By Doug Beacham
British historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote, “To the ambitious outsider it is always worth going to the next party, no matter how late it is, for the sake of networking.” Quoting the Harvard Business Review, Ferguson noted, “the alternative to networking is to fail.”
In this conference, the theme word is FINISH, with the N designating Networking. As all of us know, Dr. James Davis not only understands networking, he networks on a level that has served to bring all of us here from points around the globe.
The word “Reformation,” in the presentation title, provides an opportunity to do two things. First, using the life and times of Martin Luther, we can discern certain converging elements that brought about changes in his own life. Those elements operated around him facilitating historical changes. Second, the very idea of “reformation” for our time denotes possibilities that will manifest themselves in ways different from what transpired with Luther five hundred years ago. In other words, Reformation lessons are not mere history. They are new opportunities for what the Holy Spirit seeks to accomplish through the Gospel in our epoch. Reformation provides an opportunity for the fulfillment of the divine purpose meant to transform the future.
In preparing for this presentation this afternoon, I have been keenly aware that on this date, October 31, All Hallows’ Eve, the day before All Saints’ Day, the 33-year-old professor, Dr. Martin Luther, sent his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of the German city of Mainz. In the custom of the day announcing points of disputation, the Ninety-five Theses were likely nailed to the door of the All Saints’ Church, the Castle Church, of Wittenberg.
Considering the significance of this commemoration, I offer to you five areas of synergy that in my opinion are important to us as we reflect on Luther and the opportunities before us in our time.
Political, Social, and Religious Convergence
Through recorded history, there have been periods of time that have marked “shifts” in human knowledge and experience. In my opinion, one of those shifts occurred in the approximately one hundred years that marked the middle of the fifteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth century (1450-1550). In this period, there were occurrences that influenced Martin Luther’s world.
- It was the Age of Exploration. Bartolomeu Dias rounded southern Africa in 1488. As some of us remember from grammar school, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Magellan and his crew were the first explorers to circumnavigate the globe from 1519-1522.
- It was the time of the Italian Renaissance. When Luther visited Rome (his only trip outside Germany) from November 1510 to March 1511, Michelangelo was laying on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci was still alive when Luther penned the Ninety-five Theses.
- It was a time of Muslim expansion into the West. Constantinople fell to a Muslim army in 1453. From there, Islam spread rapidly into Greece, Serbia, Romania, and Hungary. That event in 1453 was an event that to this day has kept the ancient Christian lands of the East under the rule of Islam.
- In 1529 Sulieman the Magnificent unsuccessfully laid siege to Vienna; an event that brought great fear to the remainder of the Holy Roman Empire. After failing to take Vienna, Sulieman returned to the Middle East and in 1535 built the walls around the Old City of Jerusalem that tourists see today when visiting the Holy City. Luther saw the rise of Islam as divine judgment upon a corrupt church.
- The Roman Catholic Church was indeed exceedingly corrupt. Yet, there were efforts at spiritual renewal and reformation prior to Luther. Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440 had led to the publication of books for Catholic preachers to better inform their congregants of the truth of the Bible. Pulpits were first introduced in the 1400s as a way of emphasizing better communications within local congregations.
- Originally denouncing Luther, England’s Henry VIII was declared “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X in 1521. But by 1525, Henry wanted an annulment from his wife Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused to grant the annulment and by early 1530s Henry broke away from Rome and established the Church of England. Later the Augsburg Confession, primarily written by Luther’s colleague Melanchthon, became the basis for Thomas Cranmer’s Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.
- The spiritual aspect of the Reformation did not occur outside the rising political tensions within the Holy Roman Empire. Territorial identities were starting to change the political landscape as power shifts were occurring among German princes.
Hearing the Bible Anew
- The rediscovery of the Bible runs in a timeline from the 1300s with John Wycliffe in England to the Czech Jan Huss in the early 1400s. There were even Roman Catholic theologians at the University of Paris in the 1400s who sought to return to the Bible as the primary source of doctrine and living the Christian life.
- Luther was the Bible professor at Wittenberg from his earliest years there to the end of his life. His study of the Bible was more than intellectual; he was seeking an answer to the Anfechtungen he experienced. That is, his soul was troubled with doubts and temptations. These were not primarily temptations of the flesh; rather they were of the spirit. They revolved around the essential question: How can a person be righteous and appease a justly angry God?
- His studies in the Bible focused on the Psalms (1513), Romans (1515), and Hebrews and Galatians. It was here that the Word of God helped him answer this, and other, troubling questions.
- As Luther taught the Bible, he came to understand the importance of translating it into the language of his people, German. Through the Bible, Luther brought to the forefront justification by faith alone, the authority of the Bible, and the universal priesthood of all believers.
- Leonard Sweet has referred to the Bible as “the soundtrack of life.” Add to that Luther’s music, and you have a musical soundtrack of the Reformation. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” echoes today as an affirmation of that “new” sound that brought power, hope, and victory through the Gospel.
- Luther’s emphasis on the Bible not only influenced his own time. Two hundred years later in England, Luther’s words and the Bible bore fruit that continues to influence those of us from the Wesleyan theological tradition. On May 24, 1738, Anglican priest John Wesley, going through his own crisis of faith, reluctantly attended a reading of Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans at a place on Aldersgate Street in London. Upon hearing Luther’s presentation of the Gospel as announced by Paul in Romans, Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” Interestingly, John Wesley and his brother Charles also used new sounds of music as part of the Spirit’s moving in revival across England.
Technology and Communications
- Johannes Gutenberg developed the first moveable type printing press in Mainz in 1440. Very quickly a market developed for printed material. By 1454, indulgences were being printed. By 1550, over 20 million volumes of printed material were available for readers.
- By Luther’s time, almost every city in Germany had a printing press. Luther knew the power of the press and used it effectively. “Between 1517-1520 some 370 editions of (Luther’s) writings appeared, selling as many as 300,000 copies.”
- We are living during a similar revolution in technology and communications. In Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes 2006-2007 as the change point of global communications with the January 2007 introduction of the first iPhone by Apple. The world of social media and apps all arise in this period. Even in terms of the Bible, the YouVersion app, launched in 2008, now has been installed in over 294,000,000 smartphones and tablets in 1,134 different languages.
- Between 1513 and 1518 Luther won over the entire Wittenberg faculty to his views on the indulgences and justification by faith. Schwiebert wrote, “the German Reformation was . . . an educational movement centered in the University of Wittenberg.”
- Students flocked to Wittenberg to study at Luther’s feet. From 1520-1560 no fewer than 16,292 students enrolled at the university. They came from the German-speaking countries, from England, France, Poland, the Scandinavian countries, and the Balkans.
- Reflecting on our time, it is imperative that Gospel informed scholars arise with a voice of divine truth and grace through the academy. There are institutions where that is difficult, but the battle of the mind must be carried by men and women of knowledge, holiness, and graceful truth. Serious Christian thought from a biblical worldview is not anti-intellectual or anti-scientific. If “all truth is God’s truth,” then the quest for truth should embolden us in the academic and public sphere.
- Luther had key personal relationships that were essential in his own scholastic and spiritual development prior to, and during the formation of his new movement. Some of these men were influential in the political realm helping to provide protection for Luther in the serious crises that followed the publication of the Ninety-five Theses. They included Georg Spalatin, Johann von Staupitz, Philipp Melanchthon, the great humanist Erasmus, Lucas Cranach, and many others.
- It is important to note that Luther, and these men, were strong personalities. They did not always agree and in several instances their relationships were fractured, some beyond repair.
- It is seldom noted that Luther was interested in the North African Ethiopian church. He saw these black Africans as holding to original Christianity prior to the dominance of the church of Rome. In 1534 Luther entertained Michael the Deacon, a leader of the Ethiopian church and spoke of what he was learning from him and the practices of the African church.
- Luther’s relationship to women became important as nuns began to affirm the evangelical doctrines, abandoned the Roman Catholic Church, and found ways to Wittenberg. Luther often had to arrange housing for them, including new clothing. He even became a marriage broker! One group of fleeing nuns were smuggled from the convent to Wittenberg hidden “among barrels of herrings.”
- Originally with little interest in marriage, Luther married one of the nuns from the herring barrels, Katharina von Bora. Like many nuns, she was from the nobility and married Luther on June 13, 1525. She was a strong woman and ran a household that often fed forty or more guests on a regular basis. Their marriage was fruitful, loving, and amiable.
- As we seek to FINISH the Great Commission assignment of our generation, it is essential that relationships among leaders operate within a framework of sensitivity to spiritual gifts. We need one another and the ministries we represent. There is only One who gets the glory – God.
Conclusions and Observations:
These five areas form for me the primary elements of synergy that helped produce the environment for Luther and the Reformation sparked by his actions and writings. Considering these elements, as well as some other aspects of Luther’s ministry, I offer the following observations:
- There must be a convergence of these principles (and certainly more) as we seek to fulfill the Great Commission in our time. Our evangelism and eschatologies require us to understand our world; be deeply informed by the Bible; understand the uses of modern technologies; be as educated and as knowledgeable as possible; and live in the kind of covenant personal relationships that allow grace to do its fullest work among us as sisters and brothers in Christ.
- But we must be alert to unforeseen problems, such as the disastrous Peasant’s Revolt that marred the Reformation in 1524-1525; the continuing divisions that occurred among the emerging Protestant groups who were like satellites orbiting aimlessly without the ecclesiastical and theological gravitas that Roman Catholicism had provided; the ongoing issues related to Islam; and finally, one other area we must address.
- While Luther honored the Jewish patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, he was a person who shared the anti-Semitism of his day. Jews were expelled from Wittenberg in 1304 and in 1305 the Judensou was placed on the Stadkircke in Wittenberg (the city church where Luther preached most Sundays). His writings are filled with inflammatory remarks against the Jews. Sadly, many in later centuries used his writings as excuses to do great damage to the Jews, actions I believe Luther would have found abhorrent.
- I bring this up because, in our rightful efforts of this conference to reach those who have never heard, about 40% of the global population today, we must also remember that the salvation of the Jews also has a significant eschatological imperative according to Romans 9-11, especially 11:12-32. The predominantly Gentile church, grafted by the mercies of God into the one olive tree, has consistently ignored and/or rejected the original branches through Abraham who have come to faith in as HaShem Yeshua HaMashiach (the Name Jesus the Messiah). We must find ways to welcome, encourage, fellowship with our Jewish brothers and sisters in the various forms of Messianic Jewishness. We must allow them to live as Jewish followers of Yeshua so that through the blessings to Gentile and Jewish disciples, Israel will become jealous for the glory and blessings of God.
Finally, God’s sense of timing is always a mystery to us. Yet, sometimes He allows us to connect dots that often are not seen. Such is the case on this day. We have gathered here in Berlin and Wittenberg on October 31 and November 1 to commemorate five hundred years of God’s purposes.
But something else occurred on October 31, 1917, one hundred years ago. In the south of Judea, at Beersheba, British General Allenby defeated the Ottoman Turkish Army. It was a decisive victory that led to the capture of Jerusalem by the British.
Today in Beersheba representatives from Australia and New Zealand are there remembering the centennial of this significant victory. While most Americans are unaware that this World War I battle even occurred, the British Commonwealth has not forgotten.
In an important historical addition, the final form of the Balfour Declaration was approved on October 31, 1917. This Declaration, still controversial and resented among nations hostile to Israel today, promised Diaspora Jews that they would have a homeland in the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
God’s purposes through Luther extend to us today. We are inheritors of the good and the bad. Our task for our generation is to discover the synergistic paths that will lead to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
 “Is Niall Ferguson right – and was Freemasonry the key to the American Revolution?” by Peter Frankian, October 15, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/niall-ferguson-right-freemasonry-key-american-revolution/?WT.mc_id=tmg_share_em.
 Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), pp. 70-93.
 An insightful overview of Luther’s times is found Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion (New York: HarperCollins, 2011). Especially note chapters 17, 18.
 Lyndal Roper wrote extensively of Luther’s personal trials characterized by the German word Anfechtungen. Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (New York: Random House, 2016), pp. 44-47.
 E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (Concordia Publishing House, 1950), p. 2.
 Schwiebert, p. 6.
 Schwiebert, p. 3.
 The phrase “all truth is God’s truth” is from Arthur F. Holmes 1977 book by the same title.
 “Martin Luther’s Early Years: A Gallery of Friends and Enemies” by Paul Thigpen (http://christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-34/martin-luthers-early-years-gallery-of-friends-and-enemies.html.)
 David D. Daniels, The Commercial Appeal, October 21, 2017, http://commercialappeal.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/10/21/honor-reformations-african-roots/783252001/.
 Rogers, p. 264.
 Rogers, p. 264 and Chapter Thirteen.
 It is important to remember that Abraham had a well in Beersheba. That well was a point of conflict and careful resolution as noted in the covenant with Abimelech described in Genesis 21:22-34.