Here I stand if only

Which of those declarations do you think that Martin Luther would echo if he were with us today … “Here I stand,” or “If only”… ?

The Lutheran and German worlds are celebrating the 500-year anniversary of Luther’s stand taken on Oct. 31, 1517, when he posted 95 complaints on the outside door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. With that act he launched the Reformation (note: his actual declaration of “Here I stand … ” was uttered at the Diet of Worms in 1521).

Do you think that if Martin Luther were with us and could look back at his world-transforming, church-reconstituting legacy, he would smile with gratitude or hang his head with disappointment?

At the risk of sounding too equivocating, I suspect he’d do a bit of both.

Luther liberated inquiring minds from the fortress of ecclesiastical, hierarchical tyranny. Who wouldn’t feel some joy over that?

Indeed, the Vatican held the Western Christian churches in a headlock. It didn’t just require uniformity in teaching and practice. Its teaching — salvation by works, veneration of saints, mediation via a special clergy — Luther exposed as unbiblical. And its practices — the selling of indulgences in order to minimize deceased loved ones’ time in purgatory before being sprung into heaven — he exposed as sinful.

Luther’s proclamation of justification by grace through faith and his teaching about the priesthood of believers — outgrowths of his rediscovery of the truths revealed in Scriptures freed of the “interpretations” of the Vatican — changed the face of Western Christianity. His translation of the Bible into German put God’s word into the hands of the people. In the process, he defined the theological core of faith that accurately reflected biblical teaching, and he unleashed a world of thinking that put the Renaissance into overdrive and even helped lead to the industrial revolution.

He would pop his buttons to see the intensity of biblical and theological study that goes on today. Those central doctrines he emphasized continue to find voice in pulpits and classrooms — across the spectrum of Protestant, Pentecostal, Orthodox and, yes, even Roman Catholic churches (especially thanks to many post-Vatican II developments).

Then again, his unleashing of minds and hearts has led to some really eccentric ideas that have crept back into the church from time to time (mostly old heresies in new costumes: Gnosticism, Donatism, Docetism, Arianism, etc.). He’d probably shake his head to think of the irrepressible creativity of eccentrics and extremists. Then again, given the inquiring mind he possessed, he just might find the conversations with such ideas’ advocates fruitful as they question old assumptions.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Luther feeling good about the proliferation of denominations worldwide. The formation of different Protestant churches in different countries was not problematic for Luther, as he certainly did not want to be or elect a Protestant pope. But the further division of Protestants into such categories as Lutherans, Reformed and Baptist, and then into subgroups like Missouri Synod and Wisconsin synod, and, well, you know where this is going, … to see the subdivision of the body of Christ into so, so many groups — with so many of them being at odds with and defining themselves over against others — probably would make him weep.

As one who aimed to stay in the mother-ship church, he started anew only after his excommunication. To see how that split has been multiplied thousands of times over, and to hear those splits prompted by folks saying, “Here I stand,” well, were he here, he just might say something that would begin with the words, “If only ….”

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