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July 11, 2015

Convention Bible study links Reformation to liberation

The Reformation sparked by Martin Luther in 1517 was a movement for liberation with lessons echoing through to the present day, church scholars argued in a Bible study at the 15th National Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC).

The Rev. Dr. Allen Jorgenson, assistant dean and associate professor of systematic theology at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. Gordon Jensen, William Hordern chair of theology and dean of studies at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, facilitated the study on the afternoon of Friday, July 10.

“Liberation—we often take it for granted and don’t think much about it,” Rev. Jorgenson began. “But for those who are oppressed, it means everything.”

“Christianity should be, although it hasn’t always been, about liberation and freedom,” he added.

Jorgenson described the Reformation as an attempt by Luther to restore the liberating qualities of the faith.

Luther’s efforts at reform flowed from his responsibilities as a professor of theology who felt the need to speak out when he believed the prevailing theology was in error, and from his duties as a protective pastor.

“The Reformation was about God liberating people from enslaving religiosity … It was about liberating people from oppressions so that people could be liberating people and each other,” Jorgenson said.

Referring to Ephesians 2:8-9, he noted that in the original Greek, the word “you” referred to a community rather than an individual. The focus on “us” rather than “me,” he added, was common to both Indigenous spiritual beliefs and early Christianity.

Basing his analysis on the point that “we are people before we persons,” Jorgenson connected past beliefs with modern concerns.

“What does liberation mean today?” he asked. “It means learning to recognize that we are not self-made individuals … Freedom, true freedom, always aims at the common good.”

As an example, he pointed to the communal work of truth-telling and reconciliation regarding the legacy of residential schools in Canada.

In his own reflections, Rev. Jensen echoed one of the themes of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: “Salvation—not for sale.”

Recounting the oft-told story of how Luther nailed 95 Theses on the wall of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, while acknowledging the disputes surrounding its historical veracity, Jensen described “salvation—not for sale” as one of the biggest lessons of the Reformation.

The idea first emerged as a reaction by Luther to the sale of indulgences by the medieval Catholic Church, which promised to free souls from purgatory in exchange for a monetary fee.

“If [salvation] were for sale, only the rich could be saved,” Jensen said. “Trust in God and God’s grace, and trust in God’s actions for us wouldn’t matter. Our relationship with God would not matter … God then becomes nothing more than a salesperson or greedy capitalist looking to separate us from our money.”

Parallel to the sale of indulgences, on which the Catholic Church had a monopoly, was the doctrine that one could attain salvation through good works.

By contrast, Luther argued that salvation could not be earned, but was possible through faith alone. Rather than being a contract, it was a gift of grace.

“That’s the term that God offers, and this grace breathes life into our world,” Jensen said.

Salvation today, Jorgenson said, consists of “stories, memories, and community” —the story of Jesus through which God would not allow humanity to fail, and the strong relationships that bind people together with God, with creation and with each other.

The scholars wrapped up their study with a series of questions for discussion:

  • What do you think the Reformation in the 16th century liberated people from? What were people liberated for?
  • What do we need liberation from, as individuals and as a church? What are we liberated for?
  • If salvation were for sale, what would it cost? What would you be willing to pay? Who around you couldn’t afford it?
  • If salvation is about being with, what are ways in which God is with you and ways in which you are with others?
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