On November 10, 1483, Martin Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany. He was baptized the very next day, the day of the Feast of St. Martin of Tours, which is probably why he was named Martin. His father was a miner and a somewhat prominent businessman, and wanted Martin to become a Lawyer. Martin became a monk, instead, and a priest, a university professor, a parish pastor of sorts, a father of six children (four of whom lived to be adults) and became known as the reformer and the father of the Reformation. He was a great man, by almost all accounts, but a man, nonetheless, who made mistakes and sinned, and wrote and said a few things that gave some of his followers reasons to wish he had not. He was phenomenally productive, writing numerous books, the German translation of the Bible, about two dozen hymns, a Lutheran Confession or two, and producing a volume of writings and musings - such as his Table Talks, recorded by his students by hand - that fills a rather large set of books (in German about 120 volumes, and over 55 in the American Edition(s) now) and he died when he was just a year older than I am now. That is a sobering thought, at least for me.
We remember him every year, although not usually on his birthday. The church generally remembers him on the anniversary of his death, February 18th, or on Reformation Day, October 31st. He is remembered by Lutherans mostly for what he taught that was good and faithful to the Word of God, and by those who oppose sound Lutheran theology for the occasional questionable opinion or writing, usually taken out of context to make Luther more objectionable that he tended to be. He is generally not remembered so much for who he was as for what he accomplished and what he taught and wrote.
That only makes sense, considering that none of us were alive while he was. We can more or less form a picture of the man in our minds, but what that man would be like would depend on where we gather our information from, and what portion of his life our sources focused on. He could be humorous or straight-laced. He could be full of himself, or humble. He could be wise or foolish. He could be gentle and patient, or impatient and rude. The picture that develops in your mind would depend on who was describing him and how they felt about Luther. That only means that he was truly human, with foibles and strengths just like almost any man. He seemed to have had the ability to be bigger than life in the eyes of most people, and considering his phenomenal productivity and his lasting effect on human society, that is probably appropriate. Life magazine listed him in 1999 as the third most influential person in the last millennium, following only Gutenberg and Columbus.
This year we are also celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of C. F. W. Walther. Like Luther, Walther was a prodigiously productive man, serving as a pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church for forty-six years, a parish [called a Gesammtgemeinde] with no less than four congregations in it (finally known as Trinity, Holy Cross, Immanuel and Zion), and, at the same time, one of the founders of the German Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, and Other States, and Synodical President twice for a total of seventeen years, a seminary professor and president, founder, and editor of Concordia Publishing House, editor of two magazines, Der Lutheraner (a forerunner to The Lutheran Witness) and Lehre und Wehre (Doctrine and Defense), author of several books, composer of several hymns, founder of the St. Louis Lutheran Bible Society, a husband, and the father of six children.
You might be asking yourself, after the last couple of paragraphs, "who cares?". The answer is, "The Church". We celebrate these men because they are our fore-fathers in the faith, heroes of a sort for many of us, and blessings from God for the Church on earth, particularly for the Lutheran part of it. Remembering these men and their accomplishments is part of thanking God for His blessings. We marvel at how much God can do through the agency of just one or two men. Neither of these men were particularly strong in their constitution. Luther suffered from a number of ailments. One of his biographers cited digestive troubles. His biography on Wikipedia lists Ménière's disease, vertigo, fainting, tinnitus, a cataract in one eye, kidney and bladder stones, arthritis, a ruptured eardrum in one ear from an infection at some point, and angina, leading finally to heart attack on the day he died and a stroke just hours before his death. Walther was known to be of a sickly constitution, suffering repeated collapses and breakdowns, and throat troubles which laid him up for months at a time.
In spite of their health troubles, look at all that they accomplished: for Luther, the Reformation, the German Bible, and an amazing body of work. His Bible is credited by many with formalizing the German language, not to mention that it was the first lasting translation of the Bible into the language of the common man. Up until Luther translated the Bible it was generally only available in Latin, or the occasional Greek and Hebrew for the scholars. Walther participated in the founding of the present-day Missouri Synod, drew American Lutheranism of his day back to a more confessional footing, served as the pre-eminent Lutheran theologian of the 1800's in America and throughout the world, founded a seminary, and established a publishing company (both of which are thriving yet today). The theological and doctrinal influence of these two men is still powerful today.
The very basic principles of the Gospel were set forth in clear and simple form by Luther in the famous Lutheran Reformation "Sola's", and he established the foundation for Lutheran instruction - called catechesis - which has served the Church for over five hundred years. His Small Catechism has been the touchstone for generations of Lutheran Laymen. We remember and celebrate Luther for these gifts, gifts we continue to enjoy and treasure all these years later. We praise God as we recall these men and the work which God began by means of these two individuals.
We remember Brother Martin and Pastor "Ferd", as he was often called, also because Scripture tells us to give double honor to those who serve faithfully, 1 Timothy 5:17, Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. Certainly these two men have earned this consideration. Both are famous for their sermons, and both are renowned as great and effective teachers.
Their memory reminds us also of the errors against which they fought. That is important for us because those errors never go out of style. Luther fought against works righteousness supplanting the faith; the same thing the Apostle Paul wrote against in Galatians and 1 Corinthians. He struggled against the all-too-human tendency to swing from one extreme to another that arose in the time of the Reformation with Carlstadt and the radical Protestants of his day. Walther fought against the spirit of indifferentism and compromise that had swamped American Lutheranism in his day, and which is always knocking on the door, even today, telling us that doctrine doesn't matter, and deeds are more important than creeds.
The clarion call of these men to stand on the Word of God and not surrender a single letter of the truth of God's Word is as urgent today as it ever was. The modern spirit of 'let's all just get along and forget our differences' continues her siren call, and the voices of our age are still pressing the agenda of doubting God's Word. You can almost hear the hiss of the ancient serpent in Eden yet today, "Has God really said . . .?" Today, many of the questions are different; homosexuality, women in the ministry, ecological extremism, modern, non-Christian "Spirituality", post-denominationalism, and post-modernism (bringing with it movements like "the emerging church"). Some of the challenges are more familiar, challenging the history of Jesus and nature of revelation. Remembering Luther and Walther, and how they handled the questions of their time in history, gives us a direction, and hope, and tools for confronting the challenges of our day.
Walther, of course, pointed us back to Luther, and Luther points us always to the Word of God. The temptation is always to imagine that we are now modern, wiser somehow, and differently equipped to handle the questions the world throws at us. But our resources, and our weapons for the battle, are precisely the same: the Word of God. Naturally, we are tempted to imagine that there is some program 'out there' which can rescue us from our troubles and lead us through to true effectiveness or relevance. We see the sects around us falling for fad after fad, program after program, in search of the magic touch that will make it all work. Remembering our faithful fathers will remind us that there is no power in anything other than the Word of God and faithful confession.
Walther's insistence on going back to Luther is a wonderful reminder to us that all true and faithful theology points back over one's shoulder to someone faithful who stood there before us and says, in effect, "I got it from him!" My teachers pointed back to their teachers. Their teachers pointed back to Walther. Walther pointed back to Luther. Luther pointed back to the faithful church fathers, and to Scripture. The disciples pointed to Jesus, and even Jesus pointed back to His Father, "Jesus therefore answered them, and said, "My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me." and, "He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me."
"Repristination" was a dirty word from the mouths of some of my teachers in the days I went to school. The word means to makes something old new again, but those who spit the word out like a curse meant to suggest that it was bad to simply repeat what you had heard before. While we rarely get away with simply repeating the exact same words that our teachers used, we remember them, and we work very hard at saying exactly the same thing in our own words to the new situation that is developing around us. That was why Luther translated the Bible into German in his day, and we have our modern translations today - so that the Word of God can speak clearly to a new generation. But the truth is the same truth, just freshened up with modern a vocabulary and clearly and faithfully proclaimed to a new generation who is asking the same old questions in new and interesting ways. Heaven help us that we never teach something 'new'.
Luther was the first to make really effective use of something brand new (back then) called a "printing press". Remembering Luther encourages us to make use of new technology in our day. Walter A. Meier made great use of radio on the Lutheran Hour. The LLL did great things with Television on "This Is the Life", back a couple of decades ago. We use the internet, with blogs and websites, mobile apps and pod-casting. But we do it best when we remember Luther, and use the new technology to present the same old truth, God's Word, as clearly and faithfully and purely as we know how.
Now, remembering Luther and Walther cannot teach me a thing about writing HTML code for a webpage. But recalling them and their works can illustrate for me how to stand faithfully, and confess clearly. Celebrating their lives, and the gifts they brought to bear, and the wonderful things God worked by means of these faithful servants can also bring me to praise God and give thanks for how He works, and for all that He has provided for us in the Church for our encouragement, our strength and ability to stand firm, and simply for our being included in the roll-call of God's chosen people. We remember and we celebrate these men, and a host of men not named in this article, because they opened the door for us, and showed us how it is done, and taught us how abundant and precious are the gifts of God.
God often works through the most humble of tools. Luther was just a man. Maybe he had remarkable talents, and maybe God simply made him remarkable in using him. When I remember Luther, and I like to think about him often, I am not so focused on the man. I never met him, although I hope to do so one day in heaven. I remember the blessings - the Sola's -- sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia -- the Catechisms, and the wonderful sayings that remind me how to live a Christian's life humbly and thankfully. And I give thanks to God for such reminders!
Yours in the Lord,
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