Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Commemorating the Reformation in 2017

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Commemorating the Reformation in 2017

Article excerpt

Abstract

This article argues that the commemoration of the Reformation is not just a time to look back historically, but an occasion to reflect where reform and reformation is needed today in church and society. It is clear that in 2017 we cannot but celebrate in an ecumenical dimension, with a concern for religious dialogue, and in a global context.

The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the publication of Luther's 95 Theses in Wittenberg. From a historical perspective, whether Luther actually nailed his theses to the door of the Castle Church, whether somebody else did this, or whether they were distributed only in printed form remains uncertain. However, the publication of these theses, which denounced the church's practice of granting indulgences, has since been marked as the starting point of the various happenings that are gathered together under the heading of the "Reformation."

Reformation and Renewal

It is evident, however, that the Reformation was a movement that covered many decades, beginning with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, and including Zwingli, Calvin, and many others. In this sense, 1517 is a symbolic date. And the Reformation was driven by many people; Martin Luther is just the symbolic figure. This is demonstrated beautifully in an altarpiece by the Italian artist Gabriele Mucchi, which can be seen in the little church of Alt-Staaken on the outskirts of Berlin. Below the image of the crucified Christ in this wall painting are gathered 12 historical figures who played an important role in the 16th century in the renewal of the church and of our view of the world: Nicholas Copernicus, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Ignatius Loyola, Thomas More, Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther, Thomas Muntzer, Johannes Bugenhagen, Philipp Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. This is a splendid symbol of the Reformation being a widespread movement and an enormous breakthrough. I find it very moving that in this picture they are all reconciled beneath the cross.

The Reformation was a diverse movement that changed both state and church, and it is still having an effect today. In the commemoration in 2017, it is important to look back critically and appreciate the Reformation as an overall event, and not to limit it to Luther and his own personality. I am convinced that there will be no "Luther cult," as is feared by many. Protestants in Germany and Lutherans worldwide are confident enough not to gloss over the dark side of their great role model.

Luther's Portrayal in History

This confidence was underlined in 2008, when Bishop Wolfgang Huber, then chairperson of the council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), opened the Luther Decade leading up to the Reformation anniversary. In his speech he stated,

As much as we value Luther's contribution to German culture, especially
his impact on the formation of the German language, we have all the
less reason to repeat the claims to superiority in which Martin Luther
is associated with a supposed "German identity." For a long time the
figure of Luther was used to mislead Germans both at home and abroad
into confusing patriotism with nationalism. (1)

This was an important statement, because anniversaries of the Reformation have always been indicators of the times in which they were celebrated. In 1617 the jubilee served as confessional self-reassurance in the face of the looming Thirty Years' War. In 1717 Luther was stylized, on the one hand, as the godly, devout man portrayed by pietists, and, on the other, as an early Enlightenment figure speaking out against medieval superstition. The 1817 anniversary was orchestrated as a religio-nationalist festival in remembering the Battle of the Nations near Leipzig in 1813, and Luther became a national German hero. In 1883, with the 400th anniversary of his birth, Luther was promoted to becoming the founding father of the German Empire; and in 1917, along with Hindenburg, he became the saviour of the Germans at a time of great adversity. …

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