Unedited version of an editorial published in Dialog 55,3 (Fall 2016), 179-180.
Although the 500th anniversary of the posting and publication of Luther’s 95 thesis will be celebrated next year as the spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation, in a sense that Reformation began in the years immediately preceding 1517. Through his study of the Scriptures and his ongoing theological reflection, Luther came to conceive of God in a way that was diametrically opposed to the conception of God that he had previously had. It was this new understanding of God and God’s relation to believers that impelled Luther to question not only the sale of indulgences but eventually the authority of the Church of Rome itself.
For years, God had been an oppressive figure for Luther, constantly making demands on him and threatening him with punishment for his sins. Gradually, however, Luther came to see God as a gracious, merciful Father who was on his side rather than standing against him. While this loving God still demanded that human beings practice justice and righteousness for their own good, at the same time God gave those who turned to God in faith that justice and righteousness through Christ, forgiving them their sins and transforming their hearts. This God sought only that human beings trust in God and Christ and receive the love graciously shown to them; as they did so, they would come to love God and others, which was the ultimate goal of this God.
What made Luther’s God subversive and generated conflict with Rome was that his God undermined the system that benefited those in power. According to them, the church hierarchy and clergy controlled access to God and spoke for God as God’s chosen representatives. Their mediation was necessary in order for the faithful to approach God and obtain God’s favor and grace. These claims enabled those in power to maintain control over the vast majority of the populace. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone undercut the church’s means of gaining wealth and exerting power over the lives of others. The church did this by demanding that those under its authority practice works that enriched and benefited those in positions of authority, in effect paying for their salvation not only by handing over their wealth to the church but in many cases even dedicating their entire lives to the church’s service by adopting the monastic life or joining the ranks of the clergy.
The God proclaimed by Luther stood in stark contrast to the God proclaimed by the church hierarchy, who in effect claimed that only those who subjected themselves fully to the church’s authority could hope to receive God’s approval and attain the salvation of their souls. The God of the system and the status quo was therefore an oppressive God, in contrast to Luther’s God, who graciously received all who approached God sincerely in faith with a sincere heart through Christ. Nothing was required of them but that they trust solely in Christ, receiving all that God graciously offered them by placing their lives in the hands of their loving Father and that Father’s Son, Jesus Christ.
Luther’s conviction that the true God was the one that he had discovered in the Scriptures ultimately led him to stand up and speak out against the oppression being carried out in the name of the false Gods proclaimed by many within the church of his day. Through his proclamation and teaching, Luther sought to free those held in the church’s grasp from their bondage. In the end, therefore, it was Luther’s new understanding of God that inspired the Protestant Reformation.
The question that faces those of us who will be celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation next year is whether we have remained faithful to Luther’s understanding of God and remained firm in rejecting and denouncing the false and oppressive Gods that continue to be proclaimed today. Those Gods take many forms and exist in many circles. There is the God who is more concerned about preserving God’s holiness than about human beings themselves, the God who wishes above all to be served, obeyed, and glorified as king and Lord rather than being loved as Father and Mother. There is the God who demands that all who approach God do so through certain chosen and exclusive representatives who speak and act on God’s behalf in relation to all others. There is also the God who stands in a do ut des relationship with human beings, granting divine favor and blessings only to those who give God the honor and adoration God egotistically desires.
Today we continue to encounter Gods who demand that those wishing to obtain God’s favor hand over their wealth and even their lives to those in positions of authority in the church. Many claiming to be Christians proclaim a God who demands that the faithful obey God’s commandments for God’s own sake rather than a God who mandates that all obey God’s will for their own good and that of others, a God motivated purely by love for all who are equally God’s children. The “love” of these false Gods is always conditional, rather than being unconditional like the love of the true God. Of course, that unconditional love leads God to insist that all practice justice and righteousness and actively oppose injustice in all of its forms. Yet those who believe in the true God are moved to live as God desires and commands, not by a slavish fear of an oppressive and menacing God, but because they can only find it in their hearts to love others unconditionally as they have been loved by God in Christ. They experience that unconditional love as they live as part of communities in which all are committed to such love.
Around us today we encounter many false Gods associated with the systems and structures human beings have constructed, not only in the churches but in the societies in which we live. Those systems and structures are always to a large extent sinful and unjust, simply because they are established and sustained by human beings that are inevitably sinful and unjust. The Gods of these systems and structures are the Gods we hear proclaimed publicly, not only by those in power but also by the multitudes who have been led to believe that they benefit from maintaining those sinful systems and structures in place.
As the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation approaches, those of us celebrating that anniversary must recognize that we cannot be true to that Reformation without denouncing the false and oppressive Gods that prevail in so many circles among us today, both wihin the churches and outside of them. We must be faithful in proclaiming a subversive and scandalous God, the God we encounter in the cross rather than the God who wishes to be glorified, served, and obeyed above all else. To be faithful to the Reformation inspired by Luther is to be faithful to the God whom he came to encounter in his study of the Scriptures, the God whose love for all people is unconditional. We must proclaim a God who gives us freedom while at the same time graciously insisting that we use that freedom for the well-being of others together with ourselves, rather than using it to oppress others or to take from them the things we selfishly desire. Such a God sides with those who use the power and authority they have received, not solely for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all. Ultimately, to remain passive and silent when any other God is proclaimed is to deny all that Luther and the Protestant Reformation stood for.
David A. Brondos