CHANGING THE WORLD: Local, global tributes to honor Martin Luther’s radical movement

Tom Netherland
for the Bristol Herald Courier

Martin Luther changed the world and humanity.

To paraphrase the title of a William Manchester book on the Middle Ages, in a world lit only by fire, Luther provided a light by which the individual could see and think for themselves.

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. As ignited by religious and societal revolutionary theologian Martin Luther, the world as we know it would most certainly not be the same had Luther never stepped forth in opposition of the era’s Roman Catholic Church leadership.

 “We would live in bleak ignorance. Just bleak ignorance,” said Don Michael Hudson, associate professor and chair of the philosophy and religion department at King University in Bristol, Tennessee. “Along with bleak ignorance, there would be big oppression of the people (today). I feel that way very strongly.”

Born on Nov. 10, 1483, in Germany, Luther evolved into becoming a radical. He equated to Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma to Montgomery, Rosa Parks on the bus, George Washington on the front lines, the Allies encountering Hitler. But, one could make a sound argument that Luther surpassed them all as history’s most radical of radicals.

“Luther said, ‘Open your eyes, open your mind. Don’t be a sheep. Think for yourself,’” Hudson said. “Some people take umbrage with it being called the Dark Ages. Well, it was. Europe was shrouded in darkness.”

Light shed upon Luther and his era comes via a smattering of yearlong acknowledgements locally, nationally and worldwide. For instance, a showing of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: The Idea That Changed the World,” will screen on Monday, Oct. 30, at Cinemark Tinseltown in Bristol, Virginia. Tickets must be purchased beforehand and online via the link listed below.

Two days earlier, Concordia Lutheran Church in Kingsport will host an event of relevant music. They will present Songs of the Reformation on Saturday, Oct. 28, which will highlight the singing of hymns written by Luther.

“Luther said that after God’s love, music is the greatest thing,” said Rev. Paul Becker, pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church. “We want to help people see the beauty of the good news. Even stuff that’s 500 years old is fresh enough that it could have been written yesterday.”

Take Luther’s “Salvation Unto Us Has Come”:

“Salvation unto us has come

By God’s free grace and favor;

Good works cannot avert our doom,

They help and save us never.

Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone,

Who did for all the world atone;

He is our one redeemer.”

Luther’s “good works cannot avert our doom” line directly contradicted the Catholic Church. However, “Luther was an ardent Catholic …,” wrote author William Manchester in “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Indeed, Luther was an academic as well as an Augustinian friar and then a Catholic priest. He translated the Bible into New High German, “a language he virtually created …,” Manchester wrote.

Luther served as a devout man of the cloth, a Catholic for whom God meant everything. Perhaps his most famous hymn bears that out in its title: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

“In his early years, Luther’s loyalty to the Vatican was total; when he first glimpsed the Eternal City in 1511,” Manchester wrote, “he fell to his knees crying, ‘Hail to thee, O Holy Rome!’”

Meanwhile, ocean waves of turmoil, long churning throughout Europe regarding the church’s controversial sale of indulgences, spread with the gradual passage of time. All was not calm either within Luther or ultimately the papacy or the Roman Catholic Church at large.

“To Luther, the selling of indulgences was a big scam,” Hudson said. “That really set him off. It was a racket.”

Corruption infected vast hallways within the fractured house of the Roman Catholic Church before, during and after Luther. Licentiousness, criminality and general boorishness spread like a communicable disease for which there seemed no cure. Such behavior reached clear to and indeed enveloped the papacy.

“At one point you had three popes on the throne at the same time,” Hudson said. “There was a system dealing with all of the illegitimate children of the pope and priests. They had no checks and balances. They used their own traditions for their own purposes, and if you disagreed, you were burned at the stake.”

Luther, as had Czech priest Jan Hus 100 years earlier, sought reform of the church. Hus directly challenged the church’s sale of indulgences. For his affront, Hus was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415.

Voices such as Hus’ presented problems for the church. Widespread illiteracy and the lack of a printing press prevented the public from reading scripture for themselves. They depended on the clergy for their spiritual meals. Firebrands such as Hus gave them accurate readings of the Bible in concert with sharp rebukes of church leadership that did not.

“The Catholic Church used the Bible to squash the individual for their own purposes,” Hudson said. “To question the pope was not only to face the fear of fire in this life, but the fire of hell in the next life.”

One hundred and two years later, Luther penned “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.”

Better known as Luther’s “95 Theses,” the priest posted them on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. That he posted them on the door of the church wasn’t so revolutionary; the church door equated to a community bulletin board.

Luther’s words, however, proved contemporarily and historically earthquaking.

“He wrote that one cannot achieve salvation through indulgences,” Becker said. “Faith in Christ as the savior is the only way.”

Luther simply penned the truth.

“That will always upset people,” Becker said.

Coupled with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1400s, seeds of what became known as the Protestant Reformation grew exponentially in the aftermath of Luther’s “95 Theses.”

The Reformation led to far more than just a split in the Roman Catholic Church and the advent of Protestantism. For one, it stands as monumental within the entire history of the world.

“Oh man, I’d put it in the top three,” Hudson said. “It unleashed the modern world. It was the seeds of the Enlightenment. It changed our whole world. One of the reasons why our government has checks and balances is because of the Reformation.”

Luther and the subsequent Protestant Reformation rocked the world on its axis.

Ultimately, Luther neither critiqued God nor the Bible nor Catholicism. He repudiated its purveyors who bastardized the word of God.

“The Reformation was one of the major shifts, changes in human history,” Hudson said. “We’re still living full-blown in that shift.”