Why Martin Luther is still relevant

The stained glass window behind Religion Professor Anthony Bateza in Boe Memorial Chapel traces the history of the Reformation.

Interviewed By Gaju Aline ’19 

St. Olaf College Professor of Religion Anthony Bateza has long been examining Martin Luther’s understanding of the human agency and its relationship with the virtue tradition, which focuses on questions of character, ethics, faith, and moral formation.

Earning his bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University and masters of divinity at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Bateza — who joined the Lutheran church as a college student after being invited by friends — was ordained and served for four years as an ELCA pastor before receiving his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. While working on his dissertation on Luther, Bateza himself struggled with questions of ethics and faith and what resources Lutheranism provided that would answer his questions.

He joined the St. Olaf Religion Department in 2015, teaching courses on Martin Luther as well as Christian theology and ethics. Although he came late to the Lutheran tradition, Bateza says that Luther is always in the background of his classes and at the back of his mind, even as his students come from different faith traditions, or none at all.

“I’m honest with my students on the first day [of class] that I am Lutheran and that my thinking is going to be shaped by that,” he says. For example, in a course that focuses on race, ethnicity, and community in the Bible, Bateza challenges his students to think about how biblical figures were included or excluded, and how that speaks to us today.

Luther, Bateza says, believed that words really matter, and that the spoken word can change someone’s heart. “I take that in my classroom and encourage my students to think about what they say and how their words affect others around them,” he says.

We had a chance to talk to Professor Bateza about Martin Luther (1483–1546) before his trip to Wittenberg, Germany, where he attended the International Congress for Luther Research, marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Here’s what he had to say:

Understanding Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a passionate and intelligent man living in a complicated religious and political world. He came from an upwardly mobile family that sent him off to college for a promising and profitable career in law. But instead of becoming a lawyer, Luther joined an Augustinian monastic community and ended up launching a movement that reshaped the religious landscape.

Luther did not intend to shake up the Christian world in the way that he did. He began by observing, and criticizing, the church’s understanding of grace and the practice of offering “indulgences” — certificates that would reduce or cancel out the time a person needed to spend paying for sins in purgatory after death. Luther drafted the 95 Theses, propositions for public dialogue and debate, which he did not expect to have much impact.

But like many movements, what started as a localized criticism quickly gained momentum and spiraled out into larger issues. Luther found himself embroiled in debates about the Pope’s authority, the role of monks and nuns, the proper use and interpretation of the Bible, and the structure of the worship service, to name but a few issues.

To really understand Luther, we need to pay attention to his brilliance and his blemishes. Luther was one who always believed that truth and honesty are expected from those who claim a relationship with the God who raised Jesus and liberated Israel. I hope that being honest about Luther encourages us to be just as honest about ourselves, celebrating our genuine accomplishments while confessing and repenting of our failures.

WHY LUTHER STILL MATTERS

When I think about Luther’s relevance today, particularly for those of us connected to the larger St. Olaf family, three important topics come to mind.

First, there is the historical significance of Luther’s life and work. Many people today have little to no understanding about the history of Christianity and how this history continues to shape our present world. Learning about Luther teaches us that the past is much more complicated and dynamic than we might realize. The different Protestant reformers who followed Luther built on his teaching, whether they looked to extend or reject his ideas.

Second, I would say that Luther’s theological significance continues to be felt, particularly when we consider his understanding of God’s grace. The idea that God gives Godself freely to people is just as radical today as it was in Luther’s time. We know that the world can be a less than gifted and gracious place at times. We are constantly being evaluated, whether in the classroom or on our social media feeds. Luther’s thinking looks to relativize this way of seeing ourselves and our world.

Third, Luther was an ambitious young man in the right place at the right time. He identified an important, concrete challenge and sought to address it in a way that fit with his identity as a Christian preacher and professor. I believe that this lesson remains essential today. When we look at people who have had a significant impact on the world, they have done this by honing their skills and focusing their attention on concrete problems they identified.

I think that we do the same kind of work here on the Hill. We have students, faculty, staff, and alumni holding us accountable to our stated commitment to being a critical, inclusive, and engaged community. I would argue that these folks are, in their own way, taking on Luther’s mantle, and I’m excited to see how our Lutheran tradition can nourish this work in ways that bear fruit.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THE REFORMATION

Remembrance is at the heart of the Reformation movement. Martin Luther and others saw themselves as reformers who were calling to mind Christian traditions from the past by, in part, calling out errors and abuses they recognized in the present, going into the treasury of the past and bringing out what was old and new. I believe that this sense of remembrance is at work in our [anniversary] commemorations this year.

From a historical perspective, I think that reminding ourselves about the Reformation is of value in and of itself. In a fast-paced media world, our minds are constantly buzzing about the latest political, economic, and cultural events. Taking time to learn about history, to see how the lives of figures in the past were similar and different than our own and to gain a better understanding of the events that have shaped us, is vitally important.

LUTHER ON AUTHORITY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE

Luther blends a conservative view of authority, at least in the political realm, with a liberal dose of biting social criticism. He is a product of the late-medieval world and has no problem with taking up the pen as a form of resistance and excoriating malevolent princes and exploitative economic systems. He thinks that a good political leader is a “rare bird,” and that most are more concerned with their own power instead of the plight of the common people.

While the state has the right to use military and policing powers, Luther worries that corrupt leaders are abusing this authority and failing to show mercy when needed. He suspects that the banking and economic forces of his time are also oppressing the people. Indeed, one of his criticisms of the sale of “indulgence” was that the average family was being fleeced by wolves in clerical dress.

We have seen debates about poverty, wage stagnation, and the ongoing inability of political systems to address these concerns in recent months. I believe that Luther’s thinking here is sharp enough, and complicated enough, to provide us with rich resources for engaging these debates in Lutheran terms.