Teaching Our Reformation Identity: Then and Now

Teaching Our Reformation Identity: Then and Now

Robert Rosin, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, rosinr@csl.edu

At this 500th anniversary of the Reformation, much attention has been devoted to Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses. In Lutheran circles one can hardly move without bumping into some celebration or being offered something more to read—even articles in Issues. Thanksgiving is fine, but beware lest it degenerate into self-congratulation: we follow in the train of the Reformation’s truth and preserve it. That “it” entails too much for these pages, but we can take away a few lessons and points to ponder.

Pseudo-events and Enduring Events

Roughly half a century ago, Daniel Boorstin, one-time head of the Library of Congress, wrote The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.1 Boorstin warned that illusion was eclipsing substance in an “age of contrivance.” Image commanded public attention, inflated by counterfeit events. Celebrities were celebrated (of course!), famous for being famous, with publicity reaching a crescendo. Yet in the end, sound and fury really signified nothing. Trumped-up hoopla.

Evidence of pseudo-events is all around. If anything, it is worse since Boorstin’s first edition in 1961. For example, then evening TV national news lasted 15 minutes, and local broadcasts ran the same. Yes, 15 minutes. When Walter Cronkite went to half an hour in 1963, some wondered what was so important, but networks found more stories. Later enters CNN with 24-hour news, and others joined the rush. “News”? Just watch for part of a day and ask if quantity does not overshadow quality. Quality of TV in general was the issue for FCC Chairman Newton Minow already in 1961 when he dared network executives to watch for 24 hours and then try to deny that television was “a vast wasteland.” Pseudo-events then and now survive on self-promotion and the illusion of substance. Think Kardashians. We role our eyes at such “celebrity,” but people do watch, and then give such great (?) moments in broadcast history a 140-character lease on life. So an identity is built, but on what ground and to what end? As the Roman poet Horace quipped, “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus” (“The mountains will convulse in labor, and a ridiculous mouse will be born”) or, as Shakespeare echoed, “Much ado about nothing.”

But while would-be booms can turn bust, the opposite also holds true. A face in the crowd or a blip on the horizon can suddenly loom large with genuine historic proportions. Such was the case half a millennium ago. Little Wittenberg, barely large enough to qualify legally as a city, had a fledgling university. It was pretty much “Academic Siberia,” a backwater, but patron Frederick the Wise wanted his university to serve Electoral Saxony, so he invited scholars of all sorts, and Wittenberg pressed on, determined to build an identity and serve academia, territory, and prince. Part of university routine included debate as professors disputed theses. This went on all the time. It was the method by which subjects were examined and tested, with the back and forth exchange knocking off the rough edges and polishing ideas that contributed to the body of truth. So it was typical for a newly minted professor, Martin Luther, to offer theses on the church’s promotion of indulgences, some said to mitigate sin’s effects by shortening time in purgatory, while others claimed to remit sins. With All Saints’ Day at hand and pilgrims coming to view Frederick’s relic collection, the timing seemed right to press the matter within academic circles. Carpe diem—seize the day—Horace also wrote, and Luther did just that, posting his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door, the university bulletin board.

At least that was the story Melanchthon told after Luther’s death. Luther never mentioned the episode (a pseudo-event?). Today we magnify the moment, which it seems for Luther was no more than a blip. He was intensely serious about the topic, but proposing theses was nothing new. He authored others over his career. The previous month he offered Ninety-Seven Theses opposing scholastic theology with its quid pro quo approach to how God deals with people. Those potentially were more damaging, attacking the foundation that supported not just indulgences but all the theology of that day.

Wittenberg University: The Liberal Arts in Service to the Gospel

For several centuries Aristotle’s logic—if … if … therefore …—has been adopted for university learning, theology included. So if God gave law, and if God makes no mistakes, we therefore must have a capacity to keep the law—if not alone then aided by grace—and so gain salvation. Logical? Yes. Biblical? No. Luther declared that Aristotle’s logic was as darkness is to light, and he was an enemy of grace. Luther had found a new method (as we shall see), and the Scriptures gave a very different and beautiful message. Not “therefore” but “nevertheless.” So unworthy sinners contribute nothing, even if grace prompts and aids? Yes, nothing. Nevertheless God saves. Academics would see the implications, but ordinary people’s eyes would glaze over at this in-house stuff. But even before theologians could hash this out, here came Luther’s 95 just weeks later. Indulgences (and their pocketbooks)—now that people could understand. Luther struck a nerve with both the people and the church. No pseudo-event here!

Earlier critics questioned indulgences but were ignored or steamrolled. This time the political, economic, cultural, and theological factors aligned just right. Rome misjudged Luther’s criticism, and why not? Others had complained but to no avail. Yet what Rome thought was another pseudo-event—some monk in some backwater—turned the world upside down. The reason? Beyond indulgences, Luther had penetrated deep into theology and to the heart of the matter: his theses demonstrated the very heart of God giving peace to desperate hearts and minds that grasped at indulgences or anything else said to work. The professional theology of Luther’s day sought to put questions to God and the Word. Luther discovered that it was, in fact, God and the Word that put questions to him.2  He could not bear them for he had no answers—but God did. And God (thank God!) did not quit on Luther but gave him promises, epitomized by God himself in Christ. God now took on a new image, a new identity, one grounded in love—quite different from the prevailing academic version. And Luther had a new identity as well, one reborn in that everlasting love as a child and heir. That was not abstract theology, but real life begun at the font, baptized into his Savior’s death and life. No hollow image or empty identity, no pseudo-events here. Identity is key: who are you—God’s baptized child—makes all the difference. It is the most important status one could have.

The Wittenberg movement depended on a number of tributaries. Wider political and economic factors certainly contributed to the whole, but two powerful streams particularly deserve attention. In the end the joining of cultural, educational ideas with Luther’s personal spiritual need made for explosive results.

When Wittenberg University was founded by the Elector Frederick in 1502, Scholasticism still ruled the roost. The “School Men” (Scholastics, educators) saw everything, theology included, through the prism of logic. However, a rebirth—Renaissance—of broader liberal arts learning had picked up steam since the mid-14th century. Logic was included, but it did not dominate or dictate. Rather it was part of a broader grammar-logic-rhetoric trio used to analyze, think, and communicate, sometimes to convince but also to persuade. In reviving the liberal arts, classical antiquity inspired the study of languages, especially Latin and then Greek, and languages in turn opened ancient texts that awakened present minds to ideas long dormant. History took on a new role. No longer was it just illustration for rhetoric as in antiquity. Now it was a subject in its own right, a window to the minds and actions of people. Looking at the past prompted thinking about life’s present choices with moral philosophy or ethics.3

With all this, man could no longer live by syllogisms alone. Scholasticism’s logic worked in an abstract world, trying to grab hold of life’s loose threads and smooth ragged edges as it made arguments, systematized, and shelved results for future reference.

Humanism for Real People in Need of the Gospel

The liberal arts differed profoundly with their broader take on learning and life. Dubbed the studia humanitatis, the “study of man,” this was not modern Secular Humanism seeking to dethrone God. The “study of man” focused on mankind as God’s special creation of the sixth day, made in His image and likeness.4 Just what did that image entail? It was Renaissance Humanism’s task to find out. It did so mindful of context, keen on first learning and then applying results to present circumstances, linking the theoretical with the practical. That pairing would be evident in Luther’s theology.

Scholastics naturally closed ranks, defending their outlook and method against Humanism.5 Because they were entrenched in universities when Humanism arose, Scholastics could block faculty positions to those promoting the “New Learning.” So humanists lived a tenuous existence on the edge of the university community, teaching Latin and texts from Cicero, for example, to those willing to pay and willing to study things not sanctioned in the official curriculum. Humanists banged on the door wanting in, but without success—until Wittenberg came along.

It was assumed Wittenberg would have Scholastics in its ranks. But when the school opened, based on a horoscope cast to pinpoint the most opportune day in 1502 (does Concordia University, Nebraska set its calendar this way?) Frederick’s charter broke with routine. It declared Wittenberg open also to “poesie and the arts,” meaning that Renaissance Humanism would be part of the curriculum proper. While Frederick was often cautious, he wisely saw a need to get with the times and engage those who were part of the coming wave. Not a bad example for today for those working in education or the church.

“No humanism, no Reformation,” historian Bernd Moeller has broadly declared.6  No argument about this when it came to Wittenberg. Scholastic logic persisted in the university, but change sprang from new ideas fed by Humanism. It took a while to gain traction in the university. Humanists were notorious for looking for greener grass, so many stayed only briefly. Even without their Wanderlust, it takes time to work through the unknowns of a new school’s early years. No one had done this before. When Luther came a decade later and remained, patterns were still not set, even as Scholasticism and Humanism continued to jockey for advantage.

Was Luther a Humanist? If “Humanist” means interested in the subject purely for the pleasure of doing the study, then no. Colleague Philip Melanchthon would qualify, but for Luther it was a tool, not an end. However, he clearly saw the value and promoted such studies. Where Luther first crossed paths with the “New Learning” is not known.7 But when Luther abandoned law school and gave away his books when joining the Augustinians, he kept works by Plautus and Virgil—interesting choices to take into the cloister. He knew Greek by 1508 and started teaching himself Hebrew in 1509. He amassed considerable classical knowledge, but unlike some, he did not toot his own horn.8 At Wittenberg, Luther aggressively took part in shaping the faculty and promoting Humanism. The liberal arts in turn helped unpack the Scriptures and set theological change in motion. In this new vein, his correspondence shows him lobbying for fewer Scholastics and more biblical studies, and the addition of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as required subjects was largely his doing.9

Beyond the University

The New Learning did not just change curriculum. It changed Luther and the church. A professor could not simply repeat old material from others (as Scholasticism was practiced) but had to contribute something new, so Luther went looking for help to prime the pump. Humanist commentaries on the Scriptures not only fueled his classroom lectures but helped Luther with his personal spiritual torments as he came to understand key biblical texts. How could he find a loving God who would accept him? The question had gnawed before his entering the cloister and since. Now as Luther wrestled with the grammar and context of texts (rather than imposing some predetermined logic), he realized that the righteousness he needed was not a quantity he had to amass and present but a quality given by God on account of Christ. The Bible became a sourcebook of a different kind: not texts to fit in a grand logical whole, but a book of narratives, of histories showing how God dealt with people in different circumstances at different times, saving them by giving promises they believed. And now Luther had his story with God giving him promises as well.

Luther realized he was hardly alone. Students in the classroom and people beyond were in the same boat, needing the same lifeline to be grasped in faith. Luther spoke of “reform” in terms of changing the university curriculum. The result he discovered and now taught was preaching the Gospel. It started in his study and classroom, but turned out to be personal and brought revolution, the Reformation. This is yet another lesson for today: teaching and learning are not just conveying stuff, trying to get the subject right as judged by those who have declared it so. “Back up the truck and dump the load” is not the way to go. Teaching and learning have substance, but they are always eminently practical, with “so what?” as the last question. Subject matter matters, but teaching (and preaching) is done mindful of people on the receiving end.10  Well before and quite apart from William James, Charles Peirce, and Pragmatism’s heyday, Luther understood the need to be pragmatic (small p) when conveying the Gospel. But then Luther had a rather good model in St. Paul: “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19ff).

Luther’s personal discovery became everyone’s discovery in what we call the Reformation. It depended on the Word—the Word used, not set on the academic office shelf. The message was quite simple. We are saved by clinging to God’s promises, whatever they may be. “Whatever”? Yes. Adam had his promises, and he believed and was saved. Noah had another—build an ark and I (God) will save you and yours. He could not stand just with God’s promise to Adam but had to grasp what was given him, Noah. Abraham is the same: a promise not about an ark but now of land and a line. And so it goes through Scripture. Present-tense promises. Same for Luther and still for us: this font is your entrance into the kingdom, this cross and empty tomb are yours, this bread/wine are body/blood “for you for the forgiveness of sins.” There is history necessarily undergirding God’s words, but it is clinging to God’s present promises that saves. No need to supplement or finish off with additional efforts. Only faith and only grace. The Bible tells me so. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot once wrote—true also of facing God, unless he comes with grace.

Sadly, Luther got little help from the church as his relationship with Rome unraveled. As the “monkish squabble” escalated, Luther wanted to air his ideas to see if he was wrong. And did he get feedback! In academic debate and in the paper wars, opponents unloaded with arguments repeating the old ways and ideas. That was understandable: they cited authorities long used and respected in their circles. Were they right? Luther was willing to admit error if shown, so why not they as well?

But the problem was deeper. Apart from the theologians, the church on another level flatly refused to discuss the ideas. When Luther appealed to the powers that be at least for due process if not support, he quickly learned that because his ideas threatened their ecclesiastical positions, those holding posts in the structure shifted the argument to the authority of the institutional church. (Defending the faith is fine, but stand fast for the flowchart.) Some may honestly have worried about actual theological consequences but Erasmus, the leading Greek and classical scholar of Luther’s day, was more right when he quipped that Luther’s mistake was “to attack the crown of the pope and the belly of the monks.” When Luther showed Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, the papal legate in Wittenberg, that the church had misrepresented an earlier papal decree to support indulgence theory, Cajetan simply pulled rank and ordered silence. This was not an isolated case.

The bureaucracy’s response, caring about its position and claim to authority rather than getting the message of the Gospel right, drove Luther to also put the institution now in his sights. He cared not one whit how the church structured itself as long as it allowed the Gospel message to go forward. However, when the institutional church not only dragged its feet but sought to stomp out the message, then that church became part of the problem and needed reform. Luther would rather have given those in authority a chance to do their jobs, but when they balked or used rank to quash the message, then the Evangelical movement found institutional and administrative work-arounds. “Trust not in princes, they are but mortal.” The hymn came much later, but Luther knew the Psalm 146 text and sadly learned it applied not only to political princes but to princes of the church as well. Even when ecclesiastical princes served rightly, they were only princes, while the baptized people were “kings and priests unto God” (Revelation 1:5–6) and were part of  “all flesh” that possessed God’s spirit poured out (Joel 2 and Acts 2). Thus, in terms of message and structure, what matters and why is yet another Reformation lesson for us to carry forward.11

Congregation as Reformation

A last observation. An internal debate went on in the Renaissance about how one honored and continued classical learning: Should one simply repeat and stand in place on the tradition, or should one understand, embrace, but also move on to new circumstances? For example, did being Ciceronian mean using only vocabulary and grammatical constructions Cicero has used, or could one also innovate and create a new word or new structure? Most Humanists decided the point was not narrow imitation or repetition but rather to capture the spirit with which Cicero wrote and thought and then echo that identity in new ways within different circumstances and times.

Luther did the same with theology. Remember: For Luther, Scripture was a collection of texts to and about people in different times and places. It sampled God’s dealings with them from Eden forward into New Testament times—a journey, a story. Luther reiterated this on his deathbed in the last lines he wrote. He hailed Scripture as the Divine Aeneid, a story from a great beginning (Troy/Eden) through fall, destruction, and death, and on toward a new city (Rome/heavenly Jerusalem). “We have here no abiding city” (Hebrews 13), but ”we look forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11). Life is not a static tableau. If it were, we would build booths on a mountaintop and freeze time. That was once recommended by some who should have known better (and sadly still is).

The point of the Reformation (like the Renaissance) was to grasp a message and translate it into present circumstances. Some would live in the past—sing only hymns Luther wrote or use forms he followed—and dismiss present offerings. Composers Datebook, a daily podcast that samples a wide range of musical history and genres—Bach, Bartok, Beatles—always ends “reminding you that all music was once new.” Leipzig officials told St. Thomas church employee Bach that they wanted nothing from him resembling the trendy Italian opera style, although such oratorios and cantata were in vogue. Nevertheless, they got Bach’s Christmas Oratorio along with more than 300 cantatas. Good thing Bach listened instead to his muse and not his masters.

Capture the spirit, grab the essence, the identity, and then adapt and communicate. Luther knew some things were constant: people are lost sinners and God saves by grace. But other things vary: audiences and circumstances. There are four Gospels, and there are reasons for that. The Gospel is first for the Jews, and after the lost sheep of the house of Israel comes the challenging yet wonderful panoply, from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth.

“Reformation” certainly involves people and events centuries ago in central Europe. But “reform” is not to conform present to past as if to live there. Rather “reform” is to look back to learn and then to look around now, to rework and recast and reshape in order to engage people in present circumstances with a timely/timeless message. Seen that way, what once was new 500 years ago still is, and the identity that marked—that marks (present tense)—Luther’s Reformation is worth celebrating.


1 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992). Editions run from 1961 to 2012, including Kindle.
2 The distinction is huge and shows the depth of Luther’s change. The point is made by Rowan Williams in “The Sign of the Son of Man,” his chapter dealing with Luther in The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross (London: Darnton, Longman, and Todd Ltd., 2014).
3 The study about the return of liberal arts usually begins with Paul Oskar Kristeller. See, for example, Renaissance Thought. The Classic, Scholastic and Humanist Strains (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961). On the coming of Renaissance Humanism to Wittenberg, see Maria Grossmann, Humanism in Wittenberg, 1485–1517 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1975). See also Max Steinmetz, “Die Universität Wittenberg und der Humanismus (1502–1521)” in 450 Jahre Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Vol. 1: Wittenberg 1502–1817, ed. Leo Stern et al. (Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität, 1952), 103–39, an old standard tracing the overall introduction of humanism to the university itself. Also note Bernd Moeller, “Die deutschen Humanisten und die Anfänge der Reformation,” Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, 70 (1959): 46–61.
4 Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness: Humanity and Divinity in Italian Humanist Thought, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
5 One example of clashing interests is seen in the few pages of Charles G. Nauert, Jr., “The Clash of Humanists and Scholastics: An Approach to Pre-Reformation Controversies,” Sixteenth Century Journal 4/1 (1973): 1–18.
6 Bernd Moeller, “The German Humanists and the Beginnings of the Reformation” in Imperial Cities and the Reformation, Three Essays, ed. and trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press), 1972, pp. 19–38.
7 Helmar Junghans, Der junge Luther und die Humanisten (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985), is an exhaustive study, but in the end, the question of “when first?” remains open.
8 Oswald Gottlob Schmidt, Luthers Bekanntschaft mit den Alten Classikern (Leipzig: Veit, 1883).
9 Luther’s role in promoting Humanism can be traced in Walter Friedensburg, ed., Urkundenbuch der Universität Wittenberg, Geschichtsquellen der Provinz Sachsen und des Freistaates Anhalt, new series, vol. 3 (Magdeburg: Holtermann, 1926). Friedensburg, Geschichte der Universität Wittenberg (Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität, 1917). The change at Wittenberg and its wider impact is the subject of Robert Rosin, “The Reformation, Humanism, and Education: The Wittenberg Model for Reform,” Concordia Journal 16 (1990): 301–18.
 10 The question sometimes arises as to what it means to be orthodox. The temptation (too) often is to deal only with content: make sure it is right and then defend it. In effect that leaves two poles or dynamics at work: the student/pastor/teacher and the content. But what good is right content on the shelf? Being orthodox means more: not just arriving at content but to using content in connecting with those listening, those in need—three poles. The Spirit, of course, works faith and makes the connections in that sense, but from a human side, to think it is enough to get every T crossed and comma in place, to cite and deliver without engaging really is not being orthodox. “Doceo,” teach—as in “doctrine”—is not unloading into thin air.
11 Gert Haendler, Luther: On Ministerial Office and Congregational Function, trans. and ed., Ruth C. and Erik W. Gritsch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981). Jan Aarts, Die Lehre Martin Luthers über das Amt in der Kirche. Eine genetisch-systematische Untersuchung seiner Schriften von 1512 bis 1525 (Helsinki: Luther-Agricola Gesellschaft, 1973).


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