In looking at the Reformation and the lives of the Reformers, we emphasize the biblical and theological elements, and often fall short of applying the principles of Reformation to our lives. I see in Martin Luther’s experience much that is in common with my own spiritual heritage. Like him I have had to fight fear and tradition as God led us, by Scripture, intothe meaning of true freedom. Luther’s life experience casts light on mine.
In the early 1500s Luther started on his path toward a law career by enrolling at the university in Erfurt.1 In 1505, while returning to university from home, Luther was caught in a thunderstorm. A bolt of lightning led him to cry out in desperation, “Help me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”2 Luther kept his vow and entered a monastery within a month.
At the age of 27 Luther traveled to Rome to represent the Augustinian monastery at Erfurt. As he dutifully went through the motions, doubts began to fill his critical mind. He began to question the church’s teachings about relics and merits. He returned to the monastery more troubled than before. His supervisor, Johann von Staupitz, both encouraged him and reprimanded him for his attitude.
Staupitz encouraged Luther to focus on the love of God and stop worrying. Luther had built up a negative attitude toward God that drove him to fear and hate God. Luther recalled his true feelings when he received the encouragement from Staupitz: “Love God? I hate Him!”
In 1513, while preparing for a series of lectures, Luther read Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This verse brought Luther to a turning point in his life. Applying it appropriately to Christ, he realized that even Jesus had feelings of separation that Luther sometimes felt. This gave Luther some comfort.
Martin Luther grew up in a Roman Catholic home, shaped by both Scripture and tradition.
Two years later, as he was preparing for lectures on the book of Romans, Luther read Romans 1:17: “The just shall live by faith” (KJV).3 This text became pivotal for his spiritual journey. Its discovery gave Luther an assurance that his salvation did not depend on merits, that he did not need to fear God. He embraced the idea that only by faith are we made righteous.
On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote 95 statements against the practice of selling indulgences and nailed them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a conventional way of inviting an academic debate on a topic. This coincided with the rapid deployment of Gutenberg’s movable printing press. Luther’s theses were printed, and copies were distributed throughout Saxony. Even the pope got a copy. The pope’s reaction to Luther’s statements set in motion an inquiry. Luther feared for his life, for many Reformers had lost their lives when they were charged as heretics.4
In October 1518 a group of princes and nobles (known as the Imperial Diet) met in Augsburg to discuss several agenda items including the Turks and Luther. Luther attended the meeting. The papal representative, Cardinal Cajetan, was not interested in engaging Luther in debate. His main aim was to persuade Luther to recant.5 A century earlier Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for refusing to recant. He had demanded to be shown from the Scriptures what his errors were. Luther took the same position, knowing the history and the consequences that might follow.
Luther narrowly escaped because of his connection to Frederick the Wise, whom the pope did not want to displease.6
Luther continued writing. He produced treatises entitled Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and Freedom of a Christian. This fueled the pope’s fury, and in1520 Luther received an ultimatum (in a document called a papal bull) from the Pope to recant his position within 60 days or be excommunicated from the church. Luther publicly burned the papal bull. He was excommunicated on January 3, 1521.
Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet of Worms under Emperor Charles V on January 22, 1521. Given an opportunity to renounce or affirm his position, he responded: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”7
He is said to have spoken the following words that continue to ring in traditional circles: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”8
My dad grew up an Anglican, in a family where his father was the eldest within the extended family. When his father passed away, my father inherited the leadership role. Whenever there was a family gathering, he was the one who spoke to the ancestors on behalf of the family.
In the mid-1960s, around the time of the Rivona Trial in South Africa in which Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were sentenced to life imprisonment for treason against the apartheid government, there was turmoil in the country.
At the height of that political turmoil, my dad came to know about the Seventh-day Adventist faith. He embraced this newfound faith and was soon faced with critical decisions. He could no longer sacrifice to the ancestors and remain true to biblical teachings. He also learned that a number of tribal customs had elements that were contrary to biblical principles.
Dad traveled to the village where most of his family lived, and informed them he would no longer participate in family feasts directed to their ancestors. His brothers warned him that the anger of the ancestors would turn against him and his children. They ostracized him from the family circle, so they would not share in the bad luck brought by the ancestors.
I grew up not knowing my uncles, because when they came together for family feasts we could not take part. Most of the family activities we could attend, such as funerals and weddings, were held on Sabbath. This opened an even wider gap between us and our extended family.
When I became a young man, I was expected to go through the Xhosa rite of passage. Instead of sending me to the traditional circumcision school with the boys of the community, my dad collaborated with five other Adventist families; we were about six boys altogether. Bhomas (temporary structures) were set up in the bush near our township home, and we became an Adventist community among the traditional bhomas. We had an Adventist ikhankatha (a dean of the school), who taught us about manhood in an Adventist context.
Since this ritual was done in the Adventist context, all elements contrary to Scripture, such as serving of liquor and special meats dedicated to ancestors, were removed. The pastor was given an opportunity during the welcome celebration (umgidi) to preach the Word to the community that was there to grace the occasion. This was an opportunity for the community to understand what we believe. There was no way to be accepted as a man in the community without going through this ritual.
This rite of passage gave me status to get to the next level, marriage. When I got married, I again had to avoid any elements contrary to biblical principles during the traditional wedding ceremony. Certain elements, such as the introduction of the bride to the family, include ancestor worship. These elements are deleted, and a focus is placed on living family members. The whole process, from dowry negotiations to the wedding, was filled with elements that Seventh-day Adventists have identified over decades and categorized as acceptable or unacceptable to biblic
My experiences as an Adventist growing up in South Africa within a Xhosa context helped me understand the dynamics of maintaining my identity, and still remaining true to Scripture. Because my father took a firm stand against elements in the Xhosa culture that militated against biblical principles, I was able to grow up accepted by my peers, my community, and our extended family without compromising my Christian principles.
From Luther’s generation forward there has sounded a call to sola scriptura, a Reformation principle that can be applied to any culture. Many Xhosa South Africans have taken their stand with Luther, conforming cultural practice to biblical principle. But some still defer to a culture in which decision-makers are extended family members.
For single parents who are female and have no Adventist males in the family, these issues can present huge challenges. Many women, in striving to be true to biblical principles, have appointed Adventist men with the same clan name to handle family affairs that relate to rites of passage and dowry negotiations.
In some parts of South Africa Seventh-day Adventist men have organized initiation schools over winter and summer holidays. This brings Seventh-day Adventist young people together to preserve their culture and avoid compromising situations. These initiatives are not part of the official church structure. There is, however, a need to have biblical-theological discussions on these elements of tradition, how they relate to biblical principles, and have these documented so that future generations may have a reference point on decisions taken.
For Seventh-day Adventists the Bible not only addresses culture but also modifies it. Lay members expose an interesting approach as they attempt to win the community’s confidence while modifying the traditions.
For example, long before there were any Africans, Abraham was circumcised. This reference usually arrests the attention of African traditionalists, because the earlier the custom, the more respectable it is. But more work needs to be done to make sure that the Bible is handled appropriately when such passages are quoted with reference to current practices.
Martin Luther and I grew up in contrasting religious conditions, but both he and I, and you my reader, come to observe irreconcilable differences between Scripture and prevailing tradition. It is our privilege to follow Luther’s example of being true to principle: “The greatest want of the world is the want of [people] . . . who will not be bought or sold, . . . who in their inmost souls are true and honest, . . . who do not fear to call sin by its right name, . . . whose conscience is as true to duty as the needle to the pole, [people] who will stand for the right though the heavens fall”9
Let’s stand with Luther today, for God.
Michael Sokupa is an associate director of the Ellen G. White Estate at the General Conference.