Reading old books on Reformation Day

by Scott Stiegemeyer

It is that time of year: when Lutherans around the world reflect upon our spiritual heritage.

Martin Luther himself often figures importantly in these reflections, and for good reason. The image of the monk hammering his 95 Theses onto the door of the Wittenberg Church is indeed powerful. Ultimately, however, we know that our legacy doesn’t rest solely on the back of the great reformer. Luther himself was well aware that he stood on the shoulders of giants. He knew that the Church was not born in 1517, and that the Reformation Church best sees itself in continuity with the Church catholic, the Body of Christ, of all times and places where the Gospel is purely preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered.

As beneficial, then, as it is to read Luther’s works, especially in view of last year’s 500th anniversary celebrations, maybe this year we can dig even deeper and explore the likes of Athanasius, Irenaeus or Augustine — all authors that Luther himself read and knew well. And while it is important to keep up to date with contemporary thought, reading ancient Christian books can do a lot to help us speak to our current age.

Reading old books can help us avoid certain errors. We can learn much from history. There is nothing new under the sun, and many of the false doctrines of the past come back around in new guises and forms. A historical basis can help us to recognize and avoid problems that those who came before us in the faith have already challenged and overcome.

Reading old books can help lift us from the tyranny of now, rescuing us from the kind of chronological snobbery which says that if it is newer, it must be truer. It can also provide us with needed context to help us understand how we got to where we are today.

Perhaps the greatest benefit to reading old Christian books is that, through them, we can learn how better to express the message of Christ to people today.

In the early 1500s, Martin Luther asked the question, “Where can I find a gracious God?” He found the answer upon the cross.

On the one hand, people today are not so very different. Multitudes are still hungry for the peace that comes from reconciliation with their Creator, even if they fail to recognize it. Some things don’t change much. On the other hand, there have been a lot of social and cultural developments in the last 500 years. Not all of these developments should be labelled progress. While the gospel message is timeless, in some important ways, people today are unlike the typical European in the late Middle Ages.  Some of the questions we are asking are different from those Luther faced so heroically. In some respects, in fact, the thought world our congregations are ministering within may be more like the world of the first or second century than the sixteenth. Our churches now must address basic questions like “Who is God?”  “Why does God matter?” Who is Jesus?” “Who am I and what does it mean to be human?” There are things that Luther assumed that we can no longer take for granted. 

Reading ancient church fathers and the fathers of the Lutheran Church can be a challenge because they are obviously not without their flaws. However, their particular flaws are likely to be somewhat different from our own. As C. S. Lewis points out, it is improbable for two or three heads over time to all go astray in exactly the same way. We can draw wisdom from where they get it right, and their particular historical conditions can possibly help us break out of our time-bound presuppositions as well.

This October 31, let’s not be too parochial. Let’s remember that not all Lutherans have German roots, and that being Lutheran actually has very little (if anything) to do with Oktoberfest and bratwurst. In fact, most church-going Lutherans in the world today reside in sub-Saharan Africa. One of our great challenges, no less than it was for Martin Luther, is to communicate the saving Gospel to the people we encounter in a voice that they can understand without compromising the words of eternal life. The Lutheran Church finds its identity in the universal message and reality of God’s gracious orientation toward sinners on account of Christ. The justification of the ungodly, that God credits the guilt of our sins to His Son and the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ to us, remains relevant to every culture and time period. 

As old books go, there is no question that Luther would tell us to read and study God’s Word first and foremost. Everything else we encounter should be viewed through the lens of Scripture. The Bible is the true teaching which makes us wise unto salvation. This is because the whole of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, is Christological. Jesus Christ is the content and focal point for Moses, David, Isaiah, Matthew, John, and Paul, and all the other authors of Holy Scripture.

But our fidelity to Holy Scripture, as Lutheran Christians, does not mean that we should sidestep or overlook the writings of many devoted brothers and sisters in Christ through the ages who have much to say to us. We will need to be discerning, naturally, but this Reformation, why not dust off an old book and make a new friend?

The Rev. Professor Scott Stiegemeyer teaches bioethics and theology at Concordia University, Irvine, Cal.  

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