October 31st is usually just another day for our family. At times, when we lived in a city neighborhood, we’ve passed out candy and gospel tracts to costume-clad visitors at our door, and other times we have happily forgotten the sugar-coma-inducing festivities of the day all together.
We’ve also not necessarily done much in the past with the notable historical event that took place on this day. We’ve recognized it as Reformation Day, and perhaps shared a “Nailed it” meme for laughs, but we’ve never, you know, dressed our two boys up as Luther and Calvin.
But today, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the day Martin Luther famously drove the nail that cracked Europe—and mainstream church history—forever.
This seems to call for more than just the usual nod. Cosplay may not be necessary, but a deeper consideration of its importance certainly is.
As a history major in college, I took particular interest in two very world-changing narratives: the World War II era and church history. Having studied the Reformation in some depth over ten years ago (ahem, yes, it’s been a while!) and consequently having forgotten many of the details, now has seemed as appropriate a time as ever to refresh myself on the subject, especially as I have considered how to teach my children about it and determine what celebrating the Reformation looks like in our family.
As I’ve dusted off a few of my college texts, done some reading online, and discussed the subject with my husband, I’ve refined my thoughts and priorities when it comes to understanding the Reformation and passing on that understanding and perspective to my children.
Guiding Principles of our Discussion of the Reformation
Most of us know that the first three rules of buying a house are “Location, Location, Location”. Similarly, the first three rules in rightly understanding history, the Scriptures, or anything we learn by written language are “Context, Context, Context”–both textual or historical. The Protestant Reformation was in no way a stand-alone event. One of my college texts is called Europe and Its Reformations, plural, because it seeks to demonstrate the continuum of social, political, and religious “reformations” surrounding the events of Luther’s life. Despite the obvious fact that Luther’s actions and teachings set off a figurative bomb that changed the landscape of Europe forever, neither church nor political history were homogeneous, unchanged, or unchallenged before 1517. And as we are probably more aware, neither did they remain so after the fact. There have been throughout history pockets of believers, often persecuted, holding to the true gospel before the posted paper at Wittenberg, just as there were other movements from within the Catholic Church seeking to reform it, as well. I believe it’s important that my children understand from the beginning that Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses and the Reformation they sparked didn’t take off in a vacuum. Rather, in God’s providence and by His grace, Luther was at the right place at the right time to shed light on prevalent errors and bring the gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone into mainstream discussion.
Connected to this idea of context, it’s important to remember that Catholicism isn’t the same today as it was in Luther’s day. Seeing the reformation sparked by Luther’s Theses as one of many efforts to reform the Catholic Church and/or Christianity and discussing this fact with my children will (I hope) help them to grasp that ideas, institutions, and people change over time. I want them to be able to have meaningful conversations with their Catholic friends because they have some understanding of what Catholicism is today. In the United States of America. To this end, we watched a video covering the main differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. It was mostly over my kids’ heads, since they are only 8- and 6-years-old, but we paused the video when necessary to discuss and understand along the way. I hope I can instill in them a desire to ask questions to get to know what others believe and not merely spout off what they think they understand from one video they watched and a handful of discussions they had with their parents. I have a hunch this will be a long process…
As the picture above seeks to humorously remind us, while technologies and power structures change, mankind is very much the same throughout the centuries.
Getting a bit more practical now, primary sources are a great way to look more directly into the past. And they’re not just for college history classes! Here are a few we’re using with our elementary-aged kids: the book of Romans (which the Lord used to bring Luther to the understanding of salvation by faith); quotes from Luther himself, particularly a few lines from his Ninety-Five Theses and his defense at the Diet of Worms; and Luther’s hymns “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word”. As our kids get older, it’s my aim that we’ll look more into Protestant, Catholic Church, and political documents and counsels, among many other sources and including many other key players and precursors to the Reformation.
As we engage with several kinds of source materials, I want us to remember that bias is ever-present and history is never simple. While we can see glimpses of the hand of God weaving together the events of time into the meta-narrative tapestry of His choosing, we can only ever see a few of the threads at a time. So we should be humble with our own narratives, recognizing that God’s truth doesn’t depend upon me spinning the events in a way that I think is favorable. A single group’s human narrative can be helpful, but only if it recognizes it is incomplete. (Yes, this definitely has application to the current state of upheaval in our society today.)
Confession: Luther isn’t really on our list of personal favorite Christian heroes. He did some really great things and God clearly used him mightily for His purposes. But my husband’s favorite heroes of Christian history are the faithful, quiet plodders—you know, the type of people who aren’t flamboyant or famous enough to have a day set aside to celebrate them—and who maybe don’t ever make it into the history books. This is a pretty good personal antidote to our world’s (and often the church’s) emphasis on “changing the world” and “doing big things”. So often it’s difficult to see the line between godly motivation and mere self-promotion and glory-seeking. Those of us who recognize this do well to slow down and consider the lowly servants of Jesus throughout the ages, or those who played a support role to the “main actors” on the stage of church history. I’m thankful that my husband is leading our family in valuing the faithfulness that sometimes only God can see. It’s spiritually healthy, and it’s right.
While our family certainly doesn’t care to over-emphasize Luther’s heroism, his stand for truth and for conscience is an example to be admired. We may never find ourselves in such a life-or-death test for our faith or our trust in the Word of God as when Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521 and gave his most famous declaration. But we nevertheless need courage on a daily basis to do what is right, to share the gospel of grace, to serve and love the lowly, to choose faithfulness in the small things no matter the outcome, to say no to delusions of grandeur or inclinations toward comfort and safety that would bring us to self-preserving, self-exalting compromise and complacency. Luther’s legacy is not only in the truth he taught, but in the courage he had to “stand, and … do no other.”
We’ve selected a few children’s biographies to read this morning along with singing hymns and possibly watching a movie on the subject this evening as a family. But more even than the particular books we read or the media we consume are the discussions we have as a family. Discussions of what the gospel, or good news, of salvation in Jesus is—and has been from the beginning. Discussions of how the Catholic Church was in error in the past and which of those errors have been abandoned and which have been maintained to this day. Discussions of error on the other side of the line and how we each must seek to faithfully follow the Word of God, being willing to stand even amidst pressure from “our own” institutions. Discussions of how we should treat those with whom we disagree (hint: we like the example of Jesus and His disciples better than that of either the Catholic or Protestant state-churches! Eek!). Discussions of how we can see God’s hand at work throughout history—preserving His word and His people, using imperfect men and women to accomplish His purposes, and His provision for the gospel to spread to the ends of the earth—to every tribe and tongue and nation. These discussions contain far more than mere information—they include love for the Lord, for His word, for others, and for our children themselves as we help them understand their own place in the line of history and the world of people and ideas.
While much more could be said (and probably has been said elsewhere in this vast space called the internet), I hope these limited thoughts of mine have been coherent enough to be a thought-provoking blessing to you today as you contemplate the Reformation and remember it with your family, friends, or church.
And as for costumes, I think my kids might currently be more interested in dressing up as Calvin and Hobbes than Luther and Calvin. And I think I’m ok with that.
In closing, I’ll leave you with the Five Solas of the Reformation, because I didn’t manage to fit them in anywhere else and it seemed wrong to leave them out:
Sola scriptura – Absolute authority for Christian faith and practice comes from God’s word alone.
Sola fide – Salvation is through faith alone.
Sola gratia – Salvation is by grace alone.
Solus Christus – Salvation is in Christ alone.
Soli Deo gloria – All of this is for the glory of God alone.
How are you remembering or celebrating? What’s your favorite take-away from your contemplation of the Reformation? Do you have an angle on it that I didn’t cover in this article? I’d love to hear it!