A Journal of Catholic Reflection for Southern Africa

Volume 34 No 1
April 2017

The Message of Martin Luther in the Present Context of Southern Africa: The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (2017)

Editor: Georg Scriba

The year 2017 marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. The
anniversary is celebrated not only by Lutherans, but also by many members
of the so-called main-line churches, including the Roman Catholic Church.
For this reason Pope Francis (RCC) and Bishop Mounib Younan (President
of LWF) signed the ‘Joint Statement of Commemorating the Reformation’ in
the Lund Cathedral, Sweden on 31 October 2016. This is a clear sign that the
churches are trying to overcome past conflicts which separated the churches
for some 500 years and move toward closer communion.
It was in this spirit that the theme chosen this year for the St Joseph’s
Theological Institute Fourth Academic Conference, held 20 April 2017 – 22
April 2017, was ‘Reform and Renewal: From Conflict to Communion Then and
Now – On the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.’ This theme may be seen
as a follow-up to the combined service at the (then) School of Theology at the
University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in November 1999 in commemoration of
the combined ‘Joint Declaration on Justification’
which was celebrated within
the Cluster of theological institutions in and around Pietermaritzburg by St
Joseph’s (SJTI) and the then Lutheran House of Studies (Luthos).
The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation is being celebrated especially
by Evangelical Lutherans, of whom some 74 million members world-wide
are united in 145 churches of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and some
3 million Lutherans in churches not affiliated to the LWF. The theme of the
12th Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation commemorating the 500th
anniversary of the Reformation in Windhoek/Namibia from 10-16th May
2017, was: ‘Liberated by God’s Grace’, with three sub-themes (in which we
can discover the three articles of faith, believing in God’s creation, the Lord’s
salvation, the Spirit’s communion): ‘Creation – Not for Sale’; ‘Salvation – Not
for Sale’; ‘Human Beings – Not for Sale.’ The words ‘not for sale’ remind us
of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses against the sale of indulgences, which
he reportedly nailed to the Castle Church door at Wittenberg on 31st October
1517 and which are said to have marked the beginning of the Reformation.
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Some of the theses are still as true for us today, in our very different situation,
as there were 500 years ago, e.g.:
1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, said, ‘Repent’ (Matt.4:17), he
willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
43. Christians are to be taught that to give to the poor or to lend to the needy is
a better work than the purchase of indulgences.
62. The true treasure of the Church is the most holy Gospel of the glory and
grace of God.
94. Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their head,
through penalties, death, and hell.
95. And thus be confident of entering into heaven through many tribulations
rather than through the false security of peace (Acts 14:22) (Luther, Ninety-
Five Theses).
To commemorate 500 years of Reformation the theological journal Grace &
Truth, published by St Joseph’s Theological Institute, is producing a special
edition on: ‘The Message of Martin Luther in the Present Context of Southern
Africa.’ The topic is being viewed from different perspectives, one more
on Luther’s theological foundational standpoints, as Luther’s Experiential
Theology, and the other on their ethical implications, as Luther’s Contextual
Theology. The articles of this volume want to address these issues for our
present situation in South Africa.
The edition begins with an essay by Klaus Nürnberger entitled ‘Core
Insights of Martin Luther and Their Contemporary Relevance’, which shows
that Luther’s key insights (justification by grace, accepted in faith) which
‘characterised his spiritual breakthrough [are] as valid and relevant for us today
as they were during his time.’ The author explains how these insights, being the
foundation of Luther’s theology, are (for instance) important for proclaiming
the Word of God as an ‘external’ word or for ‘the modern encounter between
faith and science.’ The author also reflects on the ordained ministry as having
the task to ‘proclaim and enact the humble and sacrificial spirit of Jesus of
Nazareth’ and ‘any glorification of the office … is out of character with the
Christian faith.’ Such an approach can be applied to all forms of ‘leadership
in all dimensions of life.’
Philippe Denis in his article ‘The Changing Faces of Martin Luther in
Catholic Historiography’ surveys the five-century-long history of the Catholic
representations of Luther from the time of the Reformation until today. The
author demonstrates that although many Catholic writers portrayed Luther ‘in
negative terms, there were always theologians and historians who recognised
in him a man of faith whose theological views deserved consideration.’ This
became especially evident in the period preceding and following the Second
Vatican Council which led ‘to the Catholic rediscovery of Luther, spiritual
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man and talented theologian.’ This however was possible ‘when ecumenism,
long considered with suspicion in the Catholic Church, started to be regarded
as a noble project.’
Claudia Nolte-Schamm’s paper ‘Luther’s Theology of the Cross for South
Africa’ sketches the basic principles of the theology of the cross as brought
forward by Martin Luther and she applies them to the present context of South
African people. First, the author highlights ‘the hidden God and how God’s
work is revealed in unexpected ways.’ Then, she points to ‘the hidden God of
the cross and how the cross of Christ is the ultimate paradigm of God’s way
of acting in the world.’ The argument here is that Luther’s theology of the
cross reveals God as the ‘suffering’ God, but also as God of ‘solidarity and
protest’ and as the risen Lord. Finally, the author examines ‘the significance
of the theology of the cross for South Africa in view of South Africa’s past of
repression and injustice.’
The article: ‘Back to Basis – Martin Luther’s Message in the Small
Catechism for South Africa Today’ by Georg Scriba brings the reader ‘back
to the basis of faith’ as presented in Luther’s Small Catechism which ‘has
become the most distributed and translated Lutheran book.’ The Catechism has
been used as an instruction book for Lutheran families, schools and churches
since the arrival of the Lutheran mission societies and immigration groups to
South Africa. As Christians live in the age of science, the explosion of social
media, exegetical-critical biblical interpretation, ecumenical dialogue, but
also past and present injustices, a valid question remains whether Luther’s
Small Catechism can still be relevant for contemporary ‘learners, students
and Christians after 500 years.’ Can it lead people ‘back to the basis of faith’?
Can it be contextualized for our times? In his analysis, the author argues for a
positive answer to those questions.
The remaining essay of Gertrud Tönsing entitled ‘Ecumenism, Reconciliation
and the Lutheran Divine Service’ raises an important question in the context of
the commemoration of the Reformation when numerous services and events are
organized all over the world. The question is whether ‘ecumenical and multicultural
worship can be seen as enriching Christian fellowship, and what the
Lutheran contribution would be to shape and enhance such an open worship
culture.’ In the author’s view, this question should begin within the Lutheran
family, but also point beyond denominational boundaries. She argues that many
of the held events ‘are ecumenical, signaling a concern to heal the wounds
that were torn open 500 years ago and so to come together across the dividing
lines of denomination and theological disputes.’ Yet, those events also point to
the remaining dividing lines ‘not only between denominations, but sometimes
also within denominations.’ The author accurately observes that ‘sometimes
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diversity is seen as an enriching reality, other times it is understood as a barrier
to coming together.’
We hope that these articles will be of assistance to the readers in
understanding the message of the Reformation anew as a vehicle to bring God’s
unconditional acceptance and love also into our time and country and thereby
bring the churches closer together from conflict to communion.