Today is the commemoration of Martin Luther in the Episcopal Church’s calendar. He died on this day in 1546.
My sermon on Sunday elicited two lengthy written comments, both of them addressing what I take to be Christian misinterpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (1–that it is meant only for a spiritual elite, and 2–that it is intended to show us the folly of attempting to live according to good works and thus forces us to ask for God’s grace). I made an offhand (and unscripted comment) critical of Luther on the latter point which elicited both of the replies.
So I want to briefly lay out my gratitude and indebtedness to Luther and take issue with some of his central theological concerns.
I am an Episcopal priest because of Martin Luther. As a young man, I struggled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition in which I was raised. Reading Luther’s early works helped me to come to a new understanding of faith. Instead of assent to a series of propositions, or a commitment to follow Jesus Christ in a certain way, for Luther, faith is not something we need to do. It is a gift from God, God’s work in us, justifying us before God. Our only task is to trust in God’s promise that God will save us.
Luther opened me to the power of God and the power of God’s grace. Over the years, I’ve come to know and experience God’s grace in my life and in the lives of others. I’ve come to trust in God’s promises and to trust that God can work a new thing in me.
If my personal religious experience and theology were profoundly shaped by Luther, there are also important divergences. I find his focus on God’s grace and on human sinfulness ultimately somewhat narrow and only partially adequate for making sense of God, the world, and humanity. He is too critical of the created world, too quick to see evil in it and to see evil in human effort and accomplishment. He was also too critical of the scholastic tradition and not able to see his own dependence on it.
Reading extensively in Augustine of Hippo deepened my experience and knowledge of the grace of God. Augustine also helped me to think of the relationship between God and humans more three-dimensionally, attributing goodness and beauty to creation in ways that Luther could not.
Why am I an Episcopal priest because of Luther? He provided me with the theological and spiritual tools to begin to recconstruct my Christian faith out of my broken experience as a child and young adult. He gave me the tools to build a bridge from my past Christian life to the present. There were many other tools and building blocks, including many that I brought with me from the church of my upbringing, but Luther helped me see and experience the way forward, to imagine the possibility of a way to cross the river that blocked my path. The path on the other side of the river ultimately led toward the Episcopal Church but without Luther, I couldn’t have begun the journey.