College opens series on Luther’s thought

You might wonder what the 16th Century German reformer Martin Luther has in common with contemporary Christians who stress that belief in the atonement of Jesus is essential to salvation. Such folk may be referred to as “evangelicals.” They may or may not believe that everything in scripture is true and relevant to our world today.

A lot of history has passed in the almost 500 years since Martin Luther made public his desire to debate some doctrines and practices which had crept into the government-connected Roman Catholic church of his time. It seems that he never intended to start a movement that rocked the known (European) world.

In the first of a series of lectures to commemorate the anniversary, the faculty in the religion and philosophy departments of Roanoke College brought to Salem recently a young scholar and author from the history department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At 35, Dr. Molly Worthen, educated entirely at Yale University and with a special interest in conservative Christian thought, attempted to show how Luther influences such churches as the Baptist today.

She drew an audience of students, faculty and a limited number of Roanoke area church folk. Following her well-reasoned 40-minute presentation, a panel of professors offered brief observations or raised questions related to how the historical figure connects.  Several future scholars will consider other aspects of Luther’s thought.

For this veteran of many such talks, following Worthen’s analysis was a challenge.  It seemed clear to me that the major connection of Luther to conservative Christians today is that without him – and many other reformers that have followed over the centuries – none of the many denominations we know today would exist.

Tracing their history back to the centuries following Luther’s are not only the various groups which take their names from his but also Anglicans/Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Churches of the Brethren, Quakers, Baptists and Mennonites. Before all these were a group from Central Europe known as Moravians, and in England as early as the early 14th Century another group led by John Wycliffe who spoke of the need for reform—which the Catholics eventually did.

Some other groups came later and include United Methodists, Disciples of Christ, Unitarians, Unity and various Pentecostals focused on healing. These arose from divisions in the older groups or ideas set forth much earlier.

But Worthen was clearly well into her subject as she asserted that some popular preachers on TV ‘would drive Martin Luther crazy. There is similarity when they suggest that donating to their ministries will result in riches as well as health. These, she pointed out, are not far removed from the “indulgences” – paying for one’s future salvation – that so disturbed the reformer.

Worthen mentioned often Luther’s fondness for paradoxes. That abstract word may be defined as “a statement that appears to contradict common sense and yet may be true” as a God who both loves and corrects or a believer who cannot entirely accept.

In some evangelical belief systems doubt about the sovereignty of God is regarded as sinful, the speaker pointed out while others may see this as part of the human condition. Luther insisted that faith alone saves, but others of his Protestant descendants see “surrender to Christ” as only the beginning of embarking on a holy life with desire to help others flowing from it.

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