For many years, I taught Reformation history as part of the Course of Study School at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas. I didn’t want the course. My interests were medieval and contemporary, not the stodgy theological arguments of Luther and Calvin. But there was a year when the regular faculty member couldn’t teach it. I took it over for a summer and ended up staying with it for over a decade. Me in the ultimate dead white guys course.
I tried to stir things up by being a contrarian. I started the first session each year with three “radical suggestions”:
- Reforms in the Church started a long time before Martin Luther (supposedly) tacked up his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517,
- Medieval Catholicism was the source of great spiritual comfort and dynamic theological thought, even into the 16th century, and
- The Reformation was so diverse and its characters so distinct that it is more appropriate to talk about a plural “Reformations.”
I think there are interesting things to explore with each of those statements, and so I did each summer with willing and interesting groups of local pastors from across the south central region. We had debates in character over disputed theological points from the period and they are among my favorite memories from teaching. If I do say so myself, we brought the Reformation to life, redeeming it from its musty reputation.
So this week, as we observe the 500th anniversary of Luther’s most iconic act, I am appreciating what I learned in teaching. I see the period that produced modern Protestantism as a mixture of promise and failure, like most human eras. The downsides were dramatic: the further fragmentation of the Christian Church, a wave of religious violence and persecution that produced large-scale suffering and death, and a Protestant-Catholic split that is only just beginning to heal.
But the Reformations also unleashed and uncovered latent capacities within the human spirit and the Christian Church. In both Protestant and Catholic circles, learning and literacy flourished and new universities were formed. Reformers reclaimed the centrality of Scripture as a source of continuing vitality and inspiration for the Church. Dramatically new forms of Christian community and mission emerged, and though some went off the rails in their novelty, others were both faithful to the tradition and necessary for the times. Our own Methodist movement, though it came along 200 years later, was part of that explosion of organizational creativity.
Phyllis Tickle gets the credit for popularizing the saying, but she quotes Anglican bishop Mark Dyer when she notes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.” In her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, Tickle stated her belief that we are in the midst of the latest shake-up in the Church, sorting through what needs to stay and what needs to go.
Grudgingly I acknowledge that Tickle’s optimism about that process comes in part from something I never used to believe the Reformation had—dynamism. Luther, Calvin, Menno Simons, Wesley, and all the unnamed women and men who made the Reformations what they were may have descended into the history books and receded into our minds as dusty caricatures, but they believed there was something vital in the Christian movement that could still be accessed when we tutor ourselves in the Living Word. Having lived with them in the classroom and with my great students through the years, I believe that, too.