October 26, 2017
Dear Family and Friends of the Diocese of Eau Claire,
On Tuesday, while most Americans focus on Halloween, October 31 will also mark the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his Ninety-five Theses on the All Saints’ Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The Lutheran Church calls October 31 Reformation Day. What Luther did was accuse the Catholic Church of abuses of power, false interpretation of scripture and superstition. The worst abuse was the sale of indulgences to raise money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The idea was that if you paid money your soul would have safety in heaven.
Before Martin Luther, the Church had many critics. It either listened to them and changed its ways, or in disliking the message killed the messenger. In Luther’s case, the Catholic leaders wouldn’t listen, and the northern German princes protected him. Church authorities couldn’t kill him, so the Lutheran Church emerged independent of Catholicism. In time John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli extended the Reformation into Switzerland, and alternatives to Roman Catholic Christianity emerged in Germany, Switzerland, France, Scotland, Scandinavia, and England.
Luther fractured the unity of the Western Church. Christian thought could no longer dominate western society as it had. While the Roman Catholic Church remained the largest Christian body, it was now the largest competing Church—not the only Church. For both good and ill, passions emerged that brought both deeper understandings of Christianity and wicked corruptions of it. Religious wars left parts of Europe, especially Germany, devastated and impoverished. People asked, is our faith worthy of death when Christians are killing Christians?
Meanwhile, as never before, lay people wanted to understand Holy Scripture as the revealed word of God. They wanted to read and discuss the Bible without ordained interpreters. A desire emerged to share Jesus Christ with the rest of the world. The process of evangelization may have had coercive and other negative aspects, but people in distant lands who had never heard of Jesus now had the opportunity to experience the Good News. After several centuries of looking inward, the Reformation started Christianity back on the road to becoming a world religion.
The most lasting aspect of Luther’s nailing the Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg Church door was that he set in motion events leading to religious liberty. This meant that the relationship between God and each human being was to be paramount. In short, each person had the right to think. By 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, this sacred understanding became a cherished principle. No government, Church, or other institution had the right to interfere. From this love between God and each of his people, healthy communities of Church and government made sense, for on this premise majorities could rule, but minorities, even a minority of one, would retain the right to disagree or dissent.
What Luther did on October 31, 1517 took faith, courage, and wisdom. We are the latest beneficiaries of the Ninety-five Theses. May God bless us as we partner with him in living into a future with faith and vision! Through the power of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible. Martin Luther proved this to be true! With my love and best wishes, I am,
Your brother in Christ,
W. Jay Lambert
Bishop of Eau Claire