These famous words of Martin Luther’s are sometimes regarded as the battle cry of the Reformation. Spoken in 1521 at the Diet of Worms, these words were Luther’s response to the demand that he recant his critiques of the Church. It was October 31, 1517, when the monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, in an effort to start a conversation on reforming certain aspects of the Church. Little did he know that his action would start a movement that would change the face of Christianity across the globe.
Of course it wasn’t Luther alone who made the Reformation. There were others who advocated for reform before Luther, and generally lost their lives for it. But in 1517, the time was right in Europe socially and politically. And the printing press made it possible to get out information, opinion, counter-opinion at a rapid speed unknown before. And of course we believe that the Holy Spirit was at work and continues to be at work.
If Luther began his quest for reform of the church thinking it would be a reasonable debate among civilized theologians, he soon learned that a lot more was at stake for a lot of powerful people, and the debate was anything but civil. Protestants and Catholics lined up against each other, condemning one another, even fighting wars against each other. This legacy of brokenness continued until the mid-twentieth century, when Vatican II opened the door to ecumenism.
In 1999, the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican came to an historic agreement, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. What had for centuries been a sticking point between Lutherans and Catholics was resolved. We held a celebration of that event at the Helena Cathedral, and then again ten years later at Our Savior’s Lutheran in Great Falls.
In 2012, the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, Bishop Michael Warfel and I went to 5 communities across Montana having Lutheran-Catholic Conversations. Turnout was high. The people have been asking for church leaders to come closer for decades. We talked about what had kept the churches apart, and what hopes there were for bringing us closer together.
1517, the year Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door, is generally accepted as the date on which the Reformation began. There is great interest all over the world in the Reformation. Lutherans, Catholics and many others are planning ways to commemorate the anniversary of the Reformation. Germany has a 10 year plan, with a different emphasis each year. The LWF and the Vatican have plans underway, and the Montana Synod has a hardworking team that will be producing materials and also working with the 2 Catholic Dioceses for a joint event. Across the ELCA plans are underway.
As you read this piece, I am on my way to Wittenberg, with a group of ELCA Bishops. We are visiting sites of the Reformation, in hopes of understanding our heritage better. We will also be meeting with German church leaders, both Lutheran and Catholic, to learn more about ecumenism today in the birthplace of the Reformation, and to learn more about the experience of the German church during the years that Germany was divided.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA