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Reformation 500 at Steeple Aston

On Sunday October 29th the United Benefice along with friends from Tackley Methodists welcomed Dr Steven Gunn, professor of Early Modern History at Merton College Oxford, as he spoke to us on the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation.

The service was marked with words of Martin Luther on prayer and forgiveness, peace and blessing, and we are very grateful to Dr Gunn for allowing us to publish the full text of his sermon here:

Five hundred years ago, in a small town in Germany, a largely unknown professor of theology in a recently founded university issued a challenge to academic debate. Such events were not unusual, but this one is being commemorated around the world this year. For the professor was Martin Luther and the announcement of his controversial 95 theses is generally taken to mark the start of the Reformation, a sweeping movement of change and renewal that shaped the church across western Europe and eventually far beyond.

In the years of study, argument and experiment that followed, Luther and his allies came to focus on a number of issues over which they thought the prevalent teaching and practice of the church of their day to be wrong-headed and dangerous; at their most vehement they denounced some of it as anti-Christian. The medieval church, they thought, had too often given the impression that people could win God’s favour and forgiveness of their sins by their own good works. Some of these acts of merit might be as crass as paying money to the church authorities in return for grants of indulgences, the issue which first sparked Luther’s anger in 1517.

Picking up on the teaching of great theologians of the early church like St Augustine and leaning heavily on the letters of St Paul, the reformers taught that sin was far too serious for that. Only by the grace of God, granting to us, who had no righteousness of our own, the righteousness of Christ, could we be saved. And that grace was accessed not by good works or by the repetition of the church’s rituals, not even by the holiest mystery of all, the mass, but by faith. Here were two of the great ‘only’ statements into which Luther’s teaching is sometimes organised: salvation only by grace, received only though faith. For Luther and his colleagues proof texts leapt out of Paul’s letters to hammer these insights home: Ephesians 2: 8-9, for example, ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one can boast.’

A third ‘only’ underpinned these conclusions. When Christians disagreed – as the pope and many others rapidly disagreed with Luther and his supporters – then the only authoritative source of teaching was not the church’s inherited traditions or its established structure of office-holders, from the priest in his parish to the pope at Rome, but the Bible. Here the reformers pointed people to the reverence shown by the Old Testament people of God to the teaching of his law. We, they thought, should be like the people of Israel returning from exile in our reading from Nehemiah, rejoicing to hear the law of the Lord, but powerfully convicted by it of our own unworthiness before God. Like the author of today’s psalm, we should ‘delight’ in God’s decrees and ‘not neglect’ his word. We should, as Paul urged the Colossians, ‘let the word of Christ dwell in’ us ‘richly’.

For Luther these theological principles soon pointed to changes desirable in the life and worship of the church. The Bible should be available in the language of the people, not locked up in Latin, and worship too should be comprehensible. Luther latched onto injunctions like that we heard from Colossians, ‘sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God’ and wrote hymns in everyday language set to catchy folk tunes so that people could sing their way into an understanding of God’s great truths. We sang one of these hymns of Luther’s, ‘Our God stands like a Fortress Rock’, earlier. Preaching was vital to explain the Bible’s message to the people and issue God’s call to faith, and so, while the clergy should no longer be a separate caste dispensing God’s grace to his people, it was important to have educated ministers who could study the Bible and preach its truths to their flocks. The church hierarchy of pope, bishops and comfortably-resourced monasteries could clearly not be trusted to implement such changes, so kings, princes and town councils, who, the Bible taught, had been appointed by God for the good of their subjects, should be encouraged to reform the church in the areas where they ruled.

Luther’s teachings spread fast across Germany and well beyond. They were carried by the great new technology of the age, the printing press, and by committed and dramatic, sometimes rabble-rousing, preaching. They were aided by the sense among the young and learned that the rediscovery of the true gospel of the early church was just as exciting and even more important than the rediscovery of the wisdom, the wit and the artistic sophistication of ancient Greece and Rome, what we call the Renaissance, which was running fast at the same time. Reformation ideas were, we should admit, welcomed by some ordinary layfolk because they promised to take the self-important clergy down a peg and by some rulers because they promised to extend princely power.

It was both a weakness of his movement and a useful source of adaptability in a variegated Europe that Luther, unlike say Thomas Aquinas or Calvin, did not have a gift for setting out his theological insights in systematic works. He threw off pamphlets, hymns, letters, even dinnertime one-liners collected by his loyal friends and published as his ‘table-talk’, but it was left to others to put together doctrinal treatises, church ordinances and orders of service best suited to the different churches they served in different parts of Germany, in Eastern Europe and the Scandinavian kingdoms. Luther’s fellow-Protestants were particularly independent-minded in Switzerland, where many of the local reformers claimed to be acting entirely on their own initiative rather than following Luther and his north German friends.

All these features of the developing Reformation movement can be seen in its impact here in England. Luther’s works were on sale in Oxford bookshops by 1520 and his example inspired William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English at a time when such translations were illegal. Rising English university men, theological scholars like Thomas Cranmer and lively preachers like Hugh Latimer, were gradually drawn to Luther’s teaching, but it was the determination of King Henry VIII to take charge of the church and the preparedness of leading laymen to back him, sweetened by confiscated church lands, that gave them the chance to put those ideas into practice. At first Henry needed independence from Rome to solve the problem of the succession to his throne by the annulment of his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon and the endorsement of his second, a favour the pope would not grant. But Henry soon grew sure that God wanted kings to govern their people in spiritual matters as well as earthly and came to see himself as an English King David. Henry never accepted many of Luther’s key doctrines, but he licensed an official English Bible based on Tyndale’s translation and he left Cranmer and his colleagues to equip the Church of England under his children Edward VI and Elizabeth with an English Book of Common Prayer and a set of reformed doctrinal formulations, the thirty-nine articles. These included bold statements along Luther’s lines that, for example, ‘we are justified by faith only’, that ‘Holy scripture containeth all things necessary for salvation’, and that worship should not be conducted ‘in a tongue not understanded of the people’.

Luther thought that he must be living in the last days, that his struggle for reform was so momentous that it must be apocalyptic, part of the events predicted in passages like that we heard from Matthew’s gospel. Time proved him wrong, or perhaps we are all living in the last days and have been since St Augustine’s time or even before that. With the hindsight denied to Luther we can see that much went right with the Reformation. Not only were many men and women stirred up to fresh consideration of Christian truth and fresh commitment to Christian service in the churches shaped by Luther’s insights; his challenge also sparked change in the churches that stayed loyal to Rome. Some reaction to Luther was negative, in the index of prohibited books, in the burnings of reformers, Cranmer among them, that marked Queen Mary’s reign in England. But some was inspirational, in the focused spirituality and missionary dedication of Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits, in the Douai-Rheims Bible translation and the resolute persistence of the English Catholics. In cultural terms too Luther’s legacy was great. His Bible translation shaped the modern German language and the music of Bach is hard to imagine without the Lutheran musical tradition that shaped him. In England too, it was not just imported Lutherans like Handel but home-grown products of reformed religion from Bunyan and Milton to Wesley, Wilberforce and beyond who shaped our national life.

Much also went wrong with the Reformation. Luther did not have a great talent for agreeing to disagree. His grumpy fallings out with those who pressed for yet more radical reforms of church and society, with Anabaptists who set up gathered churches and with the Zürich reformer Huldrich Zwingli who led the Swiss to a different understanding of the Eucharist from Luther’s, helped give the Protestant churches the fractured and fractious air they have retained to this day. On the wider scale the destructive side of the purification of traditional religion sometimes got the better of the constructive side, leaving churches full of headless statues but parishioners none the wiser. The quest for holiness sometimes produced Christians who were unattractively holier-than-thou and the drive for moral regeneration could turn into the kind of social control that told the poor to turn up for work on time and not waste their money on beer. The hope for a learned clergy could produce vicars who preached straight over people’s heads and the stress on ardent Bible study could leave the illiterate behind, with no apparent hope of being proper Christians.

All these problems were evident in the English Reformation, but sharper issues still presented themselves in Germany. It was a great Lutheran pastor of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who diagnosed the ready perversion of Luther’s teaching on the freedom of God’s grace to us into an acceptance of what he called ‘cheap grace’, a sense that we can take God’s forgiveness for granted and forget precisely those aspects of the grievousness of sin, the wonder of God’s mercy and the duties of discipleship that so struck Luther himself. Some would argue for larger and grimmer consequences still, that Luther’s bitterness towards the Jews for their rejection of Christ and his readiness to concede power over the consciences of Germans to princes and their states laid the foundations for Germany’s terrible twentieth century.

The Reformation experience poses questions for us today. How good are we at debating with our fellow Christians with passion but without rancour? How do we know when we are attached to our traditions just because they are our traditions, or when we should be ready for God to teach us something new? How good are we at explaining to people that it is bad to be bad but that being good is never enough to earn God’s favour? How good are we at explaining any of God’s truths to people who are not used to listening to lectures or maybe to reading books? How good are we at adapting popular culture – like the folk-song tunes of Luther’s hymns – to convey the Christian message? Looking back we may think that Luther and his generation only got some of these questions half-right, but we should ask ourselves if we manage even that. And we should remind ourselves afresh of the power of Luther’s insights into the riches of scripture, the seriousness of sin, the sufficiency of Christ, and the majesty and the mercy of our God.

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