I don't know that anyone cares, really, about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sure, there are committees (I'm on one) tasked with caring, but that doesn't mean that in the pew on Sunday morning anyone is thinking about what might be happen when the big birthday arrives (generally assumed to be the day Luther nailed-up his theses on the Wittenburg church door). Could well be that churches will simply put a note in their church bulletins: "Hey, this morning just a shout out to Luther. . ."
But we're there, almost. Will be, at least, in a few months.
A review in the Weekly Standard last week got me to thinking, after a note on-line made a claim that seemed totally outrageous, to wit, that after book shelves full of material already written about Martin Luther, after the tonnage he himself produced in a lifetime of writing, it's almost impossible to imagine any one might have anything new to say about the founder of a movement that, quite literally, changed the world.
Someone actually writes something new about Luther? Seriously?
James R. Payton, who taught history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, claims that Lyndel Roper's Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet does just that. He says Professor Roper, who teaches at Oxford, judges Luther, "raw edges and all," as a man of his time and place, putting him and his sometimes blushingly shameful utterances, "raw edges and all," squarely into the world in which he lived: "Roper looks at "the Saxon reformer in terms of his sociocultural milieu," Payton says, with a special regard for "the development of his views in terms of his relationship to father-figures—and his own sense of paternal authority for the movement he had unleashed."
But then Payton makes a claim about Renegade and Prophet I thought interesting and itself new, at least to me--someone sure as anything a child of the Reformation. "She does not acknowledge, or wrestle with, the driving impulse that both dominated and enervated the young monk." That's quite an indictment, but Payton pursues his criticism with dedication: "By entering monastic life, Luther sought to place himself in a situation where he could best prepare to meet his Maker; but his efforts, while exceeding even the strictest, most demanding, counsels, did not result in the slightest confidence that he might find peace with God."
The story many children of the Reformation know is Luther dragging himself up the holy stairs to the Cathedral in 1510, bloodying his knees in the process, creating all that anguish to purify himself in his quest for atonement. That extreme religious discipline, Payton says, brought Luther "no relief in his search—until his labors brought him to wrestle with the words of St. Paul in Romans 1:16-17":
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith."There," Payton says, the apostle Paul "rejoiced in what terrified Luther ('the righteousness of God,' revealed in the gospel)" until Luther discerned the emphasis that "the righteous one will live by faith," the very heart of the theology of the Reformation.
What Luther discovered, as a monk, Payton says, was that all his diligence and dedication to that spiritual task would not bring him where he wanted so badly to be, a man beloved. "Luther had stumbled upon the teaching from then on associated with him: Justification sola fide, being accounted righteous before God by faith alone," Payton says [emphasis his].
What Luther discovered was that salvation wasn't something he could do. That truth left Luther free to be Luther, for better or for worse--and God to be God. Salvation comes by faith alone.
This morning I'm thankful for a few old words, freshly served up, from the Weekly Standard.