In 2009, my colleague Theodor Dieter and I started teaching a two-week course every November on Luther’s theology, for Lutheran pastors from all over the world, in no less venerable a location than Wittenberg itself. We approached the first year with post-Christendom and post-colonial qualms. Did Luther have anything to say to people anymore? Was it pure anachronistic antiquarianism on our part still to love him? Did we have any business inflicting Luther on Africans struggling with malaria and tremendous political violence, or on Asians negotiating a level of religious plurality unimaginable to North Atlantic Christians like ourselves?
Over the past six years, we have been astonished—and certainly relieved—to find that Luther sounds as contemporaneous as ever. The force of the response is the same year after year. Some participants meet afresh a Luther who cuts through the obfuscating fuddle of five centuries of Lutheranism. Others discover a new guide to ancient religious problems that took shape outside the orbit of European culture. Luther’s way of speaking the gospel—of Christ as gift and sacrament before he is example and teacher—transgresses the obstacles of the centuries with astounding ease.
As this experience repeated itself with every passing year, we looked for a way to extend it beyond our wonderful fortnights in autumnal east Germany. We also wanted to deal with the resilient misinformation that continues to cloud our favorite reformer from view. We have heard it all, so many times over. Luther the first modern man, champion of conscience. Luther the proto-Nazi and forefather of the Holocaust. Luther the heresiarch, divider of the church, singlehandedly wrecking the medieval synthesis; or, in diametrical opposition, Luther the repristinator of the lost purity of the apostolic ekklesia. Luther’s commendation of faith turned into the limitless greed of the prosperity gospel, his teaching on the Lord’s Supper erroneously nicknamed “consubstantiation,” his two-kingdoms doctrine condemned as flabby quietism or invoked to defend any number of mutually contradictory political agendas.
Faced with such challenges, what do good Lutherans do? They head ad fontes, back to the sources.
Luckily, we are today in the midst of a social media revolution as dramatic as the pamphleteering racket of Luther’s day. We do love paper, but it has its physical (and financial) limitations, so at risk of bibliographic docetism that we have warmly embraced the gnostic universality of the internet with the launch of the Luther Reading Challenge. Just one month old, the Challenge invites a virtual community to gather in reading and discussing Luther’s seminal writings, from now until October 2017.
Inevitably, the Challenge begins with the beginning of the Reformation itself, namely the Ninety-Five Theses. But as ecumenists we have grown a bit skeptical of the tendency on all sides of this half-millennium-old dispute to focus on the disagreements. It’s not that these are irrelevant, but they do tend to serve a certain agenda justifying ongoing Christian division. And they obscure other, less famous aspects of Luther: the pastor concerned with the care of souls, the exegete, the friend and prolific letter-writer, the husband and father, the hymnist, even—in the words of Cardinal Jan Willebrands—a “doctor communis,” a term Catholics reserve for Thomas Aquinas. Luther fought, but his theology didn’t depend on an enemy to make its case. Its purpose was to witness to the unexpected, unmerited, unequivocal love of God for sinful people. Our choices of texts reflect that alternate vision of Luther.
One goal of the Luther Reading Challenge is to inject better knowledge of Luther into what will undoubtedly be a noisy and contentious public approach to the jubilee in 2017. But it equally reflects an old Lutheran, and Christian, conviction that reading is a good in itself, that a written word can be a living Word, that, while education can’t cure all ills, it sure can go a long way toward alleviating them. It’s hard to avoid the impression that the demands of the current-day parish and its parishioners have little use for clergy who read and reflect. Hospital visits, fundraising, paperwork, Sunday morning liturgy: that’s real work. Sitting alone in an office struggling to understand an arcane book is a leisure-time activity for when the crisis has passed—except the crisis never passes and the clergy never have any leisure.
I had already made a stab at defending the spiritual good of reading with a Theological Reading Challenge over the past two years and a plea for deep reading in the church by clergy and laity alike. It was a natural step to merge the desire to improve knowledge of Luther with the desire to give Christian people permission not only to feed others but to nourish their own souls as well. And that is our invitation: read Luther—not to take sides, and certainly not to justify yourself or your church or the compromised history that all Christians share—but to meet a sinner of ages past who knew and loved and constantly wrote about the good news of Jesus Christ.