Proud—But Not Too Proud
The apparel and novelty company Old Lutheran, https://oldlutheran.com/, has as its motto the brief and catchy phrase, “Proud—but not too proud.” Perhaps that should be our motto this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. There is certainly reason to be proud, but not too proud, or, to put it in a better way, we should be proud, but proud of the right things (recall Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 1:27–31, 2 Corinthians 12:1–10, and Galatians 6:14). We do not have pride in men, however great they are, nor is this an opportunity to celebrate what passes for a Lutheran “culture” of sitting in the back of the church, casseroles, and Jell-O with fruit or vegetables suspended within. We fall into a trap when we begin to think that those incidental trappings are what make Lutherans Lutheran. Even more tragically, we exclude our brothers and sisters around the world who have embraced the Lutheran confession not because they are enamored with our Lutheran Americanisms, but because they find the Lutheran confession to be a correct exposition of God’s Word.
Thus, it should be the Word of God, the theology of the Reformation, which dominates our celebration this year and our remembrance of those pivotal events every year. Our recognition of the Reformers isn’t about denominational patriotism or sub-cultural pride. It is about the confession of the truth of God’s Word. Yes, we have great heroes, personalities, and events to discuss, but the focus is not on a man named Luther. Rather, we look to the theology that he confessed. If there is to be any pride, it should be in the proclamation that we are saved by grace alone, given through Christ alone, received by faith alone, as taught by Scripture alone.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore the history. The stories should be told. They are exciting, and they capture the imagination. Those who teach should learn these stories and how to tell them in an engaging way, giving life and color to the events and figures of the Reformation era. A good historian is not only a careful scholar but a good story-teller. Here the institutions of the Church, in place to educate her teachers, have the secondary but vital task to interact directly with our parishes, conveying the theology of the Reformation to the people in the pew.
This task is important, because the theology of the Reformation can be quite heady and intellectual, having its origin in university settings, amongst theologians and doctors of the Church. That was Luther’s vocation, after all: a doctor of theology. Our doctors of the Church today are wise to recall that he took his appointment to the theology faculty at Wittenberg as a call to teach the Church, not just his students. Because of this, the seminal confessions of the Lutheran ethos, contained within the Book of Concord, are much more accessible than people realize. And today, the scholars that God has graciously given to the Church can do wonderful work: helping Lutherans, other Christians, and the world at large to access the theological heritage that they have been given. This was the task that Luther and his colleagues set before themselves when they conducted visitations, wrote church orders, and interacted with other theologians, and this is a task that remains today.
As we celebrate the great events of the Reformation, we can easily miss something that is much more fundamental, ‘hiding in plain sight,’ as it were: The Small Catechism. We have thirty years of anniversaries ahead of us, and these celebrations should prompt a renewed interested and revitalized use of the Small Catechism, one of Luther’s greatest gifts to the Church. Its genius, its beauty, its simple yet profound piety, and the theological depth conveyed in such few words are worth appreciating once again.
Above all, we should rejoice, not in men, but in God and the clear confession of His Word. There is much to celebrate, from the Reformation’s contribution to music (we are ripe for a revived appreciation of the great hymns of the Reformation!), art, and language, but we remember that these contributions were in service of a robust theology that is freeing, that is comforting, that delivers Christ to broken sinners. Not just our celebration this year, but all our study of Lutheran theology, should be filled with joy and an appreciation of the treasure handed down to us.
So the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation isn’t like St. Patrick’s Day or even the 4th of July, where we celebrate a culture or a nation. The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is an opportunity to rejoice in what God worked through Martin Luther and his colleagues, the theology that they confessed boldly before church and world, the theology that is still being proclaimed to this day. Yes, we should be proud, not too proud, but proud of the right things: grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and He who is the source of them all, Christ alone.