That Time Martin Luther Became a Thief

In this 1875 painting by Gustav Adolph Spangenberg, “Luther Making Music in the Circle of His Family”, Melanchthon is portrayed sitting at the table behind them. Apparently he was present at every Luther family gathering?

The relationship between the German Reformers Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon has been puzzled over by scholars for centuries. They were fellow professors at the University of Wittenberg and collaborated on a number of projects, from a German translation of the Bible to the Augsburg Confession. Yet, there were undoubtedly some theological differences between them in later years, and all their contemporaries noted that their personalities were essentially opposites. Luther himself once characterized the relationship in the following way.

I am rough, boisterous, stormy, and altogether warlike. I am born to fight against innumerable monsters and devils. I must remove stumps and stones, cut away thistles, and thorns, and clear the wild forests; but Master Philip comes along softly and gently, sowing and watering with joy, according to the gifts which God has abundantly bestowed upon him.[1]

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B.B. Warfield in Dayton

B.B. Warfield photographed during his later years as principal of Princeton Theological Seminary.

When it comes to the history of Dayton, Ohio, my home for the past three years, there is pretty much one name that you need to know: Wright, as in the Wright Brothers, creators of the world’s first practical airplane. The successful test flight famously took place on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but all of the grunt work was done here in Dayton, where Wilbur and Orville Wright applied their bicycle-making expertise to a loftier venture. The town is full of things named after them, most particularly Wright State University and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

True to this heritage, Dayton is known to this day for its association with all things aviation. My husband often jokes that, “There are three things to do in Dayton. There’s the Air Force Museum…and I’m still trying to figure out the other two.” That is surely an exaggeration: we also host the first four games of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament each year, a nearby village has one of the world’s biggest Christmas light displays, and if none of that strikes your fancy, Cincinnati is just an hour down the road.

What Dayton is not particularly known for is its religious heritage. We do have a major Catholic university in town – the University of Dayton – and for those of a more evangelical fervor, there’s Cedarville University out in the neighboring cornfield. But upon the streets of Dayton, you will find neither megachurches nor world-renowned seminaries. As much of Ohio was settled by German immigrants, we are also a bit lean on what you might classify as the Reformed brand of Protestant Christianity. If you want some Reformed heritage, your best bet would be to go to downtown Cincinnati and visit the mother congregation of Reformed Judaism. Continue reading

The Reformer Who Wrote Erotic Poetry

Theodore Beza, lover of fancy hats. Portrait by an unknown artist circa 1605.

History is full of odd tales, and nowhere more so than during the Protestant Reformation. We have, for example, the much beloved story of how Martin Luther’s future wife, Katharina Von Bora, escaped from her convent in a fish barrel, giving new meaning to the phrase, “That’s a pretty kettle of fish.” The relationship between the two of them and the subsequent improvements in Herr Luther’s bowel movements are rather the stuff of legend. (More about Luther, Germans, and poop can be found here.)

Then there was Wibrandis Rosenblatt, who managed to get herself married to three different Protestant Reformers – Johannes Oecolampadius (Try saying that three times fast!), Wolfgang Capito, and Martin Bucer. Now, I must stress that this dear lady was not married to them all at the same time, but rather in succession after they each went the way of all flesh. Indeed, before she was ever married to Oecolampadius, she was already the widow of one Ludwig Keller (Ancestor of Timothy Keller? Just throwing it out there…). That makes a total of four husbands for Wibrandis, which is either incredibly unlucky or incredibly suspicious.

However, for our story today I would like to take us a bit farther south to the town of Geneva, nestled on a beautiful lake at the feet of the Alps. Long before it was nagging the rest of the world about how it should behave in times of war, Geneva hosted a rather interesting religious experiment when it invited a French expat named Jean Calvin – yes, that’s John Calvin – to carry out a reformation in the city along with Guillaume Farel. This was an important development in the history of the Reformed Protestant tradition.

But I’m not going to talk about Calvin today – sorry to burst your bubble. I know Calvin is much beloved in these parts, even by those who have never bothered to read any of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his greatest lasting legacy. No, I would like to talk about one of Calvin’s close associates, Théodore de Bèze, better known in the English speaking world as Theodore Beza. His is a truly fascinating story with many twists and turns. Continue reading

Truth with a Capital ‘T’

Saint Peter's Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City (author photo)

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the other articles at the bottom of this page.

When I finally had the chance to visit Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the largest and arguably most important church in the world, there were three things in particular that I wanted to do: 1) I wanted to gaze in wonder at Michelangelo’s Pietà. 2) I wanted to stand on the same red porphyry tile on which my distant ancestor Charlemagne was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor. 3) I wanted to pray for the reconciliation of the Church.

The basilica did not disappoint. We got there early enough in the morning that it was not yet packed with tourists, so the place was quite peaceful. I was unfortunately not able to get close to the Pietà as the chapel was blocked off, but I did see it from a distance. I confused my husband thoroughly by making him take my picture standing on the porphyry. I tried to explain in whispered tones the significance of this rare holdover from the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica, but in the end I suppose it was just a reddish piece of stone.

We had made our way through much of the sanctuary (no small task, especially when you are stopping constantly to take pictures) and were about to head down to the grottoes when I chose my moment to pray. I had many altars to pick from, but all featured relics or icons of some saint or another to which Catholic pilgrims were praying, and I would have felt somewhat of a fraud kneeling there. Therefore, I picked an obliging spot near the Altar of the Transfiguration – roughly halfway between the bones of Saint Peter and Saint Gregory – and squatted down to say my prayer. Continue reading

A New (Old) Commandment

Depiction of Christ washing Peter's feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

Depiction of Christ washing Peter’s feet at the Last Supper by Giotto di Bondone, circa 1304-1306. Photo by Jose Luiz.

This is the ninth in a series of article on the topic of reconciliation. You will find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

I sincerely hope by this point that the biblical imperative regarding reconciliation has been well established and that it has been made clear just how vital of an issue this is: the most vital, really, for within the concept of reconciliation all the things that pertain to salvation are encompassed along with our purpose on this earth. We have also taken a look at the underlying heart attitudes that can make or break reconciliation. The conversation has for the most part centered on relationships between two individuals, or between the individual and God. By focusing on big concepts rather than specific circumstances, it is possible that I have even made it this far without seriously offending you. Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

It is necessary that we move beyond this limited scope and begin to examine reconciliation on a corporate level. Here it is worth noting that every Christian has relationships with two kinds of people: those who are Christians and those who are not. Reconciliation is needed in both areas, but I am going to begin by examining reconciliation among Christians themselves, for if we cannot get our own house in order, we have little hope outside the walls, so to speak. Continue reading

The Origins of the Protestant Reformation

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Can you recall the first time you learned about the Protestant Reformation? In all likelihood, you were told a story somewhat like this. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of a church that stated his complaints with Roman Catholicism. This began the splitting of Western Christianity into two primary groups: Catholics and Protestants. Regardless of where you grew up and what form of religion your family practiced, the issue was almost certainly presented in this manner.

Most people today will never progress beyond that extremely limited and largely misleading version of events, nor will they come to realize the vast ways in which their own lives have been affected by the Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, if we are to truly understand what happened on that October day, we must go back in time and consider the events leading up to that period. Continue reading

Happy Reformation Day!

Wittenberg All Saints Church, The Theses Doors, Wiki AlterVista

The “Theses Doors” at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther purportedly nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” on October 31, 1517. Photo by Wikipedia user AlterVista

It is October 31st, a day which in the United States is associated with Halloween, a celebration that mostly involves dressing up, pigging out on candy, and covering the neighbor’s yard with toilet paper and smashed pumpkins.  However, did you also know that October 31st is Reformation Day?  What is Reformation Day?  Allow me to explain…

Nearly half a millennium ago, on October 31, 1517, a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany drafted an announcement of an upcoming university debate and posted it to the door of the local church, which in those days served as a kind of town message board. This is the kind of everyday occurrence that normally gets ignored by historians, except that the man’s name was Martin Luther and his announcement contained a list of “Ninety-Five Theses” that laid out what he believed were necessary reforms in the Catholic Church. As it turns out, the typical story of Luther authoritatively attaching his list of demands to the church door is likely apocryphal and based mostly on the account of his friend Philip Melanchthon, who may or may not have actually been in town at the time the event was supposed to have occurred. Continue reading