The Fundamental Themes Of Luthers Reforms

Luther's reforms, set out in 1520 and enacted at Wittenberg during the period 1522 to 1524, acted as a catalyst and role model for like-minded reforming individuals and congregations throughout Europe. This was no idealistic vision of a utopian church; it was a theological program for reform that could be implemented immediately. Luther was able to convert ideas to concrete reality. The reforms he introduced rapidly set the standards for others. The leading features of those reforms, which were characteristic of the first phase of Protestantism, can be summarized as follows.

1. The Bible is the ultimate foundation of all Christian belief and practice. For Luther, the Bible was central to the life and thought of the church, as it was to the personal devotion of the individual Christian. Much of Luther's early work focused on making the Bible accessible to German Christians—above all, by translating it into the German language. As it became clear that ordinary Christians experienced difficulty in interpreting the Bible, Luther produced catechisms, devotional tracts, and biblical commentaries aimed at helping the faithful get the most from this treasure that had now been placed in their hands.

2. The text of the Bible, and all preaching based upon it, should be in the vernacular—the everyday language of the people, not Latin, which distanced the people from the text. Luther's fundamental concern was to break the clerical and academic monopoly on reflecting on matters of faith. When the liturgy, the Bible, preaching, and theological textbooks were all published only in Latin, ordinary Christians were excluded from reflecting on and debating about faith. Faith was to be democratized by making its foundational resources available to all who could read and by insisting that all were welcome participants in discussions about the interpretation and application of faith.

3. Salvation is a free, unmerited gift of God, received by faith. This notion, often referred to as "justification by faith alone," was central to Luther's reforming agenda. Every aspect of faith, Luther argued, depends on this central, controlling doctrine. If this idea is misunderstood or denied, the church loses its identity and the gospel is compromised—which was precisely what Luther believed to have taken place during the Middle Ages. Reformation was about restructuring the beliefs and practices of the church to be consistent with this core, foundational, driving belief. For Luther, it was this idea that would bring down the walls of the old Jericho and replace them. Later Protestant writers would refer to this as the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae—the "article by which the church stands or falls."

4. There is no fundamental distinction between clergy and laity. This idea, articulated in Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers," had momentous implications. Clergy and laity alike, he asserted, should receive communion in both kinds. Clergy should be allowed to marry, like anyone else. Luther himself married Katharina von Bora, a former nun, who came to be regarded as a role model for women in the new Protestant order then emerging.20 Each congregation should be able to elect its own preachers and pastors and to de-select them if necessary. Once more, the fundamental theme is democratization—the elimination of any notion of a "spiritual elite."

5. The reform of the church's life and thought was not about beginning ab initio, in a frenzy of Promethean reconstruction. Luther was clear that his vision was to reform an existing Christian church that had lost its bearings during the Middle Ages. It was no accident that Luther summarized his reforming program as "the Bible and St. Augustine." He wanted his readers to understand that the foundation of his thought was the Bible, as read through the eyes of the great religious heroes of the past, above all Augustine of Hippo, the "doctor of grace" who had so emphasized the importance of God's graciousness toward humanity.

Luther's reforms, it is clear, were neither an opportunistic attack on the morals of the church nor a piecemeal demand for reform here and there. His fundamental conviction was that the church of his day had lost sight of some fundamental themes of the Christian gospel. After all, the theology he had been taught at Erfurt now seemed to him to be heretical, amounting to the idea of "justification by works"—the notion that humanity can achieve its own salvation by its moral or religious achievements.

Yet Luther is open to criticism here, in that he appears to have extrapolated from his own local situation to that of the entire Christian church throughout Europe. As historians have rightly pointed out, the evidence simply does not sustain Luther's picture of the medieval church as totally doctrinally corrupt or out of touch with the New Tes-tament—a fact that helps us make sense of the mixed response to his demands for reform.

Our concern, however, is to understand Luther at this point, not to correct him. Based on his own experience of the life and thought of the German church, however idiosyncratic and unrepresentative this may now seem, Luther set out to change things. To remedy the unsatisfactory situation of the church, Luther offered a vision of the gospel that provided a comprehensive foundation for the restructuring of Christian belief and practice. Not every aspect of the church's life and thought required reform. Renewal, not innovation, was Luther's watchword.

The outcome was a coherent account of an alternative vision of what a Christian church should be and do. And as his reforms at Wittenberg between 1522 and 1524 made clear, this vision could be put into practice. A template for Protestantism had been created and was being actively evaluated.

Yet however important Luther's concerns and solutions may have been, it is essential to appreciate that at this stage his was one among many local attempts to reform and renew the church.21 Luther's growing insistence that any attempt to reform the church include reviewing its foundational doctrines was perhaps more radical than other calls for reform. What requires explanation is why this local reforming movement went on to achieve such significance and to play such a defining role in the shaping of Protestantism.

The importance of this question will become apparent as we turn to consider another reforming program, initially totally independent of Luther's, that began far to the south, in the Swiss city of Zurich. While Luther was still unknown, others were also agitating for reform. Yet, as we shall see, it was a rather different kind of reform from that demanded by Luther.

Huldrych Zwingli, Swiss Reformation leader, c. 1530. Anonymous, sixteenth century.

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