Luther decade opened

Hans Rollmann
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A few weeks ago, in the historic Castle Church of Wittenberg in Saxony, Lutherans from all over the world opened the "Luther Decade," celebrations that coincide with Martin Luther's (1483-1546) arrival in Wittenberg 500 years ago in 1508 and commemorate the achievement and global significance of the German reformer. Nine years later, on 31 October 1517, Luther not only castigated the abuses of indulgence sellers with his "95 theses" but also offered a new understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Ushering in the modern age, Luther held that the individual, not the institutional church, stood at the center of God's relationship with humankind.
According to his friend Philipp Melanchthon, Luther posted his sharply profiled theological arguments on the door of that same Castle Church. This signal event in Luther's life took place while he lectured as a brilliant interpreter of the Bible in Wittenberg University, living together with other monks in the local Augustinian monastery and serving as pastor and father confessor in local churches.
Wittenberg and its university were places of pride for the leader of Electoral Saxony, Prince Frederick the Wise. This Saxon ruler also protected Luther and kept him alive during the early and uncertain years of the Reformation, enabling the movement for reform to gain momentum.

New Religious Insight
I visited Wittenberg shortly after the reunification of Germany and saw the monastery in which the reformer lived together with his wife Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and their family. The city still exhibited the drab grey colour into which all East German cities and villages appeared to be dipped during the Communist period. Earlier, in that monastery, Luther had experienced his so-called "breakthrough," the insight that individuals could not be saved by their own merits but only by the grace of God.
Meditating on a passage in the letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans, "The righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, the righteous shall live by faith," Luther finally made the connection between faith, grace, and justification and found an answer to his troubling question: How could he, a sinner, ever be accepted by God? Up to that point, Luther had seen God's righteousness as a punishing judgment of sinners. Now he read the text of Paul in an entirely different light as a hopeful answer to a very personal problem, that righteousness was a gift of God "by which the merciful God justifies us through faith."
This new understanding of God's acceptance of the sinner through the gift of his grace changed for Luther the whole face of Scripture and set the Reformation in motion. Luther would remain in Wittenberg even after his defiant stand before emperor and nobles at the Diet of Worms and subsequent seclusion in the Wartburg castle, where he also translated the New Testament into German.

Fallible Individual
Although Luther became a global icon of Protestantism and in recent years has once more won recognition as the "most famous German," his work and persona are not without dark shadows. Luther remained a thoroughly fallible individual, whose advice to princes and lords was not always without guile. His intemperate, even hateful language against Jews provided some of the building blocks of 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism. Any appreciation of Luther has to recognize these limitations and failures. That there remains enough worth celebrating is demonstrated by the recent commemorative events.

Newfoundland Lutherans
In Newfoundland, Lutherans have never been a strong presence. An organized Lutheran congregation existed in St. John's from 1956 to 1976, composed primarily of Latvians and Germans, most of whom had followed Joey Smallwood's beckoning call to save the province economically through industrialization. The controversial figure of Alfred Valdmanis, Smallwood's director general of economic development, was a driving force behind the early Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Saint John's. The congregation erected a modern A-frame church building on Logy Bay Road that closed its doors in 1976 and is now the home of the Vera Perlin Society.

Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland and can be reached by e-mail:

Organizations: Castle Church of Wittenberg, Wittenberg University, Smallwood Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Vera Perlin Society Memorial University of Newfoundland

Geographic location: Wittenberg, Saxony, Germany Newfoundland St. John's Saint John's Logy Bay Road

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