by Laura Christman Rosenberg
As students of the Bible and of the Wauwatosa Theology, we are no strangers to the idea that God works out the story of salvation through the daily events of human history. We can’t help but be struck by this as we ponder, 500 years later, the circumstances in which Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the church door to seek an open debate on the sale of Indulgences. Truly the ordained moment had come for light to be shown on God’s word anew and for worried, darkened hearts to know His grace.
The back cover of this issue bears a skyline of Wittenberg drawn a few years after the Theses were posted. The image is reminiscent of the way many artists depict the horizon of Bethlehem. Though not prophesied, Wittenberg also had been set in time and prepared for events that were to unfold. For the Reformation to truly catch fire, all needful things came together—from the bodily and the spiritual to the educational, technological, governmental and artistic. We know of Luther’s deep internal struggle over grace, the result of the very tender conscience with which he was endowed. J.P. Koehler’s sermon in this issue traces the role of the writings of various church fathers on the progression of Luther’s faith, as well as the wise counsel shown him by Johann von Staupitz, vicar of the Augustinian order at the University of Wittenberg. Frederick the Wise’s position as Elector of Saxony, the existence of a new university in Wittenberg and, as we read in the review of Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther, the technology of the printing press all played essential roles in the formulation and dissemination of Luther’s words. What a gift to the whole cause that Lucas Cranach the Elder was court artist to Frederick the Wise, a man with talent and skills suited to beautifying Luther’s writings in print, but more importantly to sharing the truth of the gospel in such a way that even the illiterate could understand. Several pieces of Cranach’s work appear in this issue, including the crucifixion and drawings of the tabernacle in the Leviticus article, and the early portrait of Luther on page 41. The Cranach title page shown and discussed in the Brand Luther review help to explain what was unique about Cranach’s capabilities to relate the gospel pictorially.
As we stand in awe of the Reformation’s masterful unfolding, we must not forget that this very protest which allowed the light to shine also tore apart the fabric of society. The universal church became a thing of the past; rulers came to warring odds over their stances on faith and the church. We tend to look back on the Reformation with gratitude, but many historians and psychologists study and write about the fracturing it caused. Our present society manifests a hundred-fold the rise of individual consciousness set off by the Reformation. In his own lifetime Luther knew the Pandora’s box he had opened—already just a few years after the Theses were posted the peasant class rose up in a war that was short-lived and brutally repressed. Countless people were martyred by the church over their reliance on Christ alone. The social consequences of the Theses were wholly unintended and entirely inevitable.
We live in a time that seems tremendously tumultous as well. The inconceivably rapid growth of technology and the generational divide in technological literacy must parallel that of the Reformation era. Science marches forward in frightening advances, including the genetic manipulation and “improvement” of embryos and the quest for artificial intelligence, while in country after country there is a growing spirit of nationalism and bombast between allies and enemies alike. We might be tempted to believe that God has quit working out the story of salvation in such a time as ours. It is hardest, though, to see the hand of God clearly in the midst of things. In part this is due to our limited perspective. In bigger part, it is because of the incomprehensible paradox that God is simultaneously ruler of all, seen and unseen (that we have no part in achieving our faith but are only the recipients of His grace); yet simultaneously we are free creatures and He accomplishes His will in and through our actions, without ever resorting to brute force, manipulation, or the automation of his people. If, to paraphrase the poet Denise Levertov, God chooses morning after morning to “save the world one more day even with its leaden burden of human evil and we wake to birdsong,” the children of God will look back to our time and see His hand clearly. From the Psalmist’s words let us take heart: Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.