From Wittenberg to Kingman

Statue of Martin Luther

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Statue of Martin Luther

Take a drive down Kingman’s streets and you will see churches – lots of churches. Even though they come in a variety of denominational flavors (Catholic, Methodist, Non-Denominational, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Lutheran, etc.), most of Kingman’s churches are decidedly Protestant.

According to the Daily Miner’s Worship Directory, there are roughly 86 faith communities in Kingman, and roughly 50 of them are Protestant. Keep in mind that these unscientific statistics say nothing about the number of individual Protestant worshipers in Kingman, only about the number of worshiping communities. To the best of my knowledge, a scientific survey of Kingman’s religious landscape has never been done.

Behind the term, “Protestant,” is one of history’s most consequential events: the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, which is currently celebrating its 500th anniversary. The Reformation began in the unassuming German town of Wittenberg, when Martin Luther – an Augustinian friar – nailed 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church (Schlosskirche). He did this without any sense of how significant his actions would be to later generations.

A doctor of theology at Wittenberg’s newly-founded university, Luther hoped to initiate a debate about the use and understanding of indulgences. Indulgences were part of the Catholic sacrament of Penance. Far from being an “ivory tower” academic debate, the 95 theses show Luther’s concern for doing theology in service of “soul care” (Seelsorge) – what we would call, “pastoral ministry.” At no point in the 95 theses does Luther express an interest in breaking away from the Catholic Church. He was utterly and happily Catholic, and at the time, he fully expected to stay that way.

But the 95 theses were only the beginning. Perhaps more consequential to history are his translations of the Bible and the Mass into German, his lectures and commentaries on biblical books (e.g., Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Genesis), his Small and Large Catechisms (still in use today), and his essays on theological issues such as faith and grace.

Among these works, his translation of the Bible may be the most significant. Through his translation of the Bible, Luther not only shaped the German language, but he also changed the shape of the Bible itself, by initiating the Protestant practice of separating the “Apocrypha” (e.g., Wisdom of Solomon, 1-2 Maccabees) from the Old Testament. Luther held the apocryphal books to be useful, but finally unequal to Scripture. As a result, he placed these books into a separate canonical section, between the Old Testament and New Testament.

Most modern Protestant Bibles (e.g., the New International Version) go beyond Luther by excluding the Apocrypha altogether, and opting instead for the now-common 66-book Protestant canon. From the perspective of global Christianity, this practice places Protestants in the minority: Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Churches continue to include a wide range of apocryphal books as an integral part of their canons.

Luther’s work as a translator was truly a monumental aspect of his legacy, and one that impacts us even today. Father Phillip Shaw of Trinity Episcopal Church said in an interview with me that “the greatest single contribution of the Reformation is common language.” He later referred to Luther’s translation work – of the Mass and of the Bible – as the “high point of the Reformation.” Any time we pluck a Protestant Bible from the shelf, read it in a worship service or hear it over the radio, we encounter the legacy of Martin Luther.

But Luther’s legacy also has a shadow side. Like other European Christians of his time, Luther held highly negative views toward Jews, and these seemed to intensify as Luther progressed in age. In 1543, near the end of his life, Luther penned an infamous diatribe titled, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” This text utilized some of the most negative Jewish stereotypes in use at the time. Much later, in 19th and 20th century Europe, Luther and his works were invoked in support of policies and ideologies that denigrated Jews and resulted in the anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Socialism.

Of course, responsibility for the Holocaust cannot be laid solely at the feet of Luther – or any one man, for that matter. With that said, Luther and his later interpreters are guilty of contributing to a cultural and intellectual environment that culminated in the heinous acts of violence against Jews under Hitler.

Turning to our own times, the legacy of the Reformation is everywhere. Shelves of books have been written on the impact of Protestantism on American culture. And there’s plenty to say: According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of the population professes to be “Protestant/Other Christian.” These numbers are borne out in our politics, too. Again, according to Pew, the current congress is 55.9 percent Protestant. These numbers represent a significant downward trend for Protestants, however. In 1961 (the 87th Congress), for instance, 75 percent of congressional representatives identified as Protestant. America is changing rapidly, but the legacy of the Reformation promises to be with us for decades to come.

To be sure, fierce debate rages about whether America is or should be a Christian nation. (There are strong echoes of the Reformation in this conversation as well). At the very least, however, one can say that America is a nation full of Christians, and especially Protestant Christians, who knowingly or unknowingly carry on the legacy of the Protestant Reformation.

Michael J. Chan, Ph.D., is the Interim Pastor at Grace Lutheran Church.