August 16th, 2018

By the Way: The thinking religion

By Medicine Hat News on October 7, 2017.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like woolÉ”

— Isaiah 1:18 [ESV].

AD 2017 marks what most Christians would agree is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As the story goes, on Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther, who had grown deeply concerned by what was happening in the Church at the time, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was intended to be an invitation for the theologians in the area to do what God suggests they do in the Isaiah text above: “Come now, let us reason togetherÉ” That is, Luther felt that the time had come to bring some of these troubling theological issues out into the open through the use of public debate for the purpose of correcting them.

Obviously, arguments over Scriptural interpretation and the finer points of Christian doctrine had been going on long before the 95 Theses incident; they had started up shortly after Christ’s ascension into Heaven, really. By Luther’s day, though, most of the debate had been confined to a select few who occupied the upper echelons of the Church hierarchy. In fact, very few were even permitted to read Scripture, let alone interpret it, and so everyone else had to accept and to trust in the interpretive conclusions authorized by the Church.

Even if the laity had been permitted to read the Scriptures, hand-written copies of the Bible were really quite rare and extremely expensive during the medieval period, even in Christian Europe. The few copies that did exist were strictly Latin translations from the original Hebrew and Greek, making it impossible for the majority of the European population to read in any case.

The inaccessibility of the Holy Scriptures to the average Holy Roman Imperial subject was one of the issues that Luther had indeed addressed, and eventually helped to correct during the Reformation (no small thanks to a brand-new technology: the Printing Press). He strongly believed that everyone ought to at least have the chance to hear God’s Word read out to them in their native language as opposed to in Latin. The lower ranked clergy and the laity would at least then have the opportunity to think through what they had heard, and even to ask some serious and pressing questions regarding the true nature of the God that they worshipped.

I should quickly add for clarification that Luther was not one to push an idea past the point of reason. For instance, while he did want everyone to have access to the Scriptures, he cautioned against individuals interpreting it on their own, without any sort of guidance or training. He recognized that most folks were uninformed regarding the complexities and nuances inherent in the biblical text, as well as of the importance of reading Scripture from the contextual viewpoint in which they were originally written. Furthermore, the vast majority of the laity, even if they were able to obtain a personal copy of the Bible in their own language, would simply not have had the time to devote to deep theological study. Thus, they would have been obliged to defer the bulk of the interpretive work to a trusted, accessible authority; not unlike today.

As for Luther himself, he could be quite stubborn and unyielding concerning his own interpretation of Holy Scripture. He did not, however, shy away from debate, nor did he discourage questions. In fact, Luther, along with many of the other Reformation leaders, welcomed both. And, in the process of opening up God’s Word to everyone, they re-established Christianity as truly the “thinking” religion. “Come now, let us reason together…” Amen.

Rev. Pastor Shane Hein, St. Peter Lutheran Church — Medicine Hat

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