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Martin Luther: Civil Libertarian?

 

Presenters:

Rev. Jeff Pederson, Lutheran Church of Peace (ELCA)-Platteville

Mike Trinklein, Writer and Producer of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: An Idea that Changed the World

 

Overview

Rev. Pederson offered a chronological summary of Luther’s life, from birth to death, his education, writings, and interest in finding peace with God, mentioning also Romans 1:16-17, “The just will live by faith” and how these words changed Luther.  The reason for the Reformation, stated Pederson, was the timing, as the times were that of change.

Trinklein, referencing the previous summary of Luther’s life and activity, presented on what I would call the worldly/secular results of Luther and the Reformation. The presentation itself was engaging and drew attention to what Trinklein considered the reasons for a number of the freedoms we have today in the U.S., including especially freedom of speech, free press, minority rights, right to education, separation of church and state (noting, however, that this is not identical with the teaching concerning the “two kingdoms”), and individualism (i.e. of religion).

 

Evaluation of the content

luther1Pederson, in his chronological overview of Luther, noted key events of the Reformation and that which led up to it, including Luther’s vow to become a monk, studies, “tower experience,” 95 theses (referencing their posting, but not stating any, 1517), debates (i.e. Erfurt), Diets of Worms (1521), Marburg (1529) and Augsburg (1530).  Pederson also spoke briefly about the circumstances of that time period, which were that of change.  It is that “time of change,” stated Pederson, that was the reason for the Reformation.

Such a time, I would argue, was not the reason for the Reformation.  The reason for the Reformation was God’s doing, not Luther’s or merely the timing itself.  Luther and time had something to do with it, to be sure, but only on account of God’s working through these for His purposes.

Such a statement is that of faith, recognizing God’s work in the world through the work of man and time for the clear preaching of the Gospel.  Why that time and that place?  God knows. A closer look at Luther’s writings reveal that it was not Luther’s reformation, but God’s, as God’s Word was clearly articulated and made known, in contrast to the corrupted teaching of the Roman church and others (i.e. Zwingli, radical reformers).

The second presenter, Trinklein, had mentioned Luther’s focus as an interest in ‘right relationship with God’ (historically not a Lutheran statement), but he took much greater pains to emphasize, not Luther’s theological endeavor, but the secular results/effects (i.e. changes), even going so far to (immediately/directly?) link Luther and his personality to the freedoms experienced today as we have them in our American context.

Thinking about this, the statement could be made that Luther’s example of how he “stood up” to the ecclesiastical and ruling authorities, his emphasis on education, his use oLuther-God speak.jpgf the media (i.e. printing press), and his forthright speaking to the issues of the day were precursors of our freedoms today, though such freedoms were not in place in Luther’s day as they are ours.

Considering Luther as a precedent for American Freedoms, however, apart from the historical connections, seems a bit presumptuous.  Trinklein offered little or no direct line of historical continuum between Luther and the Reformation to our day (i.e. historical legislation noting that our freedoms were a direct result of Luther).  He had mentioned, though, that the father of Mike King, having learned of Martin Luther while in Germany, changed his son’s name from Mike to Martin Luther as a result of his work in the Reformation.

Such a connection, if used to link Luther to current civil rights issues, is misplaced, as the father of Mike King, as presented, took to Luther on account of the freedoms derived from the movement rather than on account of what Luther was actually preaching, teaching, and writing according to the Word.

This was the grand omission of Trinklein’s presentation and to a large degree, the deficiency of the PBS documentary, “Martin Luther: An Idea that Changed the World.”

Minimizing the very words that Luther spoke and wrote in order to draw attention to the “bigger picture” of societal change, or to see Luther primarily as the catalyst and example for change, is to misunderstood Luther and to present a caricature of Luther that is not accurate. Though Trinklein (and others) see Luther primarily as one who “set in motion societal change” and some current American civil liberties, such a limited view not only distorts the contribution of the Reformer, but gives precedent to the worldly while giving lip service to the heavenly.

LutherPreachingLuther’s interest was that of the Gospel.  What was opposed to it in the church, Luther wanted reformed.  Luther hadn’t set out to “change the world.”  His interests were theological.  His oral and written words derived from this interest, and such was the foundation for what he wrote and spoke.

To relegate Luther and His interest in God’s Word and the very Gospel itself to mention, while at the same time emphasizing the possible results of such work, societally and secularly, but not theologically, is to use Luther as a means to one’s desired end.

Rather than champion Luther as a “civil libertarian,” read his writings.  The freedom that the Gospel speaks of is not temporal liberty from worldly oppression and peace in the world.  More significantly, and eternally, the Gospel revealed in the Bible, and that which Luther proclaimed, frees the conscience and declares peace with God and freedom from sin’s penalty, which is eternal death, through the death of Jesus Christ.

Whether freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to education, etc. exist or not, the Gospel cannot and will not be silenced.  American Christians do not rejoice for primarily the freedoms of this world.  They rejoiromans 1-16ce in sins forgiven through Christ and the certainty of their eternal inheritance.

Emphasizing the freedoms of this world and downplaying the true freedom of and in the Gospel (before God and man) is the way of the world.  It is not the way of the Lord Christ. Nor was it the concern of Luther.

 

Link to presentation on the campus of UW-Platteville

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