ifa special interest tour "Luther 2017. 500 years of the reformation in Germany" | 2017

Wartburg in Eisenach, Photo: ifa

Phenomenon Reformation

Here in Germany, the reformation is, in particular, being commemorated as a social, political and cultural phenomenon. Does this perhaps explain why the churches are empty while the commemoration of the reformation is being celebrated as a huge cultural event? A special interest tour with international experts didn’t just look into this intriguing question.

By Sebastian Blottner

Perspectives of a special anniversary

2017 marks 500 years since Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 Theses onto the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In his 95 Theses, Luther criticised the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences and set a momentous series of events into motion: Up until the present day, the publication of his theses is still regarded as the act that triggered the Lutheran reformation, the long and protracted process of global proportions that would ultimately lead to the division of the church, and something that still has significant repercussions for our modern world of today.

In keeping with the significance of the epochal events, an entire Luther decade has been marked in Germany since 2007, and these 10 years of commemoration will come to their climax in 2017. The anniversary was the reason behind the Federal Foreign Office in Germany asking ifa to organise a tour for the delegates as part of "500 years of the reformation in Germany". Clergy, historians and scientists from fifteen countries (Argentina, Ethiopia, Australia, China, Estonia, Great Britain, Guatemala, Indonesia, Kosovo, Latvia, Mexico, Namibia, Romania, Russia and Hungary) visited important reformation centres and places where Luther worked and lived, while also having the opportunity to meet and discuss with many German experts and colleagues.

Cultural Literacy

Over the course of their trip, they gained a comprehensive impression of what the German perspectives are toward the reformation. These focussed on more than just religious aspects, and often looked closely at the change in mentality that was initiated by the reformation. We owe Luther many of the fundamental structural elements of our modern society – work ethic, the pursuit of education or individual responsibility are important key terms that dominated a great many of the exchanges.

In hardly any other country did the macrosocial effects of the reformation extend so far beyond the realms of the church as they did here in Germany. Luther's translation of the Bible was, for example, a milestone in the development of a common German language, a "nation building" that is only difficult to imagine had it not been for a Martin Luther. This explains why the official reformation commissioner appointed by the state government in Thuringia, Thomas A. Seidel, generally described his role within the framework of the anniversary celebrations as "Commissioner for cultural literacy".

An ambivalent symbolic figure

During their time in Germany, the experts and historians very much noticed the extent to which Martin Luther has been effectively stylised into a symbolic figure, a "Label" of the reformation for both the media and the general public. This does not necessarily correspond with the perspectives held in other countries and is also not always positive. The view for the complexity of the many other protagonists who drove the reformation process is not only narrowed, but critical judgements in relation to Luther himself are made more difficult.

There are certainly ambivalent elements in the reformation heritage, Luther’s anti-Semitic writings are an obvious and striking example of this. Capitalism and climate change are also certainly topics that could be understood as heirlooms of the reformation, as Joachim Willems, Professor at the Institute for Evangelical Theology and Religious Pedagogy at the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg, acknowledged. In doing so, he also provided evidence for the potency of the Lutheran reformation, because it was Luther who implanted a "critical gene" in the Evangelical church, as the theologian and journalist Wolfgang Thielmann chose to formulate it. A gene that is today an inextricable part of our society’s DNA.

The clerical versus secular prerogative of interpretation

When looking at and analysing German history and culture, Luther can simply not be avoided. The working relationship between the national government and the church during the organisation of the reformation anniversary was close as a result, and also something specifically German when viewed from an international perspective. In the majority of countries, it is either the case that no such close relationships exist or they are characterised by a far less balanced distribution of tasks and balance in general.

From a clerical perspective, the emphasis on socio-cultural elements of the reformation heritage is a cause of worry due to the potential for the theological aspects to be pushed into the background too much. A question that cropped up several times during the delegation’s trip, but how it was answered depended on very individual points of view. Markus Dröge, Bishop of the regional church Evangelical Church Berlin-Brandenburg-Silesian Upper Lusatia (EKBO) and member of the Council of Evangelical Churches in Germany (EKD), sees more chances than risks. In the face of the major challenges such as the refugee crisis or the increasing strength of right-wing populism, the anniversary of the reformation offers a good opportunity to send a (Christian) message, said Dröge, and that is: Freedom and Responsibility.

This means that two key terms have been named that keep emerging when the heritage and/or long-term consequences of the reformation are discussed. And they are, the relevance for critical thinking, they are values such as education, individual freedom and responsibility; their value within our society was significantly defined by the reformation's transformation process.