A website and blog of


Lutheran public witness today

Karen L. Bloomquist

Saturday, March 05, 2016

 A guide to discuss implications of the Reformation today



(includes summaries of the 94 theses of the Radicalizing Reformation project)

“You shall proclaim liberation throughout the land” (Lev. 25:10)



Martin Luther began his 95 Theses of 1517 with Jesus’ call for repentance as a change of mind and direction: “Return, the just world of God has come near!” Five hundred years later is also a time that brings to mind the biblical “Jubilee Year” (Lev 25), calling for repentance and conversion toward a more just society. For us today, this is not in opposition to the Catholic Church and the many liberation movements rooted there, but in opposition to the realities of empire that rule.

As we hear the testimony of the cross (1 Cor 1:18) and the groaning of the abused creation ( Rom 8:22) and as we actively hear the cries of those victimized by our world (dis-)order driven by hyper-capitalism – only then can we turn this Reformation commemoration into a liberating jubilee. Christian self-righteousness, supporting the dominating system, is in contradiction to faith-righteousness as proclaimed by the Reformation. This must be lived out through just, all-inclusive solidarity. The present moment of crisis that we currently face across the globe on all levels is a time to recognize the predatory and destructive forces inherent in what is dominating our world today, in order to reorient ourselves in hope towards a new culture of life.

The rampant destruction of human and non-human life in a world ruled by the totalitarian dictatorship of money and greed, market and exploitation requires a radical re-orientation towards the biblical message, which also marked the beginning of the Reformation. The dominant economic system and its imperial structures and policies have put the earth, human communities, and the future of our children up for sale. Our churches, congregations, and individual Christians have often become complacent and complicit with the established status quo and have lost their critical-prophetic power to protest, resist, and change what is occurring. God’s justification by grace has been detached from social justice and thus serves as “useless salt” (Mt 5:13). Because the Reformation legacy has gone astray, we must at the same time return to some of Luther’s thought and legacy, as well as standing decidedly against other things he said and did, if this is to become a kairoitic time of transformation today.

“For liberation the Messiah has liberated us” (Gal 5:1) (theses 1-4):

Christ brings liberation from what St. Paul, who lived in the context of the Roman Empire, refers to as the “terrorizing domination of sin.” (Rom 5:12-8:2). When justification is not understood according to the pattern of the Exodus but reduced only to individual guilt and forgiveness, it is seriously cut off from the wide social and political richness of the biblical context. This domination of sin holds all people captive as a master over slaves and thus makes them collaborators in the imperial system and laws.

Paul directs his hope towards God's final intervention, which for him has already begun with Jesus' resurrection. Christ alone is Lord (Kyrios). Liberation in Christ affects the whole human being, all people, and the whole creation. Through faith we live a new life as liberated people.

How does this empower us who live under economic and/or political domination today?

“You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Mt 6:24) (theses 5-23)

The rule of capital is today's expression of Mammon, and thus the central challenge of faith. Already in the 16th century Luther called Mammon “the most common god on earth” (Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Commandment).

This rule of money together with theological opposition to it developed historically with the expansion of an economy based on money and private ownership. Since the time of the Reformation, the contemporary globalized capitalism of modernity has been manifest in European exploitation, colonization, and genocide in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. This continues today in widespread land grabs, in the privatization of the genetic commons of humanity, and through the privatization of land, water, and air.

What are examples of this in your context?

In Scripture, property is intended for furthering life and the common good of all. Human beings are created by God with the mission "to serve and keep the garden" (Gen 2:15). Instead today private property has become absolute and individualism prevails. The capitalist economy drives unlimited growth which endangers all life on our planet. In contrast. the Bible establishes a political economy of “enough for all” based on sharing what is given for the common good of all (Exod 16). In our time, we are not calling for a return to the historical forms of socialism that have had some effects as destructive as capitalism, but instead for forms of economic life that build on God’s gifts, protect the commons, and produce and distribute goods and services in ways that are both democratic and ecologically sensitive.

For Luther, either people are determined by God – so that they live compassionately and righteously in relation to others -- or they are determined by the power of sin, living distorted, self-centered, competitive lives that destroy other creatures. By trusting in the liberating righteousness of God, we break free from the destructive role of money and are empowered to live in compassionate solidarity with other humans and the rest of creation. Forgiveness of sins by grace, deliverance from the power of the devil, and the promise of eternal life in this context meant not only spiritual freedom but freedom for reconciliation with and ethical responsibility to the neighbor.

Rather than viewing salvation only in spiritualized or individualist ways, both the Bible and Luther speak of free persons in just relationships. Reading biblical texts individualistically supports capitalist-based assumptions today. According to Jesus, those who are just forgive debts for the sake of those indebted, rather than abiding by rules of debt repayment (Mt 6:12). Paul proposes building alternative communities of Jews and Greeks who live in solidarity in the spirit of the Messiah who was crucified by the Empire.

The majority of Church Fathers interpreted the death of Jesus on the Cross in terms of a ransom theory. The devil, who never forgives debts, demands ransom for the liberation of humankind. Christ exposes this and thus frees us. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) turns this upside down in his satisfaction theory. According to him the law of debt-repayment stands higher than God. This is why God must sacrifice his son in order to establish a storehouse of merits, which people can draw on in order to pay off their debts. This not only lays the ground for the medieval penitential system, which Luther rejects, but also for capitalism’s law of debt repayment. Luther returns to the biblical truth that God forgives with no exceptions, and out of this forgiveness grows the trust that grounds solidarity with the neighbor, including interest-free lending or giving and the intervention of the government when public welfare is endangered.

According to Scripture, people are justified by grace and not by their performance .While for Luther, justification by grace alone expressed an understanding of equality, the Reformation failed to make this concrete socially and economically. In fact, later Lutheranism even turned social and economic inequality into a hierarchical God-given order! This culminated in asserting the autonomy of the market and/or the state, which both Scripture and Luther explicitly critique.

How do you especially experience these tensions or conflicts?

Because of their effect on the common people of his day, Luther said a clear “No!” to the structure and practices of the banking and trading companies of his time.. Today the forces of economic growth, monetary expansion, and privatization threaten planetary death. In this regard, long-term alternatives to the neoliberal capitalist system are needed and possible. This new order takes root in local communities, in cooperation with others in civil society.

“The message of the cross...is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18) (theses 24-32)

Since the Middle Ages, many have understand Jesus’ death as God “sacrificing his son” in order to save human beings. This interpretation turns God into a sadistic ruler who produces suffering. However, God saves from violence, not through violence. The cross was the Roman Empire’s instrument to execute rebels and fugitive slaves. Many innocent people became victims of this public demonstration of power, as illustrated here. The crucified Jesus is deeply connected to them.

Theology of the cross can overcome a previous tainting imagery between the cross and crusade in the colonial time The encounter with the risen Christ sheds new light on the cross (Luke 24). In the light of the resurrection, Jesus is written into the lamentations of traumatized people, giving them hope (Ps 22:2; Mk 16:34, Ps 22:26). The resurrection is decisive judgment against the powers of violence, the most radical implementation of God’s unconditional solidarity with all suffering creatures and an expression of God’s faithfulness and justice toward all people and creation.

The Reformation teaching of justification should break through Western possessive individualism and political quietism, liberating human beings from all the idolatrous assumptions, upon which we base our lives: the privileges of species, sex, gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and class. Justification should be reclaimed as a way of expressing God’s deep compassion in the death of Jesus Christ for all, reinforcing our public responsibility for the political realm, economic justice, and recognition of the Other.

What implications do these meanings of the cross and resurrection have in your context?

“See, everything has become new” (2 Cor 5:17) (theses 33-46):

The Christian gospel is indeed about reconciliation between God and humanity, and about reconciliation between human beings. But if “gospel” does not succeed in reconciling the whole of creation, it is not the gospel (2 Co 5:18). God’s gracious presence is in all creation, responding to its cries (Rom 8:18-23). All of life is divinely infused; the whole world is a sacramental reality. As followers of Christ we too are called into communion with the world – a this-worldly faith that is made real when we join in God’s mission for the renewal of all creation.

Mother Earth is being crucified and has to experience resurrection (Rom 8:22). We are human beings not because we consume, but because we need to live connected to and caring for all creation.. "The Gospel of all creatures" (Mark 16:15, according to Luther's translation) is interrupted if human beings destroy or are unjust toward creation. We are to preserve creation as God's garden through a righteous personal stance and through new economic, social, and ecological politics for the welfare of the entire creation and all peoples of the world. This includes how children and their future are seen and treated.

“Life in fullness” (John 10:10) breaks with previous concepts of economic development. It does not aim at “having more,” as in accumulation and growth, but in living toward balance in all relationships. An unfinished task of Reformation theology is to fight for and proclaim the right for life in fullness for the whole creation.

How is creation especially being abused in your context? How are you addressing this?

“Blessed are the peacemakers“(Mt 5:9) (theses 47-57):

Hear the cries of those who have suffered violence, especially those made victims by followers of the Reformation – such as peasants, Anabaptists (Mennonites), Jews, Muslims! Hear the cries of those suffering violence today – whether through domestic abuse, economic exploitation, violations of human rights, injustice against creation, state imperialism, and ongoing wars!

All violence is in reaction to previous forms of violence -- – structural violence, technological violence, military violence, physical and psychological violence of every kind. The universality of violence becomes evident in the practice of identifying others as "enemies," making them into scapegoats (Acts 7:54-60).

Violence is always illegitimate; it can never serve as a means for attaining any goal. There is no “measured” violence, no “just” war,” no “justifiable” war. Enforcing the law cannot rest upon violence. Legal systems must be judged against the yardstick of bringing peace through justice. Wherever humans suffer violence, they are to be protected by practices of peacemaking.

Practicing peace means living, speaking, and acting without violence, and doing that which promotes peace.

The way of peacemaking, as embodied by Jesus, joins God's nonviolent praxis with the cause of all those who practice nonviolence, which is a sign of God's reign of shalom (Isaiah 11:6-9).

What does this call for in your setting? In relation to others in the world?

“Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the Torah of Christ” (Gal 6:2) (theses 58-76):

The Reformation originates with Luther's rediscovery of God's justice as creative and renewing power. For Paul, the justice of God implies that “in Christ” the polarities and hierarchies of this “present evil world order” (Gal 1:4) have been overcome. “We” are not what segregates us from the “others” but what interconnects us with them. The human divisions of nation, religion, gender, and class, which constitute the “self” as enemy and rival of the “other,” are removed in baptism “like old garments.” God's justice, the justification of the human being, and human justice are all inseparably connected.

Luther regularly juxtaposes “justice/righteousness through the law” with “justice/righteousness through faith” and on this basis (in Galatians) sees an irreconcilable polarity of Judaism against Christianity. The negative classification of Judaism and law also has become a major factor in the fundamental downgrading of the whole Old Testament. Luther falsely identifies the law that Paul criticizes with the Jewish Torah, rather than with the law and order imposed by the Roman Empire. Paul’s community model of solidarity between Jews and non-Jews “in Christ” clashes in the first place with these imperial settings and social norms, and with Roman emperor religion.

Furthermore, Judaism was connected with Roman Catholicism, both being accused of being “legalistic religions” that achieve “justice/righteousness through works of the law.” The polarity of “works versus grace/faith” and “gospel versus law” has had disastrous impacts, not only used against Jews and Catholics but also against “enthusiasts,” Anabaptists, Muslims, and other “heretics.” In our days, liberation theologies, feminist theologies, and social movements are often accused of “work righteousness.” Justification theology and this-worldly justice are played off against each other.

The core of the Protestant tradition is compromised by defining its identity against the “other” – who acts, believes, lives, or thinks differently – rather than in line with Paul’s radical solidarity with others across boundaries and separations. The Messiah Jesus of Nazareth is the invitation to all peoples to participate in the future that has been promised to Israel: a just and equal society inspired by the Torah. The Christian church is not the replacement of Judaism, which is at the root of the church ( Rom 11:18).

In the horizon of hope in the coming of God’s just world, the Messiah Jesus interprets the Torah of Israel in the context of his time (Mt 5-7) – worship of God alone and the love of the neighbor, especially those who are poor and disinherited (Mk 12:28-34). The Torah orients the messianic communities (Mt 5:17-20; 28:19-20; see also Rom 3:31). For Paul, imperial power structures embody the power of sin that inevitably turns people into transgressors of the life-giving laws of Torah and makes them complicit with the forces of death and self-destruction ( Rom 7:24). Paul’s justification by grace through faith thus implies a two-fold liberation of both human beings and of Torah from the power of sin.

How does this challenge common understandings of the Torah and the Old Testament in your context?

Legal rules and law in societies are necessary in order to sustain human societies. But the law must not be misused by the strong against the weak. Human legislation must always be examined critically and continuously adjusted, instead of “legally” covering up the injustice of the dominant order. Torah is an alternative law that moves away from the exploitative legislation of its environment, and must not be identified with “natural law” or existing legal codes.

In his Small Catechism Luther dropped the politically concrete preamble of the Decalogue: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2; Deut. 5:6). Luther also extended the command to honor one’s parents to honor authorities as such. These are two symptoms of how subsequent Lutheranism became prone to obedience and subservience towards any established order, including when severely unjust, instead of being faithful to the God of liberation (sola fide). When the established order lacks righteous action and remains indifferent to the concerns of the common people, especially to the least (Mt 25:31-40), Christians should not only disobey but also resist the death-bound logic and laws of violent, enslaving powers.

Today, a new “revival” is needed of cutting-edge Bible study in our congregations that engages not only individuals but also the current social and economic problems in critical and liberating ways. We also must engage sacred texts of other traditions, so as to dialogue with and build a better world together with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and every other religion and culture from Africa, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East and Europe. Postcolonial readings of Reformation theology advance enculturation, in order to underpin inter-religious dialogue as prophetic dialogue.

“The Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8) (theses 77-94):

The Reformation understood the church not so much as an institution, but as the baptized people of God gathered in local communities -- a holy space in which the universal Word of God is listened to and the sacraments celebrated in many different voices, traditions, and confessions for the sake of the mending of the world (tikkun olam). The priesthood of all believers was a radical cry for democratizing the most powerful institution of the 16th century, but the churches of the Reformation soon became enmeshed again with structures and practices that are patriarchal, hierarchical, and captive to powerful economic and political interests.

Today, the Spirit of God impels movement toward more participatory, boundary-crossing embodiments of church that are truly catholic, inclusive of all, and collaborative across boundaries of religion, ethnicity, geography, and self-interest. The Spirit enables believers to struggle alongside those of other religions, ideologies, and social movements, and to endure suffering caused by this commitment to love, solidarity, and justice.

When Luther called the cross a mark or sign of the church, he was establishing a criterion: to be the church, the church needs to become vulnerable by being with and for the poor and to risk its social or political status by publicly protesting against unjust structures and policies. The church must adopt a critical communal focus for resistance and transformation. Otherwise, injustices continue to have free reign, distorting our most basic relationships to God, ourselves, one another, and the whole of creation. While fostering renewal and change, the Spirit also draws people together into the unity of the body of Christ, which cannot be used to justify further church divisions. May all come to celebrate at the Lord’s Table together!


A reforming church continually is being transformed by what it receives from other theological traditions and cultures. In emphasizing how the Spirit is linked to the Word, Luther was criticizing anyone claiming to have received special revelations by the Spirit, but this must not be misinterpreted as limiting the Spirit’s free work in people, including those of other traditions or religions, as well as in the rest of creation (Rom 8:22-23). His critiques of enthusiasts must not be transferred to our times as a generalized critique of all Pentecostalism today. .

The rediscovery and critical re-reading of biblical traditions from the perspective of the marginalized is an important sign of hope that the liberating hermeneutics of the Reformation traditions are active in many churches today. In many places instead, individualistic spiritualities and religious fundamentalisms, which collude with powerful interests and perpetuate illusions, are on the increase. Recovering the crucial role of biblical theology and critical theological education (together with education in general) is key to the ongoing reformation and renewal needed within global Christianity in the 21st century.

Blessed are those who do not fit into the systems of this world, but who stand in protest of God’s continued crucifixion in the schemes of this world (Rom 12: 2) and who cooperate with others in building a new world with justice and peace in human communities! As with Martin Luther, we need a renewal of language and a return to the liberating message of the Gospel, lest churches be alienated from the realities of the actual world in which people live. We need a "New Reformation!”

How will you pursue this?