pedigree, the right education, and the right perspective. Luther had none of these. He was not a child of the enlightenment but remained very much a product of his age. He was no radical (in spite of those who paint him such) but conservative and careful. He was no systematician seeking to organize God and tie up all His loose ends (that was Calvin). He was no theoretical thinker philosophizing his way to truth (that was Erasmus and perhaps Calvin). He was a man with his own personal struggle that coincided with a window of opportunity that catapulted him from obscurity into the center of Christian history. Not a hero or a cultural warrior or enlightenment man but obedient rebel, Luther was the surprise of God's hand at a time when the Gospel was covert instead of overtly the center of the Church's proclamation and life. The paradox of the wrong man become the right figure, proclaiming the paradox of the justified sinner in but not of the world, this is Luther and this is the Lutheran Reformation.
Christianity Today had an article by Sasse (1967) that noted "the
Renaissance...must be understood as the great secular countermovement
against the attempt of the Middle Ages to build a Christian world. This
attempt, like all similar ones in later times, ended not in the
Christianization of the world but in the secularization of the Church.
The world did not become Church; rather, the Church became world. The Reformation was in its deepest nature an attempt to save the Church from that destiny."
As is often the case, people try and make the Reformation responsible for too much or for the wrong things. Luther's great regret was, of all things, the open door the Reformation would provide for those who were determined to undermine and deny that catholic faith of Scripture, creed, and tradition. The Lutherans were cautious and careful, keeping so much that others wondered why Luther would not go where, according to their logic, one must go in renouncing all that was in order to begin anew. Luther was no Calvinist with a bizarre sacramental quirk. Lutherans were confident that even with all the layers of distortion and distraction, the Gospel was there where baptism killed to make alive and bread and wine set apart by His Word to feed the heavenly life to mortals. Yet they were compelled by the errors that had clouded the air and prevented the Gospel from being the pure breath of the Church to address them as true servants of Christ.
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses, there will be many different pictures of the Reformation and of Luther. Most of them will contain a glimmer of truth even though it will be hard for those remembering not to overstate the small truth until it confuses and overwhelms the greater truth behind the Reformation. Luther was a man in keeping with the past and not some first of a whole new breed of theologians. His cause was to restore what was lost or obscured and not the demolition and rebuilding of the Church on a different foundation. Luther did not see this as man's grand shining moment to display once for all the divine endowment but could not escape the total depravity of man after the fall and the total reach of God's grace to come to Him in our need, to declare us forgiven and righteous through the merits of Christ's death, and to open to us a new door of tomorrow in the promise of our own resurrection with Christ to the joyful and blest reunion eternal.
Luther and Erasmus, the Reformation and Humanism are neither friends nor friendly opponents but irreconcilably opposed. Indeed that is the disappointment of the Radical Reformers. They sniffed around Luther looking for an ally and found him disappointingly catholic. That is the disappointment of the humanist who hopes to find in Luther the renaissance man but finds instead a sinner with no hope but the grace of God in Christ. That is still how many in Lutheranism today try to define our Church -- from the ELCA to the LWF -- the pesky past of Scripture and tradition have given way to the so-called "new" work of the Spirit in everything from ecumenism to sexuality to feminism. Unsure of the historicity of the past, the Gospel has become to them principle instead of event and yet they do not realize that unless it is fact and all factual, it has nothing whatsoever to offer the world except an empty hope. Sadly, too many in Missouri, Wisconsin, and the ELS find Luther also too catholic and have become more comfortable with the Reformation squeezed through the cloth of American Protestantism than with the staunch and adamant claim of the Lutheran Confessions that this faith is no novelty but that which is true, catholic, and authentic.
Sasse has it right in Here We Stand and it would not be a bad starting place if Lutherans read him again to rediscover what the Reformation was and was not, who Luther was and who he is not. Then, just maybe, we might be able to see Lutheranism apart from the wandering eyes that look with longing to mainline Protestantism or to evangelicalism while disdaining the treasure of the obedient rebel who bequeathed to us a reform thoroughly catholic and evangelical. In this case the truth is much better than the legend. God help us to remember that as we lift up Luther and try to explain him and the Reformation to the world. We do not get many chances to do so...