The Revs. Bonnie Lanyi and Kay Yates sat in the church office, books clutched in their hands. Lanyi flipped through the pages. As she did, snippets of timelines and old images of a young monk made frequent appearances.
Pausing on the pages with the pictures, the image, a 16th century portrait of the man becomes clearer. A rounded face, dark but brilliant eyes and a presence that even five centuries later commands respect. It was Martin Luther, the leading reformist that quite literally changed the world. And for Lanyi and Yates, both Lutheran ministers, he is the founder of their faith.
“Martin Luther was born in Saxony in 1483. In a nutshell, Martin Luther was well educated and his parents wanted him to be a lawyer. But God had other plans,” Lanyi said, pastor of Lord of Life Lutheran Church on St. Simons Island.
Yates, pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Brunswick, answered with a smile and nod.
Luther did try to live up to his parents expectations. But always felt drawn toward a spiritual life. After an all too close encounter with a lightening bolt, he devoted himself to becoming a Roman Catholic monk, the only option for Christians in that day.
“The (Roman Catholic) Church was incredibly wealthy and powerful. He began to really devote himself to studying the Bible, as a monk, but more and more he started to realize that what the Bible said and what the church was doing were not adding up,” Lanyi said.
Chief among Luther’s complaints was the sale of indulgences. In that day in Europe, the Church’s leadership would offer the faithful a pass, so to speak, to get into heaven in exchange for money.
“They could buy them for their friends or family. The money was used to build these beautiful cathedrals. Churches are beautiful. They’re great, but it wasn’t the right thing to be doing,” Lanyi said with a laugh.
But it was not the only church practice Luther took exception to — far from it in fact. Among others was that the Bible is the ultimate religious authority, rather than the church, and that humans reach salvation by faith and God’s grace, rather than one’s deeds (or indulgences). Luther carefully assembled these thoughts — along with 92 others — into what became the famous 95 Theses. Tradition holds that after Luther had these carefully scanned for heresy by his clergymen peers, he nailed them to the church door in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1518. At least, that is how the story has been told.
“I think that might be more of a legend,” Lanyi said with a smile. “But it does sound good. I think he probably just posted the 95 Theses.”
“But he lit a spark for sure,” Yates added.
That he did. While there had been plenty of reformers prior to Luther, the way he organized his arguments and the recent invention of the printing press allowed his ideas to spread rapidly throughout Europe.
“There were reformers before, but the printing press really helped Martin Luther,” Lanyi said. “That made a huge difference.”
Of course, the church took notice and was none too pleased. However, the church recognized the political and financial support Martin had accrued, and offered him the chance to recant his statements.
Luther was summoned to Augsburg, in south Germany, where he voiced his stance against Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, who in turn defended the use of indulgences.
“He refused to recant, which of course was a very dangerous thing to do. Many, many reformers were being executed,” Lanyi said. “But because he had so much support, he was helped to escape and hide.”
Luther was not simply allowed to go about his business, though he was allowed to return to Wittenburg after appearing before Cajetan. The church took action. Luther’s stance was declared heretical by Pope Leo X, who excommunicated him on Jan. 3, 1521.
“He could have been put to death. Many others were burned at the stake,” Lanyi said. “Geneva, Switzerland, became kind of a safe haven for reformists but still many lost their lives.”
“He really stirred up the hornet’s nest,” Yates said.
Instead, Luther kept writing and challenging the status quo. Among his many efforts, he translated the Bible into German from the original Latin, allowing those who were literate to read the word for themselves for the very first time. Prior to that time, only the clergy could read the text, which was available in Latin and Greek.
“That really changed things, because it was the first time people were able to read it for themselves. He really wanted them to be able to understand the Bible and what it meant,” Lanyi said. “Another thing he did ... he wrote the Small Catechism, which is in the form of a dialogue and that helped regular people to understand their faith as well.”
Lanyi adds that communicating a sense of forgiveness and grace was a key part in that message.
“For a long time, he felt like he was unworthy, but once he discovered that if you confess that you will always fall short, forgiveness and grace are free gifts that come from God, he no longer had doubts. It was a more comforting way of looking at things,” Lanyi said.
“That was especially appealing to people, I think, when you consider how much misery there was then. Death was everywhere but knowing that you were forgiven ... that was comforting,” Yates added.
Luther blazed trials in other areas too, marrying a former nun and advocating against celibacy for the clergy. In his later years, he retreated from the movement, but his impact was always felt.
“There were many reformers who came after, like Calvin, and of course, there was the break between the church and England, which all played a part,” Lanyi said.
For many centuries, the Protestant Reformation caused a rift between Roman Catholics and Protestants. But, Lanyi notes, that today the gap has been mended. In fact, she and Yates are very close to the local Roman Catholic priests and make an effort to offer joint fellowship opportunities.
“We had a beer and hymns event not too long ago which was a lot of fun. We are going to have a prayer service Oct. 29, close to the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses,” she said. “But really, we are all God’s children and we have so many needs today that bring us together much more than they divide us.”
It is a message they will reflect on throughout the month, as they celebrate the courage of one very outspoken monk who lived 500 years ago. Lanyi and Yates hope that Lutherans, as well as Christians as a whole, will be able to draw inspiration from his story.
“He said that we needed to stop ‘looking at our navels’ or our ‘own belly.’ He meant that we have this tendency to only focus on ourselves and what’s going on in our lives, when really we should notice what is happening around us,” Lanyi said.
“I think really his boldness is something to think about ... and his ability to sort of hold a mirror up and force us to take a look at ourselves. I think that is something we should try to remember,” Yates said.