Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Reformation Day (from 31 October 2012)

Today is Reformation Day. For the historically and theologically challenged among us, today is the 495th anniversary of the day when Dr. Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, nailed a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences"  more commonly known as the "Ninety-Five Theses"  on the door of All Saints' Church (the Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

Of all the people who have walked this earth in the 20 centuries since St. Paul brought his "gospel to the Gentiles" across the Mediterranean world, Martin Luther is my greatest hero. To be sure, Dr. Luther had his faults. He was often intemperate, and his rhetoric against the Jews  even granting the spirit of his age and the theological, rather than racial, basis for his rants  is offensive. Indeed, it was considered offensive even in his day. His colleague, Philipp Melanchthon, even commented at Luther's funeral (quoting Luther's erstwhile theological opponent, Erasmus): "Some have complained that Luther was more vehement than need required. I will not dispute against any, but I answer thus, that Erasmus has often said about Luther, 'God has given this last age a sharp physician because of the great diseases of the same.'"

Luther may not have been as formidable an exegete, or as balanced a theologian, as his younger contemporary Calvin was. But, I suggest, no one grasped the inner dynamic of the mind and temperament of St. Paul better than did the Wittenberger. Luther's 1535 Commentary on Galatians is no modern historical-critical commentary on the letter  how could it be?  but is as great a contextualization of the apostle's most personal and passionate letter as I have ever read. And those sensitive, effete theologians who today take offense at Luther would similarly take offense at the Paul who rained down anathemas on his opponents and hypothetically wished that the promoters of circumcision would have their knife slip and castrate themselves.

Most Protestant Christians today have never read the Reformer's great commentaries on Galatians and Romans, let alone the 1525 work Luther himself considered his greatest, De Servo Arbitrio (On the Bondage of the Will). But they do (hopefully) know his greatest hymn, "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"), based on Psalm 46 and written sometime prior to 1531. In English translation, the text of the hymn reads as follows:
1. A mighty fortress is our God, 
 a bulwark never failing; 
 our helper he amid the flood 
 of mortal ills prevaling.  
 For still our ancient foe 
 doth seek to work us woe; 
 his craft and power are great, 
 and armed with cruel hate, 
 on earth is not his equal.

2. Did we in our own strength confide, 
 our striving would be losing, 
 were not the right man on our side, 
 the man of God's own choosing.
 Dost ask who that may be?  
 Christ Jesus, it is he; 
 Lord Sabaoth, his name, 
 from age to age the same, 
 and he must win the battle.

3. And though this world, with devils filled, 
 should threaten to undo us, 
 we will not fear, for God hath willed 
 his truth to triumph through us.  
 The Prince of Darkness grim, 
 we tremble not for him; 
 his rage we can endure, 
 for lo, his doom is sure; 
 one little word shall fell him.

4. That word above all earthly powers, 
 no thanks to them, abideth; 
 the Spirit and the gifts are ours, 
 thru him who with us sideth.  
 Let goods and kindred go, 
 this mortal life also; 
 the body they may kill; 
 God's truth abideth still; 
 his kingdom is forever.

I leave you with a video of the greatest setting ever provided for Luther's immortal hymn, J. S. Bach's Cantate BWV 80, performed admirably by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien.

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