An Orange Order perspective on the Reformation

As part of the ‘500 Project’ we have asked a range of contributors from across the spectrum to stimulate and challenge our thinking. We won't always agree with all they write, but that’s the point. This piece is by Robert Campbell, Deputy Grand Chaplain of the County Antrim Grand Orange Lodge.



When an insignificant theology lecturer from a backwater university posted a series of points for discussion on the notice board of his town, no one could have imagined that Christendom was about to be turned upside down, especially when his ideas were neither new nor novel.

But that is exactly what Luther's protest of 31 October 1517 did. He was seeking to commence a debate about the perennial question of how your sins can be forgiven. Luther's methodology to a modern audience may appear rather odd - an act of high drama. He was however following normal academic practice of writing out points - or theses - making them public and then (hopefully) sparking debate. Luther had already publicly lectured and preached against indulgences - but this protest took on a life of its own when it was taken down, translated into German, and then widely circulated.

Several unconnected but interrelated events converged in 1517. The Dominican monk and indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel arrived at the edge of Wittenberg while Luther's long time struggle with the question of where a sinner can find forgiveness of sin was being answered as he studied Scripture. Luther was keenly aware that salvation was not in personal performances or acts of piety.

Thus Tetzel's ministry and indulgences were antithetical to Luther's ever more refined understanding of God's grace. For Martin Luther - the pastor of a congregation - 'Indulgences' were a money making racket wrapped within an elaborate theological charade. Such practices live on - just watch satellite television and with little effort you'll find plenty of so called evangelicals - who for the right donation - will pray for your health, wealth and prosperity. Then, just as now, it was the financially poor and the spiritually desperate that were preyed upon.

Erasmus of Rotterdam - no friend of the Reformation - summed up the wider perception of Luther's protest:

"[He] attacked the pope in his crown and the monks in their bellies."

This quip placed the Reformation as an attack on papal power and clergy privilege. We must realise that Luther thought the Pope, when he found out what was going on, would be outraged and ban the selling of indulgences. But the only thing Leo X wanted to shut down was Luther!

The church in 1517 had developed from the pivotal events of 312 - the year of Emperor Constantine's conversion. Christianity had gained social respectability and accompanying power - no longer was suffering and persecution the norm for Christians. However, the church was suddenly flooded - not with converts - but those who always flock to the winning side. 

Too often theological orthodoxy plays the poor hand maiden to ecclesiological power structures - especially when wider social and political power is attached. Orthodoxy cannot be determined by what is expedient - and thus keeps or gains social influence, prestige and authority. Orthodoxy can only be found in fidelity to the Scriptures, come what may.

Luther's home in Wittenberg meant he was far away from the echo-chambers of church and state and there he had time for the rigors of theological and academic study. Luther - via the printing press - was the voice of the Reformation. His exposition of Scripture regarding justification by faith alone, through God's grace alone, flowed through Europe. Luther's teachings were in line with St Augustine, the Second Council of Orange (519), pessimistic nominalism, and much more importantly the Bible. Luther was no theological innovator of heterodox ideas.

It is vital today - as in 312 or 1517 - to understand what a Christian is and how to become a Christian. In the West a militant and uncompromising secularism is sweeping away - or has already swept away - cultural and sentimental Christianity. Therefore we need more than ever, a robust understanding of Jesus' Trinitarian nature, His incarnation, substitutionary death on the cross, His resurrection and His continuing intercession.

We must never retreat into a Protestantism that is defined in ethno-political terms, and expressed solely within the realm of culture and tradition. Instead Protestantism must be expressed in theological terms that centre upon the crucified and risen Saviour. This is then expressed in our worship of Christ with the key elements being: the Bible - read and preached, prayer, congregational praise and the proper administration of the biblical sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper. This may not play to the stands but it is a true expression of the Reformed faith. Consequently, reflection upon Protestantism must illuminate the necessity of salvation, the radical nature of God's free grace in salvation, and that Jesus is our only hope in life and death. 

Too easily Erasmus' quip is taken by friend and foe, as an accurate summary of the Reformation. But Luther's protest centred on the Gospel. If we could learn one thing this year let us learn this: talking about the Reformation without talking about Jesus, is not talking about the Reformation at all.