Wittenberg Beer and the Power of the Word

In honor of our return to Italy to continue, as I explained in a previous post, the work of ‘reformation as mission’ or simply ‘reformission’, I thought that it would be fitting to post one of my favorite quotations from the great Reformer Martin Luther. Luther, as we will remember, is usually identified as marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation on 31 October 1517 when he nailed his famous 95 theses against the abuses of papal indulgences to the door of the Wittenberg church. Although it would be highly reductive and erroneous to credit Luther with singlehandedly sparking the Reformation, he is undoubtedly one of, if not the key figure in the drama that played out in the medieval church during the sixteenth century. Although Luther was not without faults and is varyingly regarded today by Catholics and Protestants alike, it is virtually irrefutable that he had a massive impact on Western Christianity that still continues to this day.

It is interesting to note, therefore, how Luther himself explained, in a sermon he preached in Wittenberg in 1522, the significant things that had taken place in the span of only a few years. He said:

Once, when Paul came to Athens (Acts 17[:16-32], a mighty city, he found in the temple many ancient altars, and he went from one to the other and looked at them all, but he did not kick down a single one of them with his foot. Rather he stood up in the middle of the market place and said they were nothing but idolatrous things and luther_beerbegged the people to forsake them; yet he did not destroy one of them by force. When the Word took hold of their hearts, they forsook them of their own accord, and in consequence the thing fell of itself. Likewise, if I had seen them holding mass, I would have preached tot hem and admonished them. Had they heeded my admonition, I would have won them; if not, I would nevertheless not have torn them from it by the hair or employed any force, but simply allowed the Word to act and prayed for them. For the Word created heaven and earth and all things [Ps. 33:6]; the Word must do this thing, and not we poor sinners.

In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept [cf. Mark 4:26-29], or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.[1]

What I love about this is Luther’s colorful way of describing how the work of ecclesial reform was occurring. Following a reference to Paul’s sermon in Athens and Jesus’ parable of the miraculous and mysterious growth of the kingdom, Luther declared that it was the Word of God itself which had accomplished everything, so much so that he could simply kick back, as it were, with his friends and drink “Wittenberg beer”. This didn’t mean, of course, that Luther was lazy. Quite the contrary, Luther’s work ethic and literary output – his preaching, teaching, and writing – were astonishing by any standard. Nevertheless, Luther wholeheartedly believed that none of his efforts had brought about the monumental events that were occurring around him. If he had done anything, he had only directed people back to the Word of God himself/itself as the only power capable of effecting true transformation and reform. It was not the ‘poor sinner’ Martin Luther who had pierced the darkness of the medieval church; that had been done only by the irrepresible light of the Word that the darkness can neither comprehend nor overcome (John 1:1-5). Thus, like the sower who simply scattered seed and awoke the next morning to find new life bursting from the ground (Mark 4:26-29), Luther merely sought to make known the Word of God which alone could undermine corrupt authorities and revitalize the church. And the Word could do, and indeed did do all this while he slept and drank Wittenberg beer with his friends.

I am greatly encouraged by this. Where I live and work, most people seem cold and indifferent to the Word. Italy has been called ‘the graveyard of missionaries’ because the severe lack of visible fruit causes many to give up and go home. However, it is not only here in Italy, but in every part of the world there are seemingly insurmountable obstacles that face us as the church we seek to obey Christ’s command to make disciples of every nation. We could all benefit, therefore, from listening to Luther and rekindling our singular confidence in the power of the Word to cultivate the kingdom of God in the soil of this world, even when we don’t immediately perceive its effects or understand how it works. The Word does everything; we poor sinners can do nothing except point people to that Word. And perhaps drink some Wittenberg beer.

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[1] Luther, M., 2012. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Third Ed. Eds. T.F. Lull and W.R. Russell, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp.293-294.

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