Luther—A New Force for Unity?
Normally one would expect the 1,950th anniversary of an event of great importance to get more attention than the 500th anniversary of another event of lesser importance. Yet during 1983, the 1,950th anniversary year of the death of Jesus Christ, the Founder of Christianity, went largely unnoticed in Christendom. Not so, however, the 500th anniversary of the birth of one of his proclaimed followers, Martin Luther. This latter anniversary particularly commanded the headlines in those countries where the world’s 70 million Lutherans live. During the Luther Year many celebrations, conferences and displays were held, one of which had over 600 paintings, sculptures, graphic drawings and documents on display.
LUTHER’S impact upon German culture is undeniably great, although probably less known—at least outside Germany—than the one he made on religious history. Excepting Jesus Christ, this impact is probably much greater than that of any other man upon the German-speaking world. The East Berlin Neue Berliner Illustrierte, for example, claims that “Luther’s translation of the Bible revolutionized Europe’s intellectual life, shaped generations and determined their deliberations and decisions.”
From the profusion of dialects that existed in his day, Luther virtually created the standard German now spoken. He also significantly contributed to the foundation of what later became public grammar schools. He made a tremendous contribution to the cause of the united German state that later came into being. But his religious activities mainly overshadowed these cultural contributions, bringing about a religious division that still exists.
Once Again a Force for Unity
Recent attempts, however, to point up Luther’s cultural contributions have turned him once again into a symbol of unity. Luther Year celebrations were held both in the Federal Republic of Germany and in the German Democratic Republic (DDR)*. The DDR paperback entitled Martin Luther und seine Zeit (Martin Luther and His Times) speaks of him as “one of the great personalities of global reputation” who made a lasting impression upon Germany and Europe. It says: “Because of the outstanding significance for German and world history and because the majority of places where Martin Luther worked are located within the territory of the German Democratic Republic, the DDR has a special obligation to cultivate Luther’s inheritance and to honor Martin Luther on the occasion of his 500th birthday.”
Although the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic are disunited politically, the Luther Year celebrations served to remind them of their common heritage and the contributions that Luther had made to it. This did not go unrecognized by the Federal Republic’s president, Karl Carstens. Speaking at the opening of the above-mentioned exhibition in Nuremberg, he said that Luther had ceased being a “symbol of division.” In fact, “Luther has become a symbol of unity of all Germany,” he said. “We are all Luther’s heirs.”
But if Luther was being seized upon as a symbol of political unity, what about the religious disunity that he had helped bring about? Was this simply being overlooked? Evidently not, as the following press reports indicate.
“The anniversary year has not torn open a new gap between Lutherans and Catholics. To the contrary: cultural events, discussions and literature, as far as we can determine, have brought forth ecumenical fruitage.”—Nürnberger Nachrichten.
“Indeed, as the reformer who fractured Christianity, Luther has latterly become a key to reuniting it.”—Time.
To understand this unexpected development, we must briefly review how Luther brought about disunity in the first place.
Luther—A Force for Disunity
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk and a Catholic priest. Even as a young man he began questioning various Catholic teachings. He also found fault with what he considered to be ecclesiastical evils and distortions. The scandalous selling of indulgences by the archbishop of Mainz, for example, particularly raised his ire. Had the Catholic Church immediately addressed these criticisms and perhaps made certain reforms, the Reformation might never have taken place.
However, Luther was maneuvered by events into an ever stronger position of opposition. On October 31, 1517, (as tradition has it) he nailed to the church door at Wittenberg 95 theses exposing wrong teachings of the church. Then in 1520 he published the pamphlets “An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” and “The Liberty of a Christian Man.” Each became stronger in its criticism. A papal bull threatened Luther with excommunication. On December 10, 1520, he defiantly burned this papal bull. In 1521 at the Diet of Worms he refused to retract, whereupon he was declared an outlaw in the Holy Roman Empire and was forced into hiding. While protected by friends he found time to finish his translation of the “New Testament.” This was in the fall of 1522. By 1534 he had completed translating the “Old Testament,” now making, for the first time, his entire Bible available in German. With its history of opposition to Bible translations in the vernacular, the Catholic hierarchy did not greet this with pleasure. By now the break between Catholics and Lutherans was complete.
Before such a person as Luther could ever be viewed as a force for unity, there would have to be a considerable change in attitudes. Such a change has now taken place.
A Change of Heart
According to the Rheinische Post, “the Catholic view of Luther has . . . undergone an astonishing change. For Roman Catholics the Reformer has been upgraded from an accursed heretic to a father in belief.” To which Cologne’s Cardinal Höffner, during a speech at a Lutheran anniversary ceremony in Worms, added that the Protestant and the Catholic views of Luther could no longer be used to drive a wedge between them.
As far back as 1967, Protestant theologian Walther von Loewenich observed: “There is a growing affection for Luther among German Catholic theologians that would put a Lutheran to shame.” And now, in a letter to Cardinal Jan Willebrands of the Netherlands, even the Catholic pope has added his voice, speaking of Luther’s “deep religiousness.” This and other conciliatory commentary about Luther made in the pope’s letter caused Rome newspapers to hail it as a “historical turning point in the relationship between Catholics and Protestants.”
Sunday, December 11, 1983, was another first. Never before in history had a pope delivered a sermon to a Lutheran congregation in Rome’s Lutheran church. “We yearn for unity, and we are working for unity,” he told his audience, speaking in German. “In the year commemorating the birth of Martin Luther five centuries ago, we believe to be able to see in the distance the morning light of the advent of reunification.”
Will Religious Unity Be Achieved?
“Whether the pope’s appearance in Rome’s [Lutheran church] can be considered a milestone in the ecumenical movement, or whether this historical gesture will remain nothing more than just that—a gesture—who of us can judge now?” This was the question raised by Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Regardless of whether this proves to be a milestone on the road to reunification or not, another question of importance is: why this sudden and unexpected willingness to reunite?
There are undoubtedly several factors involved—the general drop in religious interest and the loss of religious authority and influence, for example. Both Catholicism and Protestantism are facing a crisis. Antichurch and antireligious sentiments are growing. Organized religion seems to be falling apart. Secularization is on the march. Reunion is seen as a means of stemming the tide.
According to press reports, George Lindbeck, cochairman of an international Lutheran-Catholic commission, believes that without Luther and his Reformation “religion would have been much less important during the next 400 to 500 years. And since medieval religion was falling apart, secularization would have marched on, unimpeded.” This is a fascinating supposition, because it means that the same Luther who served to perpetuate organized religion back there by being a force for disunity is today being seized upon as a force for unity.
This view is of particular interest to Christians familiar with Bible prophecies foretelling the destruction of organized false religion under the symbol of Babylon the Great. (See Revelation, chapters 17 and 18.) This destruction was foretold to occur at a time period of human history that could not begin before 1914, certainly not back in Luther’s day. So Luther’s Reformation contributed to keeping organized religion “in the saddle” until God’s foreordained time to take action against it.
Real Christian Unity
Christian unity is desirable, and the Bible encourages us to maintain it. “Now I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.”—1 Corinthians 1:10.
However, unity is genuine only when based upon the solid foundation of truth, not upon opportunistic compromising. Real Christian unity requires following the Scriptural advice Paul gave the Philippian Christians: “Unitedly become imitators of me, brothers, and keep your eye on those who are walking in a way that accords with the example you have in us.”—Philippians 3:17.
Is the Catholic Church today “walking in a way that accords with the example” we find in Paul and in the other early Christians? Is the church imitating them in doctrine, in conduct and in the setting of life’s priorities? And what about the Lutheran Church? Certainly every Catholic and Lutheran owes it to himself to find out just how his church is measuring up in this regard.
There is no doubt that global unity will come. Bible prophecy promises it, in a governmental as well as in a religious way. Governmental unity will be achieved by replacing today’s political system with God’s heavenly government, for which Christ taught his followers to pray: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.” (Matthew 6:10) This government “will never be brought to ruin,” promises Daniel 2:44. Rather, under Christ’s rule, “it will crush and put an end to all these [other] kingdoms [or governments], and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” Under that Kingdom all mankind will, through Christ, come to be united in worship of the one true God.
The basis for governmental and religious unity was therefore laid at Christ’s death, the 1,950th anniversary of which was celebrated on Tuesday, March 29, 1983. The 500th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther’s birth, on the other hand, while of passing interest, holds no lasting promise of global unity, either governmental or religious.
Learn more about today’s real force for unity—God’s Kingdom. The publishers of this magazine will be pleased to supply additional information on request, or you may ask one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
These are the official and correct names for what many refer to as West Germany and East Germany.
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The Luther Year helped make Luther a symbol of political unity for all Germany
FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY
GERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC