Dr. Herman Selderhuis Celebrates the Start - NOT the End - of the Reformation

December 30, 2017
Dr. Herman J. Selderhuis

[Note: The item below expresses the views of the individual to whom the material is ascribed and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.]

Challenges and Opportunities for 2018 and Beyond

A Paper Delivered at the WRF Reformation Conference in Wittenberg, Germany
Dr. Herman J. Selderhuis
Professor of Church History and Church Polity at the University of Apeldorn
Director of REFO 500
President of the International Calvin Congress

Introduction Memories

Lutherbeer, Lutherwine, Lutherbooks, Luther-exhibitions, Luther-tours, Luther-movies, Luther-Playmobil, yes even Luther-sox. We had it all this year. Luther was just everywhere. In Germany, in Europe, indeed, he was all over the world. I will not complain about it for everywhere Luther is mentioned certainly his message will also be mentioned. My only concern is: is it his message that is being mentioned or are we doing it the Playmobil-way: each puts it´s own Luther together. So: what actually was Luther´s message? And what do we do with it after 2017? Luther´s Reformation is 500 years old!! That is more than history and for many young people 1517 is the time of the dinosaurs. We know better, don´t we?  But what will we do with that knowledge? What is the relevance of Luther and the Reformation for future generations and for this present world, a world in turmoil, a world under threat, a world full of challenges, and what does it mean for the church and the christioan living in just this world? In brief: what´s to do when this great Refo-party is over?

1.  What was it all about? The heart of the matter

Let´s make things clear from the start:  Luther´s primary goal was not a reformation of society, not a revolution in natural sciences, not a restructuring of political and social life in Europe, not a re-evaluation of marriage, family and education. Luther´s goal was not even a reformation of the church. Certainly, he was much concerned about the state of the clergy and the abuse of power of the church, and in the church, but his main – and for him existential - concern was the relation between God and man. And more specific, the relation between a holy God and a sinful man. When he writes in 1545 in his foreword to the first edition of his Collected Works, that it was as if the gate of paradise was opened to him[1] when he discovered what  justification really means, he mentions this as the key element in the Reformation. This is 1545, which means after he had seen what the Reformation had brought about.

That it was as if the gates to heaven opened, he does not mean that all of a sudden he saw that Europe needed a new political system, or that monks and nuns should get married, or that human beings need freedom for self-development, but it meant that he was convinced that all of a sudden he understood a central Bible text in the right way and that he found out that man can be saved from God´s judgment and from eternal death by the free and undeserved grace of God. It is as simple as that. It is this new insight that he wanted to be discussed.

That this was for Luther the fundamental issue is best demonstrated in his 1525 debate with Erasmus. On the last page of his long reply to Erasmus work on free will, Luther makes perfectly clear says what according to him the Reformation is all about.

Therefore then I give you great praise and proclaim it that  among all you are really the only one who got into what in fact is the true issue at stake here, which is, the heart of the matter and that you have not wearied me with those irrelevant issues about popery, purgatory, indulgences, and other trifles – for that´s what they are more than real issues- , with whichso far nearly all have troubled me and in vain I must say.  It´s you, and only you who has seen what was the point on which everything turns, and so you attacked the main issue; and I want to thank you heartily for that. [2]

The ´point on which everything turns´as Luther calls it, is the topic of his discussion with Erasmus and that´s the question how sinful man can come to terms with a righteous and holy God. That message relates to issues of personal and institutional guilt, public justice, reconciliation, righteousness, ethics, which are all issues of today. It is quite remarkable that in many novels, plays and movies the notion of ´guilt´ plays a role, whereas it maybe asked if that issue is still a central notion in sermons, catechism and christian education.

In Luther´s Reformation the issue of guilt played an essential role and the church could use the commemoration of the Reformation to pick up that issue again in order to show that she knows where the Christian message is about and to show that she knows what a secularized society is dealing with and that she can contribute positively to that. The same is true for the issue of ecology which can be seen as a secularized form of eschatalogy in the sense that there is a fear that the earth can no longer bear the sins of a society of consumers and waste-producers. Concern for the future of the earth and of human existence does relate to the theological notion of responsibility for creation but also to eschatological expectations of which the reformation era was full.

Once again, the commemoration of the Reformation should not be simplified to a song-like frase as  `Luther is the answer, for the world today´, but if the church is convinced that Luther´s Gospel is a message for all times, she could use the anniversary of Luther´s Gospel to address just that message to the world, and as a convenient extra make use of the fact that the similarities between the times then and now may cause for at least listening to the answer former times gave to  questions similar to the ones of today. For in that respect there is no difference between 1517 and 2017. God is righteous and we are sinners. Or as Luther defines theology: it´s all about God who iustifies and about man who needs to be iustified.

The real threat to this world is not nature, it is not the environment, it is not politics, it is not terrorism, the real threat is me. I as a sinner have twisted the original right relation with God and with my fellow humans. And Luther found out that it´s only God´s undeserved grace that puts me back on the right place, that is in the right relalion with God, men and creation.  Reformation is as simple as that.

2.  What is the situation? Christianity past or present

And it is just at this point that the situation of  Western Christianity and especially of the Christian church is quite similar to the situation in the early 16th century. What Luther saw was a theology and a church that had moved away from its source, its foundation and its message.[3]  The pre-reformation laity experienced the church as distant, bureaucratic, obsessed with power and money and the clergy as dumb and ethically lax. This is just how today many in the Western world experience the church. Besides this religious déjà vu, the similarity of the situation counts on other matters as well. Economical instability, a distrust in politics and politicians, disorientation of many young people, marital and familial issues are just a few of the items that also played in the sixteenth century. And on top of that similarity, one can at the same time say that worldwide there is a growing presence of religion and religious issues.[4] Out of these facts, I would suggest to reconsider the use of the notion of ´post-christian´for western society. The adjective ´post´ suggests that it is over: Christianity as a station that has been passed. Anyone using that term assumes to be a prophet just as much as the one saying that Christianity  has a splendid future. Since the presence and visibility of Christianity in the western world has changed on the one hand, and on the other hand this change caused a greater self-consciousness of those that definitely want to be called believing Christians, the term ´secularized western society´ may be more fitting than ‘post-christian western society’.[5] 

But a secularized western society is also a religious society. I say ´religious, not ´christian´. Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have seen right when he predicted that Christianity would decline and religion would return. And it did return - if it was ever away. It´s been quite a while since religion played such a large role in politics and society. In fact, last time religion was so predominant was before and during the time of the Reformation. It might be questioned whether Europe on the eve of the Reformation was Christian, it can not be questioned that  it was religious. This situation makes it highly interesting, yet even attractive , to commemorate 500 years of Reformation, in a time where faculties of theology at state universities are reduced or even disappear, and faculties of religious studies are opened up.

In the western world in which the situation has changed from a continent with two confessions, catholic vs. protestant, into one with two religions, Christianity vs. Islam, this new religious status has resulted in a more fundamental and highly relevant public discussion which is as much religious as it is political. With the decline of Christianity and the rise of Islam, religion is fully back on the agenda. Commemmorating 500 years of Reformation in a so-called post-christian, secularized and at the same time religious western world does make sense,  but only if there is the awareness of what the Reformation was all about.

Besides, between the world of 2017 and that of 1517 there are quite some similarities:

  • A first similarity may best be characterized by the German word ´Orientierungslosigkeit´.  Many of the basic certainties are either lost or questioned and many, mainly young people are at a loss as to values (sexuality is a main one) and future.
  • Just as in the 16th Century the question of religious tolerance is an issue. Although then it was between two christian confessions and now it is among a multi-religious society, the political and social impact is just the same. 
  • Both eras face the possibilities, challenges and dangers of a media revolution. The spread of the printing press combined with the increased possibilities of people to buy and read books is quite similar to the developments we see in digital data and social media.
  • Economic issues vary from corruption and greed in the top of organisations to a growth of debts and poverty.
  • A merit-driven society in which many strive and only a few succeed, can be noticed both then and now. Difference is that then we had saints who gained anough merrit to enter heaven, now we have the blessed soccerplayers, moviestars and CEO´s that gained or gathered enough to live in heaven on earth.
  • The church-state relations are becoming increasingly an issue in the western world. The issue is evidently related to changes in society and in the position of power of the church. Yet, the question as to the responsibilities the state has for the church, the independence of the church towards new legislation etc, was also an issue the Reformation placed on the agenda.
  • That sin and salvation were items people were pre-occupied with in the 16th century is well-known, but they are so just as much today yet in a different sense and setting.  Salvation has become ´this-worldly´ which is even true with the feel-good Faith propagated by Christian preachers. And although ´sin´ is no longer connected to death, let alonme eternal death, sin and guilt are the major problems for which people seek help by psychiatrists and therapists.
  • The quest for spirituality and spiritual stability is also an interesting similarity. Touroperators and monasteries have discovered spiritual tourism and the need to escape stress and hectic as a niche in the market. Whereas – just as then – the church  in its preaching does not seem to match with the answers people are looking for, many do seek the church as space to find inner stability and to reload. It is the space oft he church that touches people not so much the message of the church.

All these similarities bridge in many respects the gap of 500 years, and results in the challenge to answer the question: if the issues from then are so much like ours today, could maybe the answers from then be a help to us?

3.  What needs to be done? Agenda for church and academy (Luther´s topics) 

It is my conviction that 2017 is like the pre-program of a concert. This year of commemoration is the year of preparation. It is the year in which Luther and the Reformation has worldwide been on the agenda and that´s a great opportunity to keep the attention going. It is the year in which we have rediscovered the heart of the matter – to speak with Luther – as a matter of the heart. It is the year of the ubiquity of the Lutherrose and that rose says it all. But after 1517 came 1518 in which Luther developed his theology of the cross in Heidelberg, just that theology that needs to be the center of every sermon preached anywhere, anytime and by anyone. Not only is it next 500 years ago that this theology was presented it is then also 400 years ago that this theology was confirmed and confessed at the synod of Dordt, another jubilee to be celebrated.

In 2020 it is 500 years ago that Luther published his famous trilogy developed for In 1520, three of his most well-known and successful works were published. In these three publications his thought continued to evolve concerning how things in the church and the world should or should not go. The first work was directed to the Christian nobility, titled To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.[i] In this booklet, Luther addressed the secular government, no longer accepting that the church had authority over the state. Politicians were seen as members of the church, and in that capacity, Luther addressed them concerning their responsibility.

Here the higly relevant issue of the relation between church and politics is discussed. Here also Luther develops the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Every baptized Christian is a priest, and therefore, among Christians no one is higher or lower, and each Christian has the responsibility to serve and to bring sacrifices. In October Luther published his book On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. What is the task of the church? How should the church be organized? How should the liturgy in the church be like? What are sacraments? What is marriage? All topics we deal with today! In mid-November 1520, Luther’s third booklet was published, a booklet about Christian freedom “that includes a summary of all Christian life.”[ii] 

Here Luther provides a new definition of faith. Faith is not an accomplishment but a gift. Faith is personal. Faith liberates. The source of that freedom and the meaning of freedom Luther illustrated with the image of the miraculous exchange (der wunderbare Tausch), which he applied to the relationship between the bridegroom, Christ, and the sinner, a harlot. In that marriage, implemented with community property rights, Jesus took upon himself mortality, sin, and the wrath of God, while sinful humanity received righteousness and glory from him. Luther’s freedom did not mean that people were free to do whatever they wanted, but rather, Christian freedom was the freedom to want only what Christ wants. Luther articulated this freedom as a formulation that was meant for every Christian life:

A Christian is free, lord over all things and subject to no one;

A Christian is a willing servant of all things and subject to everyone.[iii]

Freedom means that I´m free to constantly do what Christ requires and to avoid everything that may injure my neighbor. Freedom is not first of all for my sake. Freedom is being free to serve.

I could list more years, more topics, more publications. I could list tzhe Peasant´s War with it´s question of the right of resistance, Luther´s wedding and what it means for marital life today, Luther´s works on education, on economic matters, on music and the arts. Yes, I could even mention his death as an occasion to to discuss about everything reated to dying, death and comfort. Our agenda for after 2017 is full of items we can explore, we can discuss, we can apply to life in society, to life in the church and to our personal lives. Our agenda for after 2017 is full of possible projects and events that we best organize together, just as we have done so uptill now. If 2017 is the pre-program – and it sure is – then let´s get started with the real thing.

4.  What can we expect?

The story of the Reformation is quite easy to tell and to grasp. Martin Luther (1483-1546) lived in a monastery and taught at a young university.  There he searched for God, created an unintended U-turn in religion, turned the church upside down and accidentally changed the world.  All this not in Paris, Cambridge, Cologna, Rome or some other intellectual or political center but in the small town of Wittenberg, on the edge of civilization as he said himself. 

Luther realized that his insights were to lay a new foundation of Christian theology resulting in a renewal of society, politics, economics, science and arts. On this foundation a new generation of theologians, statesmen, philosophers and artists created a change in Europe that would soon have global effects.  Just as Luther himself, it were not institutions but individuals  that had such a fundamental impact with their action and their writings. Thus, in a sense, October 31, 1517, could be called the birthday of a new world, a world in which life looked different in every context for those who followed Luther’s lead. A society  based on fear for God´s justice changed radically with the conviction of God´s unconditional grace. Religion no longer was an accomplishment but became a gift that motivated people to gratitude.

This new theology  removed the logical basis of  pilgrimages, veneration of relics, celibacy, monastic life, purgatory, preoccupation with the salvation of the dead, and the all-encompassing and supreme position of the church. The fundamental religious change caused by Martin Luther and further developed by thinkers like Philipp Melanchthon and John Calvin created radically new  views on man, creation, labor, money, rationality, art, time, law, life and death. Luther’s theology also broke down hierarchical and binding structures and combined the renaissance focus on the individual with the biblical notion of stewardship.  The individual and the communal were balanced in a common awareness of life being lived  coram Deo, which literally means: before God, that is in responsibility towards God, neighbor and creation.

To create renewed awareness of this responsibility is the challenge for all who celebrate 500 years of Reformation. This responsibility should be taught in churches, in schools, in families, in companies. Amidst all factors that play a role in the 16th century reformations, the heart of the matter was Luther´s new theology, and just as Luther and the Reformation demonstrated the power of faith in an unsurpassing way, there would not have been a reformation nor would there have been other reformations without this central issue of justification. For it is justification by grace that creates in us that awareness of responsibility. If this fundamental item which Luther called ´iustititia aliena´, justification that is foreign to us as we receive it from the Lord, if this item is ignored, not only is the reformation misunderstood, but also the commemoration becomes meaningless and  gone is the topic  in which the relevance of the Reformation can be demonstrated  more than through any other topic.

Many of the most important problems of today can be traced back to religious positions and convictions and I myself am convinced that in the coming years religion will become more and more important, on a national level,but just as much globally. And here comes in the religion, the theology of the Reformation and its deep effects on society, economics, politics, culture and education.


One man in a remote town searched for God, and changed the world.

This man developed a new view on God and man, and ignited a movement of renewal and change: the Reformation.

Martin Luther, 16th Century monk, scholar and reformer, freed man from the fear of God, and defined that new freedom as living in responsibility towards mankind and creation.

This man evoked men to take responsibility towards mankind and creation. And so the movement of Reformation brought forth a new and different generation of lawmakers, teachers, businessmen, laborers, politicians and scholars

Combining the discovery of the individual with the responsibility for the communal, he opened up opportunities for personal development of gifts and talents, and encouraging individuals and groups to take social responsibility. He initiated a fundamental reorganization of education, gave long-lasting impulses to natural sciences, and laid the foundation for democratic structures in politics and society.

This man inspired individuals through the ages.

He inspired Martin Luther King, the Pilgrim Fathers, Johann Sebastian Bach, Isaac Newton, Rembrandt van Rhijn, John Calvin and Angela Merkel. To name just a few.

Martin Luther inspired people to make a change. And he can still do so today and tomorrow - as long as our message is the same as his.

[1] Hic me prorsus renatum esse sensi, et apertis portis in ipsam Paradisum intrasse.´, WA 54, 186.

[2] WA 18, 786.

[3] Cameron

[4] Friedrich Wilhelm Graf, Die Wiederkehr der Götter. Religion in der modernen Kultur, München 2004; Martin Riesebrocht, Die Rückkehr der Religionen. Fundamentalismus und der ´Kampf der Kulturen´, München 2000

[5]  For the discussion on secularization and de-christianisation see: Matthias Pohlig / Ute Lotz-Heumann / Vera Isaiasz / Ruth Schilling / Heike Bock / Stefan Ehrenpreis: Säkularisierungen in der Frühen Neuzeit. Methodische Probleme und empirische Fallstudien (= Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung; Beiheft 41), Berlin: Duncker & Humblot 2008, 9-109

[i] To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), in WA 6:404–69.

[ii] On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), in WA 7:20–38.

[iii] On the Freedom of a Christian (1520), in WA 7:21.