As many are aware, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses against Indulgences. That set in motion a chain of events that led to the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, particularly human rules created by the institutional church. Luther and his colleagues changed the course of history in ways which have benefitted the world to this day.

Luther’s break with the theologically dubious traditions of the papal church were fueled by his reading of the Bible. Instead of bringing human reason to interpret scripture, Luther brought scripture to interpret fallen, sinful humanity. This approach always strikes the world both as other worldly and as unworldly. Sadly, later Lutherans quickly “corrected” the situation by turning and returning the Reformation into a revised form of ossified church where reason took precedence over scripture. Today, western societies have jettisoned scripture for what they believe are rational, human principles rising above the supposedly superstitions and fractious nature of the Christian religion.

A quick glance at the world around us, however, shows that those who consider themselves so very enlightened are still in the dark with respect to the human condition which theologians call sin. Secular humanists think that they can resolve humanity’s ills with the right (or the left) policies or politics or protections or … All those endeavours, however, still amount to works of the law, works righteousness, which may temporarily restrain human sin but which are unable to resist or resolve the inbred death dealing power of sin. Perhaps more ironically and confusedly, secular humanists believe that if they get rid of God they will simultaneously get rid of human sin. Why, then, is the world beset like never before with the telltale signs of human of human sin, such as despair, denigration, and destruction? Getting rid of God does not seem to be working, but the secular humanists keep working at it, unsuccessfully, but with a great sense of self-rigteousness nonetheless.

During the last week in July, I attended the 13th International Luther Congress for Luther Research in Wittenberg, Germany. Academics and scholars from around the world gathered to present papers and engage in lively exchange of ideas and insights brought to the fore through studying the works of the great reformer. Luther taught at the University of Wittenberg. His theology permeated the known world, and likewise, people from all over the known world came to Wittenberg to learn from Luther (at least by learning about Luther). The Luther Congress demonstrated that “learning from Luther” is definitely still alive today, but is it well?

An undercurrent at the Luther Congress was felt through the differences among the Luther academics and scholars present. These differences have existed since Luther’s death when the Lutherans sought either to improve on Luther through their own agenda or sought to repristinate Luther as he originally was. These differences always raise the question what it means to be a Lutheran, which in its own way is the question of what it means to be a Christian.

When Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V and was asked to recant this writings, he replied, “Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen” (LW 332:112-113).

Are we Lutherans still bound by and to scripture and thus freed by the gospel to be justified by faith alone, or do we seek instead to bind scripture in the same way that we are bound to sin and seek our own righteousness through our own works?