by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s no accident that Bethel College’s annual Menno Simons Lecture series takes place in October.
Kip Wedel, associate professor of history and peace studies, began his introduction of the 2017 series by noting, “Ever since [the lectures] began in 1953, there has been an abiding interest in the Protestant Reformation, which is also why we meet each year in October.
“This year, we have a new reason for reflecting – it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s [posting of his] 95 theses. Our speaker has spent his career contemplating Luther, his teachings and writings.”
That speaker was Timothy J. Wengert, Ministerium of Pennsylvania professor emeritus of church history at Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. The title of his three-lecture series, given Oct. 8-9 at Bethel, was “Remembering 500 Years of Reformation Together.”
As he greeted his audience for the first time, Wengert said, “Some may know me for Healing Memories: Reconciling in Christ, [the product of four years of work] by representatives from Lutheran World Federation and Mennonite World Conference.”
Wengert has been traveling widely this year, he said, “to explain the form and content of the 95 theses – mostly preaching to the choir, to Lutherans who know they should be excited about the 95 theses but don’t know why.
“But I have also talked to Roman Catholics, to interreligious groups – in a few days, to Seventh-Day Adventists – and I jumped at the chance to come out to Kansas and talk to Mennonites.
“There are things that divide us,” he went on, “but we’re united in common praise and worship of our redeemer, Jesus Christ. Even Martin Luther once admitted in a tract that Anabaptists might have some right ideas.
“All scholars of Reformation will admit that none of the strains of Christianity would have developed as they did without the initial dam-burst from Wittenberg in 1517. The more we learn about that year, the more we sharpen our faith in and witness to the gospel.”
Wengert began his first lecture with a brief biography of Luther, explaining that when Luther wrote and publicly posted 95 theses responding to the issue of indulgences, on Oct. 31 (the eve of All Saints’ Day, probably not a coincidence), 1517, he was adhering to a common educational practice of the time.
“Why does this matter? In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t. The Reformation proceeded anyway. The point is that Luther did not intend to start anything except a ‘normal’ debate on one of the theological and ecclesial issues of the time.”
The 95 theses reveal several important lessons for the church in the present, Wengert said.
One is that they indicate Luther is already deeply convinced of the unconditional nature of God’s mercy – Luther’s view of “how God’s Word works: first as law, revealing the truth of the human condition, our selfishness and lust for control; then by gospel, revealing the truth about God’s mercy.”
Another is Luther’s theology of the cross, which “first came to light in the 95 theses, then later took fuller form in other writings.
“It’s not theology about the cross [not a ‘theory of the atonement’],” Wengert said. “The cross to Luther was ‘the revelation of God in the form of the opposite’ or, my words, ‘God revealed in the last place we would think to look.’
“Jesus always appears to the broken, the weak, the outcast and marginalized. Look for example at the Martyrs Mirror, the revelation of God in the last place we would reasonably look.”
As Luther kept studying the issue of indulgences (a practice of performing penance for sins by paying money), he read both church law and Scripture, ultimately “rejecting the notion of buying indulgences to strengthen the Christian’s relationship to God and God’s mercy, Wengert said.
“Instead, Luther says, Christians should give to the poor. ‘Love grows through sharing love’ – a person becomes better through sharing.
“Perhaps the best way to express our oneness in Christ and gratitude for the Reformation after 500 years would be to redouble our efforts not the bypass the poor of our world.”
Wengert returned to Luther’s view of the cross in his second lecture, “What Makes Martin Luther a ‘Father of the Faith’?”
Three things most accurately define Luther’s thought and have endured to this day, Wengert said. One is “justification by faith alone, or what I call up [religion] and down religion.”
“Up religion” implies humans are in control of their relationship to God, able to get to God through their own efforts, while “down religion” means God comes down to us in love, all the way through taking human form and dying on a cross, and our only possible response is confession: “I love you, too.”
Luther’s second major contribution to modern Protestantism is the connection of law and gospel. “Law tells the truth about the human condition,” Wengert said. “It shows us what we ought to do but doesn’t teach us how to do it. The gospel is the unconditional word of God’s mercy in Christ.
“The law condemns. The gospel forgives.”
Third was Luther’s theology of the cross: “God comes down in the last place we would reasonably look. Or, God always works contrary to our own expectations of God.”
Wengert also pointed out that Luther was the one to thank for several common aspects of Protestant Sunday worship, among them congregational singing and the central place of the sermon.
In his final lecture, Wengert examined the question of what to do when church leaders err.
Though Luther had plenty to say on the subject, he was not guiltless himself, Wengert said. Most notable are Luther’s “hateful tracts” of 1543 against the Jews, resurrected in the 1930s by the German Nazis.
“Those thoughts are completely unacceptable,” Wengert said. “I personally, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have repudiated them.”
Most of the lecture focused on Luther’s treatment of the Anabaptists (which did not start out entirely negative) and how that carried forward to the present day.
When, in the late 1980s, Lutherans invited all European Protestants to a celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, “the German Mennonites humbly pointed out that their Anabaptist forebears were condemned by that document. That eventually led to a number of conversations, and ‘healing of memories’ by ripping the scab of forgetfulness off the wound.”
The formal conversations happened between MWC and the Lutheran World Federation, resulting in the 2010 Healing Memories document.
“So what should one do today when we discover that our own leaders have erred?” Wengert said. “The only answer is repentance. As long as I support Luther’s witness to the gospel, I can’t ignore or cover up Luther’s sins.
“In 2009,” he went on, “when Lutherans traveled to Mennonite World Conference’s assembly in Paraguay, something remarkable happened – the Mennonites demonstrated true forgiveness. In 2010, Mennonites received the unanimously passed resolution of repentance.
“The Holy Spirit broke down some ancient walls separating us. These were actions that are unique in the history of ecumenical relationships, one church taking its past so seriously that it asked for forgiveness, or that the injured party offered such unconditional grace.
“When it comes to politics, both our traditions have gifts to offer. Anabaptism warns against too easily adopting and following the ‘hyper-patriotism’ [of current American culture]. On the other hand, Christian involvement in government keeps Christians from withdrawing from the world and from isolationism.”
As an example of where “the theology of Menno Simons and Martin Luther converge,” Wengert referred to a favorite painting by Rembrandt of a Dutch Mennonite preacher reading and interpreting Scripture to his wife, hung in Berlin.
“Rembrandt most fully illuminates the book itself [as if to say] ‘the light comes from the Word.’ We don’t worship a silent God in the heavens somewhere, but the incarnate, crucified and risen Christ.”
Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.