March 14, 2007

The Door at Midnight

2007 1508 page5 cap woke in the night, sleep probably disturbed by the pale light flooding the streetside window. Edging across the dark hotel room, I pushed aside the muslin drapes to stare across the empty square. No new footprints in the lightly falling snow. No echo of footsteps hurrying through the stillness of this icy Wittenberg midnight.


As Providence would have it, I was spending the night in the second-floor room of a 600-year-old building directly across the square from the most famous door in Christian history. But who rests soundly in the presence of the past? How does imagination quiet itself long enough to slumber where world-changing things occurred? Not for me to sleep peacefully this Friday evening, drawn into the warm depths of the Sabbath. No, I decided, face against the frozen pane, the price of knowing history is a lasting sense of wakefulness.


2007 1508 page5Some things, however, are clearer in the middle of the night. The noise, the colors, the visual barrage of daytime images recede, leaving only the starker world of light and shadow, edge and outline. And what had seemed for 40 years a charming tale of long-ago Martin Luther in a Saxon square now spoke with elegant simplicity. Behind the multiform and cacophonous diversity of what we used to commonly call Protestantism lie several truths that reveal themselves only when you see the place where it all started, and in the middle of the night.


1. This faith thrives in the public square. Luther walked a half mile along a bustling town street from his cloister home at the other end of town to post his declarations on a church door. This wasn’t an act of introspective, quietistic piety, but the public act of a man who clearly knew that great ideas have great consequences, that truths are made for living, and that light beneath a bushel is something less than light. Those who prefer an inner world of reflection and devotion won’t find much to comfort them in the story started in Wittenberg. Protestant faith, originating in an act of protest, stands forth for all to see.


2. This faith invites dialogue. We too easily forget that the first and plainest meaning of Luther’s act was an actual invitation to debate with him the soundness of the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of indulgences. He sought—and got—a vigorous response from scholars and from laypersons to his 95 debatable propositions. Any faith that grows from Luther’s actions half a millennium ago must be equally unafraid of dialogue and even argument. Those whose first commitment is to God and truth need not fear the tussle of ideas or the crackle of debate. Holding hands and singing “Side by Side” may warm the heart, but what, we need to ask, will fire the godly imagination next week, next month, next year?


3. This faith embraces education. Luther posed his propositions first to those whose skills in Scripture, history, theology, and languages had been honed by the best education their culture and their faith could deliver. Thus, one of the primary requirements of Protestant faith has always been an insistence on personal accountability to the truth. That demand can be met today only by believers who care deeply enough about Scripture and truth to read more widely than their parents did, and to make certain their own children have been shaped by a lifelong love for learning, for excellence, for quality. The church door in Wittenberg is also the entrance to a classroom as well.


4. This faith is grounded in Scripture. Luther’s many opponents found it necessary to resort to blunt threats and intimidation in their attempt to silence him because he had committed himself to an ever-deepening understanding of God’s Word. When you read his 95 theses for yourself, as I did again in Wittenberg by the light of the bedside lamp, you encounter a mind that has found a new authority and an unshakable confidence. Such faith does not require the comfort of consensus or the solace of unanimity. The great test of any truly Protestant idea is not “How does this make me feel?” or “Who else believes this?” but “Where do I find this taught in the Word of God?”


Here’s a call to remember the stock from which we sprang, and the witness of a mind made new by deep acquaintance with the Bible. Perhaps you too will find yourself awakened in the middle of your night by the sound of strong, insistent hammering, or the tower bell tolling the lateness of the hour.

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review