation was not for the sake of pastors as such or of students as such. It was for the sake of sinners, be they pastors, students, housemaids, or barrel makers. It was for the sake of men and women who had, to a greater or lesser extent, experienced the same terror at God’s wrath and doubt about salvation that Luther himself had experienced. It was, in the words of the Augsburg Confession, for “terrified consciences” (XX:15 et passim).
Luther’s experience during the visitations should inform our own celebrations today in two ways. First, it should inform our understanding of what was reformed. Exhibitions and convocation speakers in Germany and the United States have shown in great detail how the Reformation movements upended existing institutions. University curricula were reformed. Marriage was reformed. Church discipline was reformed. The relationship between church and state was reformed. Even social structures were reformed. These thorough-going reforms, both intentional and otherwise, combined with other factors to bring an end to the Medieval world and give birth to the modern world. Today’s universities and their faculties, brought up in the ethos of the modern research university with its array of disciplines and subdisciplines, have explored these reforms and presented them to any interested public from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. Such expositions have their place, but what can easily get lost in these expositions is Luther’s unwavering focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Whatever his debt to the via moderna, the Renaissance, and humanism, Luther was ultimately a proclaimer of the forgiveness of sins won for us by Jesus Christ alone and conveyed to us by grace alone through faith alone. Much was reformed, but it was all reformed in view of the Gospel.
Second, Luther’s experience should remind us not only of what was reformed, but for whom it was reformed. The universities do not have a monopoly on sinners with terrified consciences who need to hear the Gospel, nor do they have a monopoly on hardened sinners who need to hear God’s law. Every Christian congregation is filled with sinners—consists only of sinners—for whom it is so important that the Word of God be proclaimed in its truth and purity and the Sacraments be administered as Christ instituted them. When universities like our Concordias form professional church workers and shape the Christian students going into non-church vocations, and when the seminaries engage in pastoral formation, they do so in service to the men and women who sit in the pews throughout the year. “Practical and clear sermons hold an audience” so they can hear the Gospel (Apology XXIV:50), which is why our seminaries emphasize good biblical exegesis and homiletics. The quotation holds equally true for teaching, which is why our Concordias equip Lutheran teachers, DCEs, and other church workers with a solid foundation of biblical knowledge and specialized teaching skills. For all the hoopla over the Reformation at our universities, it’s not really about our universities at all. It’s about the men and women in farms, towns, suburbs, and cities around the world who need to hear the good news that they are justified in God’s sight through faith in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.