Ahhh, history. The major for those who can’t do math. The choice of study for people who like to ramble about nothing. The field full of dead people. … Er, not literal “field” like a place with grass and dirt. (which, when full of dead people, is also known as a “cemetery.”) “Field” as in “area of expertise.” As Ingeborg Bachmann, the Austrian writer, cleverly stated, “Die Geschichte lehrt dauernd, aber sie findet keine Schüler.“ History has much to teach but no one wants to learn. In light of this, I would like to propose a new slogan for history students everywhere: The few. The learners. The history majors.
This week at the Kanakuk Institute, my classmates joined the ranks of the amateur historians. Together we embarked on a journey through a very special, yet often unexplored aspect of history: the history of the Church. When most people think of Church history (which is rare, if ever), they probably visualize one or two stereotypical things. If you’re Catholic, the Pope likely comes to mind. If you’re British, you may think of Henry VIII. If you paid even the slightest bit of attention in your Western Civ class, you might visualize the Reformation. Overall, though, if I had to hazard a guess, I would speculate that most people know very little about Church history. Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, that is a travesty, for the Church has had an undeniable and indelible impact on the world, especially in the West.
However, as much as I would like to spend the next umpteen words enlightening you on the fascinating nature of Church history from 33 A.D. to the present, I know that a) you would get bored very quickly and b) that would make for an extremely long blog, even for me. So instead, I am going to simply tell you about one of my favorite characters in this 2,000-year-long story. And his name is Martin Luther.
Normally, I tend to sympathize with people who are left out of history’s limelight; I prefer to study those off the beaten intellectual path. But as a born and bred Lutheran, I can’t help but make an exception with good ol’ Martin Luther.
Born in Erfurt in 1483 in Eisleben, Luther had no dreams of grandeur; his father simply hoped he would become a lawyer. But history—and God—had other plans. Tortured by his own sin, Luther struggled to believe that he was saved and forgiven. After a traumatic, near-death experience in a thunderstorm, Luther became a monk. But as he studied the Scriptures day-in and day-out, his anxiety increased. How could he be sure of his own salvation? And would he ever be free from this agony of uncertainty? Of this time, Luther later said, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul.”
But then—lo and behold!—Luther discovered something incredible in Romans 1:17, which says, “The righteous will live by faith.” Until this point, Luther had done everything possible to become righteous on his own, yet he still felt the crushing weight of his own inadequacy. Then, like an anachronistic light bulb from heaven, the truth illuminated his mind, filling his weary soul with a liberating hope. Faith, not works, brings salvation! Luther had rediscovered the essence of the Gospel—and the Truth was about to change European history forever.
Soon after this epiphany, Luther wrote the now famous (then infamous) 95 Theses. In them, he challenged the Catholic Church for its many non-Biblical practices, including the sale of indulgences (paper certificates of forgiveness) to finance the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. On October 31, 1517, he hammered the “nail heard round the world”—and started the wave whose ripples can still be felt today. Luther then went on to translate the Bible into German, so the common people could read it for themselves. Thanks to Gutenberg’s printing press in Mainz, the Scripture spread like wildfire. Soon the Church in Rome could smell the smoke.
Naturally, as head of all spiritual authority, the Catholic Church was more than a little peeved about this chain of events. So in 1521, the Diet of Worms (No, this is not a disgusting way to lose weight; it was a conference in the city of Worms, Germany.) was convened and Luther was summoned. Under threat of excommunication (i.e. permanent removal) from the Church, he was ordered to recant everything he had said and written. In response, Luther uttered the following memorable and courageous words:
„[Da] … mein Gewissen in den Worten Gottes gefangen ist, ich kann und will nichts widerrufen, weil es gefährlich und unmöglich ist, etwas gegen das Gewissen zu tun. Gott helfe mir. Amen.“
Which translate as, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
Even though Luther lived 500 years ago, his words still speak to us today. As humans, we must remain true to our consciences and courageously stand up for our beliefs. And as believers, our beliefs must be rooted firmly in God’s Word. When we see something that contradicts what God says, we have a duty—nay, a responsibility—to stand up and speak out in love. Yes, this will likely be scary; and no, we may not want to do it. But if we look over our shoulder, we can see many great heroes of history, like Luther, cheering us on. And more importantly, the Author of history—the One who is writing “His story”—is on our side. Then we, along with Luther, will be able to confidently say, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”