The Reformation at 500 – some of its blessing and curses

Today is the 500th birthday of the Protestant Reformation, the day we remember Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It’s a day I’m so grateful for in so many ways and yet has its downsides as well.

So, first let me begin with the downsides so I can end on an up note.

I have many good Catholic friends and want them to know how much I love and value them and their robust faith. I was raised to be anti-Catholic and to think of Catholics as something less than Christians. Part of it was from an anti-Catholic snobbery among evangelicals and part of it was from my father’s experiences as a boy. He felt the Catholic Church hid Jesus from him and refused to allow him access to the Bible, finding what he was taught as an altar boy to be superstitions and not biblical faith. Thankfully, real faith has always resided in the Roman church and most of the things the Reformers were protesting have been dealt with. But I still regret that anti-Catholic bent I was raised with.

I am grateful for our education at St. Monica Catholic High School, where I discovered deep faith among my fellow students and our teachers. I am grateful for theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri Nouwen who have enriched my faith. I am grateful for the witness of Mother Theresa and Pope Francis to our Christian vocation of serving the poor and vulnerable. I do not protest you. I embrace you as brothers and sisters.

Along with anti-Catholicism, I am grieved by the fragmenting of the Church into sectarian groups and semi-Christian cults and a ridiculous number of denominations. The Reformation opened the door to a disunity among the people of God that undermines the gospel.

I love how the Catholic Church was able to make room for passionate people like St. Francis, creating new orders within the church for them to express their unique vocation and expression of Christian faith without having to splinter off on their own. The group I grew up in has been notorious for its ability to split into sub-groups for any and every reason possible. That disunity is to our shame and a direct consequence of the Reformation.

Another error of the Reformation is Martin Luther pitting grace against works. The two aren’t enemies. They are counterparts, like a hand to a glove and a husband to a wife. When one is elevated above the other, both are harmed. As St. Paul wrote, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8-10). We aren’t saved by works, but we were created to do them. So, let’s stop this Luther-inspired nonsense and quit setting them up like boxers in the ring.

At the same time, I am grateful for the Reformation’s opening up of the Scriptures to everyone. There are some downsides to this, but the upsides vastly outweigh them. I love that the first book printed on the first printing press was a Bible. I love that this morning I was able to read my daily psalms because of the Reformation’s insistence that I not only be able to read the Bible, but that I be expected to read it on my own. I may not always hear perfectly, but at least I am hearing God’s Word without it being mediated to me by a priest.

I love the Reformation’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers. God’s Spirit is alive and active in each of us, not being reserved for those who have been ordained.

For the past 15 years, I have been a pastor within what is referred to as the Reformed tradition, specifically among Presbyterians. So, I am grateful for the theological tradition that goes back to John Calvin and other Reformers and its expression in ECO, the denomination I’m ordained in. It’s not perfect, but I’ve found a home theologically and in ministry here.

But beyond theology, the Reformation has a few other unique gifts its offered the world. Here are just a few.

One of the unexpected blessings of the Reformation is beer made with hops. As the story goes, the Catholic Church had a monopoly on the herbs used in beer at the time of the Reformation. Hops, however, was tax-free and plentiful. So Luther and others eager to throw off the authority of the Roman church dumped their herbs and switched to hops.

Luther was well known for his love of beer and wrote about it frequently. And so, I raise my pint glass to him in gratitude. Prost, Martin!

Luther also returned singing to the average churchgoer after more than a millennium of all church singing being reserved for choirs and priests alone. Luther loved to sing and wrote numerous hymns, not just “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (which is absolutely brilliant, especially accompanied by pipe organ). Not only did he move church singing away from chants done in Latin, using popular tunes in the local tongue, he gave an edge to his songs that hadn’t existed in church music before. And we’ve been using the art of song as a form of not just worship, but of protest ever since. So, I guess that makes Martin Luther the father of hip-hop, rock, and folk, our primary musical genres of revolt.

With how much music has been a part of my life, both the sacred and the secular, there isn’t a day that Luther’s musical reform hasn’t touched my life.

Not only did Luther bring trees into our homes for Christmas — what would Christmas be like without our Christmas trees?! — he loved creation and committed himself to cultivating it. I love this quote by him: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

One of the defining statements of the Presbyterian tradition is “Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.” I love that. The Reformation as a part of history is done. But the reforming and transforming of hearts and minds and lives is on-going as people encounter Jesus through the Scriptures. And that’s a reformation I want to always be a part of.