REFORMATION Day is less than a week away. On Thursday 31
October, in Europe and beyond, churchgoers will remember a vital
moment in the history of Christianity. In Protestant circles, this
coming Sunday will also be kept as Reformation Sunday. Both dates
are dominated by the action of one man - a complex revolutionary
who still inspires and troubles the religious imagination, and
tells us something important about the nature of leadership in the
On All Hallows' Eve, Saturday 31 October 1517, "out of a love
for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it", Martin Luther,
already a professor of theology at 33, walked to the castle church
in Wittenberg, and attached his 95 theses to the door. Far from
initiating an academic debate about their contents, which was his
intention, his gesture was to take Christendom in a new
I hope to attend a brief theological college reunion on
Reformation Day. A group of us will meet over food, and pray in the
chapel that had such a formative influence on us a generation ago.
It was there that I first encountered Luther, through a dramatic
re-enactment of that Wittenberg moment. Lutherans were present at
that service, and I found the occasion enthralling.
My serious reading of the Reformer began around that time. Three
years later, I took a quotation from him as a text for my
ordination card: "One does not become a theologian simply by
reading and studying, but through conflict, temptation, being
condemned, dying and living."
Over the years, it has lost none of its power to challenge or
console, and I have found it to be the most compelling definition
of any serious theological endeavour. But there is more to Luther
than theology, or the simplistic picture of the champion of God's
grace who defied Rome and brought the word of God to his people in
a language that they could understand.
TWO other narratives deserve our attention: one casts a long
shadow; the other is redemptive, and reminds us of what lies at the
heart of a practical theological vocation. The shadow that dogs
Luther - the contradiction in his life and thought - concerns his
unflinching allegiance to Jesus Christ, born a Jew, and his
implacable loathing of Jews.
Luther kept several secretaries busy with his writings, but even
his most fervent admirers regret the publication of his 65,000-word
anti-Semitic treatise of 1543, On the Jews and their Lies.
This is the text that describes Jews as "base, whoring people, that
is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision and
law must be accounted as filth".
He urged his readers to purge this taint by burning Jewish
schools and houses, confiscating their religious writings, and
requiring that they be compelled to work as agricultural slaves.
Some 400 years later, such texts featured in the Nuremburg
Trying to make sense of this contradiction has led some German
Lutheran churches to denounce the treatise. Lutheran scholarship
has been more cautious, arguing in some cases that the Reformer's
rage against the Jews is most evident in his later years, when
chronic illness twisted his better judgement.
I FIND this phrase, "his better judgement", instructive. It
reminds me that behind the invective of a vile treatise and the
image we have of a polemicist and scriptural scholar, there stands
a pastor - a cleric of the small town of Wittenberg, whose daily
pastoral duties, frequently and properly, took precedence over his
writing and lecturing.
Luther baptised, celebrated the Lord's supper, absolved
penitents, visited the sick, and held the dying in his arms. He
gave hope to the lost, and succour to individuals in need of
consolation. Note also the titles of some of his most poignant
writings: Fourteen Consolations for Those Who Labour and are
Burdened (1520); A Simple Way to Pray for a Good
Friend (1535); A Comfort for Women with Whom Things Have
Gone Awry during Childbirth (1542).
In addition to these, there are printed sermons, pamphlets, and
personal correspondence that addressed the needs of frightened
citizens and grieving souls. In the pulpit, Luther spoke intimately
to his people, reflecting not only on what it means to be human,
but also how disciples learn to endure the hardships that are
necessarily woven into the pilgrim's way.
The pastoral principles that shaped his life were printed in a
handbook for pastors, first published in 1582. Many preachers and
burden-bearers were sustained by its wisdom and compassion. In the
1530s, at table with friends, Luther teased out the meaning of the
Latin word "pastor" (shepherd), and described the calling in terms
of speaking and doing the truth "that always feeds and
This aspect of Luther is known by relatively few, and his parish
work has often been treated as a mundane sideline to the mercurial
vocation that helped to forge a different future for Europe.
To take his pastoral aspect more seriously is to remember that
ministry in the Church is not reducible to management. It calls for
the deep, difficult, and holy work that constitutes the care of
others. Luther's pastoral writings reveal a flawed personality that
was also rich and warm. They also tell us that big and decent lives
can make big and tragic mistakes.
The Revd Dr Rod Garner is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Southport,
and Theological Consultant to the diocese of Liverpool. He is the
author of several books, including On Being Saved (DLT,
2011) and How to be Wise (SPCK, 2013).