Reformation Update! (1517 is so 2017)
By Hans Wiersma, Augsburg University
Okay, it’s time for a little reality check here. The 95 Theses were not such a big deal after all. Sure, they made a bit of a splash when they first hit the streets. And Brother Martin gained a little fame and got into a bit of trouble because of them. But the theses themselves didn’t really ask new questions or raise new objections. Even Luther didn’t think they were all that. After 1518, the theses were sort of forgotten. In the end, Luther had bigger fish to fry. But, hey, if you want to go ahead and believe that something started on October 31, 1517, feel free. But Luther’s really big stuff—the teachings that would shake the church big time—didn’t start rolling out to the public until 1519. And the really, really big stuff landed one after the other in 1520. And then there’s Luther’s famous Here-I-Stand at Worms in 1521 and his scandalous marriage to Katharina in 1525. The point is: the really important 500th anniversaries are still to come!
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the notion that 2017 was the end of something. The German government and the German church sponsored something called the “Luther Decade.” They started it in 2008 and ended it in 2017. Dummköpfen! What they should have done is declared the “Luther Three Decades,” started it in 2017, and end it in 2046, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s death. Also to blame are the historians and other scholars who went along with the 2017 bit, writing books timed to cash in. But truth be told, these academics knew all along that the 95 theses were mainly an exercise for eggheads; they contained almost nothing of the core theology and public proclamation of the Gospel that eventually inspired and shaped Luther’s movement. Finally, the blame goes to pastors and other leaders who hyped things to such an extent that it made 2017 a very tough act for 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, etc., to follow.
Well, it’s time to put on your forward thinking caps, people. There are 500th anniversaries coming up that need celebrating—celebrating via special worship services, bratwurst feeds, and trips to Germany! For instance, this year is the 500th anniversary of the “Leipzig Debate”—the event that got the excommunication dominos falling for Luther. Today, Leipzig is one of my favorite cities in Germany. Why? Because it’s the home of the Leipzig Debate, yes, but also because it’s a wonderfully walkable major German city with a great history. For a quarter century, Leipzig was home to a little church musician we like to call Johann Sebastian Bach. A bit later on, Leipzig was home to the Monday morning prayer meetings that helped bring about the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Talk about the power of prayer! And it’s all just a quick ride from Wittenberg, home of the Luther500 festival.
If you missed the chance to visit Germany to observe the 500th anniversary of 1517, or if you made it out and want more, fret not. The Luther500 Festival is here for you!
Hans Wiersma is a Religion professor at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. His published work includes submissions in a variety of journals and books. In 2016, he completed the second edition of Jim Kittelson’s Luther the Reformer. In 2017, Hans’s work appeared in four different resources on the theology of Martin Luther, including The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther. Hans has also contributed to a variety of popular religion-themed books and curricula, including Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.
Hans is an ordained Lutheran pastor; prior to joining Augsburg’s faculty in 2004, he served congregations in the Netherlands, California, and Minnesota. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, Kristin, and children, Jacob, Elianna, Garret, and Marielle.