Thursday, August 10, 2017

Luther and His Most Important Impact

What follows is a slightly extended version of an address delivered at the opening of the Luther exhibition at St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney on Tuesday 8 August, 2017.

The Beginnings of the Luther Story

On 31 October 1517, in a small provincial university town, an Augustinian monk who served as a professor in the university, nailed a document to a church door. And it started a revolution. Today, 500 years later and on the other side of the world, that unexceptional act — there would have been lots of notices on that door, since it was the unofficial notice board for the university — still captures the imagination.

The story of Martin Luther is well known. More books are written about him every year than about any other figure in history save one — the master he served, the Lord Jesus Christ. He was born the son of a copper miner in the year 1483, just nine years before Columbus discovered America but a little over 300 years before tall ships arrived in Port Jackson to start the colony of New South Wales. He grew up in a quite typical German family, nothing really out of the ordinary. He was serious and studious and was soon preparing to enter a career in the law. Like most fathers, Luther’s father had great plans for his son. Martin would not struggle the way he, Hans had struggled. He would make his mark in the world. Hans Luther had no idea the mark his son would make. Martin entered university, the University of Erfurt, in April 1501.

The younger Luther’s life took a dramatic turn in July 1505. Martin had finished the first stage of his studies. The general arts program was finished and the more specifically legal studies were about to begin. He travelled home to visit his parents. But then, just outside the village of Stottenheim, he was caught in a violent thunderstorm. He was terrified. Here was the fearsome wrath of God, and if anyone deserved that wrath Luther did. He cried out for someone to save him. ‘St Anne — the patron saint of miners — St Anne rescue me and I will become a monk!’ And before long the storm subsided and Luther continued his journey home. He gathered his friends, who may have thought they were coming to celebrate Luther’s achievements thus far and send him on his way back to the University of Erfurt, and he told them of his intention to keep his vow and enter the monastery of the Observant Augustinians. His father was furious — he kept muttering things about the fifth commandment. But Luther was determined. He had made a vow and he was duty bound to honour it. And so, on 17 July 1505 he entered the monastery at Erfurt.

Luther never thought he would leave that monastery. He expected that he would be a monk for the rest of his life. Not that it was always a pleasant place to be. Thanks to his own later reflections, we have some idea what life was like for Luther in those surroundings. He was a conscientious monk. ‘It is true, I was a pious monk’ Luther wrote, ‘and so strictly did I observe the rules of my order that I may say: If ever a monk got to heaven through monkery, I too would have got there’ (WA 38:143). Luther fulfilled all his duties. He confessed his sins over and over again. He prayed. He attended mass. He did all the menial tasks — cleaning the latrines, scrubbing the floors — all of it. Later he would say, ‘This is the chief abomination: we had to deny the grace of God and put our trust and hope on our holy monkery and not on the pure mercy and grace of Christ…’ (WA 38:159).

The next great transformation happened about five years later. Luther’s father confessor, who had watched him, sought to mentor him, encouraged his undoubted intellectual gifts, announced that Luther would do more study in order to lecture at the new university in Wittenberg. Luther would spend the rest of his life in that provincial town, radically transforming the university curriculum, then the church, and eventually Europe. He began as a Professor of Bible in 1512. He only left that post when he died in 1546. And rather early on was 1517. 500 years ago this year. 1517, the year that sparked a revolution.Read More

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