May 1, 2016

Luther, Remembered

Not every dispute is the Diet of Worms replayed.

Bill Knott

It was the finest way to spend a rainy afternoon.

As an Adventist school kid in the 1960s, I remember being annually treated to a showing of the award-winning 1953 biopic, Martin Luther, usually on stormy afternoons when outdoor recess was a dismal impossibility.Even the clattering of the obsolete film projector couldn’t ultimately distract from the gripping drama playing on the once-white screen.

Luther was a good guy. The best. I want to be like Luther.

The message of actorNiall MacGinnis’ portrayal of the 16th-century reformer was impossible to miss, and made unnecessary the usual after-film interpretations by the home-room teacher. Yes, the film had been financed by Lutheran Church Productions, but there was something essentially Adventist about it. Every Adventist—every little Protestant—had some of Luther’s DNA. Perhaps I wasn’t the only one whose vivid imagination projected him into half-whispered enunciations of “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”

It was one of those “truths” of Adventist experience that had a way of re-emerging at many contested points throughout an educational career—and a professional one. At every point of contest with authority—disagreements over class assignments, differences with school administrators over what could and couldn’t be said on 1970s Adventist college campuses, disputes over how the fundamentals of salvation should be preached from Adventist pulpits—the underlying question insinuated itself: Is this a Luther moment? Should I be “Here I stand”—ing, or cooling off the confrontation?

And for their part, the powers that be (or were) too often played the part of the church hierarchy at the Diet of Worms, or at least looked like they had been eating one.

For all of its evocative power and heroic grit, the Luther biopic and its many cultural caricaturizations may have actually pre-disposed us to an unhelpful and even unbiblical approach to resolving disputes, at least within the household of faith. “Here I stand” ought to be used at least once in the lifetime of every believer, but not at every Church Board meeting. Not every dispute is the Diet of Worms replayed, nor should we quickly devolve as a believer community into stylized roles of “indefatigable reformer” and “entrenched authority.” These roles were not even mostly true of Luther and his opponents 500 years ago, and their presence in our collective memory tempts us avoid the harder work of grace and reconciliation when our “truths” collide.

Let it be said: Adventists should be first among Protestants in countering the unbiblical belief that human effort is foundational to salvation, or that any human authority could change God’s holy day of worship. But let it also be said: Adventists should be first among all Christians in living out the Biblical model for resolving disputes that rise among us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, NRSV). We are most Protestant when we put on the whole armor of God, including both the sword of the Spirit, and feet shod “with the equipment of the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:15, RSV). Anything less, and we are simply militants misusing the name of Him who“came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Eph 2:17, RSV).

Let’s give the great Reformer all the honor he is due, especially as the 500th anniversary of his 95 Theses fast approaches. His “Here I stand” will certainly be needed in the perilous times that prophecy reminds us are just ahead for God’s faithful remnant. But let us also take our stand for increased understanding, for lowered rhetoric, and for greater charity towards those with whom we disagree.