Martin Luther’s in­flu­ence still strong in Texas

With 95 Th­e­ses, priest wasn’t afraid to speak truth to power

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUTLOOK - By Dou­glas Kren­gel

On Oct. 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Th­e­ses to the Cas­tle Church door in Wit­ten­berg, Ger­many. What this Ro­man Catholic priest did may seem dis­tant and in­signif­i­cant to many half a mil­len­nia later — if it is re­mem­bered at all. How­ever, these words of a de­ter­mined monk de­vel­oped into a pe­riod in his­tory called the Re­for­ma­tion — an era that has pro­vided Hous­ton many bless­ings. Those of us who live in Texas, those of us who speak Span­ish, those of us who read our Bi­ble in our mother tongue, those of us who at­tended pub­lic schools — or Lutheran schools — those of us who en­joy con­gre­ga­tional singing, we who re­ceive both the bread/ body and wine/blood in Holy Com­mu­nion — for all such peo­ple, Oct. 31 is a mean­ing­ful day. These as­pects of our com­mu­nity life, and many more, were af­fected by the Re­for­ma­tion. Five hun­dred years of Re­for­ma­tion his­tory is worth cel­e­brat­ing be­cause the de­bates, coun­cils, pa­pal de­crees, im­pe­rial man­dates and mil­i­tary ac­tions from the time of the Re­for­ma­tion still af­fect ev­ery Amer­i­can cit­i­zen to­day.

Just four years after Luther posted his Th­e­ses with the in­tent of fos­ter­ing lo­cal schol­arly de­bate, Guten­berg’s print­ing press spread Luther’s the­o­ries all over Europe, spark­ing an in­ter­na­tional re­li­gious cri­sis. Sud­denly, the then-un­known Bi­ble pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Wit­ten­berg was an en­emy of Charles V, who, as Holy Ro­man Em­peror, ruled over much of Europe and lands far be­yond. In fact, Charles V’s au­thor­ity in­cluded the very ground Hous­to­ni­ans call home, mak­ing the bayou city it­self part of the story of the Re­for­ma­tion.

Mean­while, on April 18, 1521, in the city of Worms, Ger­many, Luther stood be­fore The Golden One (as Charles V was known) and re­fused to re­cant his Th­e­ses un­less they were shown to be in er­ror by rea­son or by proof from the Holy Bi­ble. Paul Robin­son noted in his re­cent bi­og­ra­phy, “Martin Luther: A Life Re­formed,” that Luther in­formed the em­peror he was

“bound by the Scrip­tures I have quoted, and my con­science is cap­tive to the Word of God. I can­not and I will not re­tract any­thing, since it is nei­ther safe nor right to go against con­science. I can­not do oth­er­wise. Here I stand, may God help me.”

In Luther’s words we find an ex­treme ex­am­ple of truth be­ing spo­ken to power. Here in the words of this hum­ble Au­gus­tinian monk from a small vil­lage in Ger­many, we dis­cover a model of a con­sci­en­tious pro­tester. The Ger­man princes present at Luther’s hear­ing be­fore Charles V rec­og­nized the power of his words and, thus, were in­spired to for­mally protest for their re­li­gious rights in the form of the so-called Augs­burg Con­fes­sion of 1530. From that time on, such peo­ple of faith would be called Protes­tants. After 25 years of ad­di­tional coun­cils, col­lo­quies and mil­i­tary ac­tions, the 1555 Peace of Augs­burg ush­ered in a Europe that of­fi­cially was re­li­giously di­verse.

Ded­i­cat­ing him­self to a small Latin phrase, plus ul­tra (mean­ing “still fur­ther”), Charles V was send­ing his Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores, along with Ro­man Catholic pri­ests, on mis­sions to spread the Ro­man Catholic faith in the New World. These “mis­sion­ar­ies” came to what is now Texas in 1519, the year Charles V as­cended to the im­pe­rial throne, co­erc­ing na­tive pop­u­la­tions to change their spo­ken lan­guage to Span­ish as they spread Catholi­cism. This is why so many Tex­ans speak Span­ish to­day. Be­cause of Luther, many mod­ern Protes­tant prac­tices also spread through­out the New World.

Dur­ing the pe­riod be­tween 1517 and 1555, Luther was ex­com­mu­ni­cated by Pope Leo X and was listed as an of­fi­cial en­emy of the state; yet, be­cause of po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion pro­vided by the Protes­tant princes, Luther was able to de­velop one of his most im­por­tant re­forms: trans­la­tion of the Bi­ble from Latin into verses peo­ple could read in their own lan­guages — a priv­i­lege peo­ple around the world en­joy to­day.

Be­yond pro­vid­ing a read­able ver­sion of the Bi­ble, Luther rec­og­nized that the pop­u­la­tion was in great need of ed­u­ca­tion. Luther ad­dressed this is­sue by call­ing upon the princes to pay for ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion for both boys and girls. To­day, this legacy lives on in the free pub­lic schools, as well as in parochial schools, such as the many Lutheran pri­mary and sec­ondary schools that serve our com­mu­nity.

Of course, Martin Luther was fore­most a priest and a pas­tor. When he found that lit­tle was be­ing taught in churches about the Bi­ble, Je­sus Christ or the Gospel, Luther led a move­ment to al­low church con­gre­gants — rather than just the choir and priest — to wor­ship through the singing of hymns. He fur­ther­more helped end the com­mon prac­tice in which the priest alone drank from the Holy Com­mu­nion chal­ice and par­took of the bread/body of Christ. We are re­minded when we raise our voices in song and re­ceive com­mu­nion that these rites re­flect the ef­fects of the Re­for­ma­tion 500 years after the orig­i­nal re­forms were sanc­tioned.

Those re­mark­able re­forms af­fect many be­yond the church, as well. For ex­am­ple, 236 years after the Peace of Augs­burg came the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. The first of these amend­ments es­tab­lished the right to a free press and free­dom of re­li­gion, two priv­i­leges that came about with great pain for Luther, but which to­day are our le­gal birthrights.

We have much to honor 500 years after the Re­for­ma­tion, from the lan­guage we speak here, to the way we wor­ship, to how we ed­u­cate our chil­dren in schools and in re­li­gious life, not to men­tion the foun­da­tional doc­u­ments of our democ­racy. As a Lutheran pas­tor, I urge Hous­to­ni­ans to take part in any num­ber of the many cel­e­bra­tions of the legacy of the Re­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing cul­tural and spir­i­tual ob­ser­vances. I ex­pect that one re­sult will be the dis­cov­ery that “Hous­ton Strong” and Martin Luther’s strength hold a great deal in com­mon.

Dou­glas Kren­gel

The church doors in Wit­ten­berg, Ger­many, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Th­e­ses 500 years ago, spark­ing re­li­gious and cul­tural ef­fects still felt to­day.

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