As part of the Luther Decade, the build-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 includes eight theme years. 2011’s theme was “freedom”, while 2012 was devoted to music. The topicality of Martin Luther ranges from controversial to highly sensual.
“Some Luther years have great public impact while others are more contemplative”, says Stefan Rhein, director of the Luther Memorials Foundation in Saxony-Anhalt and Luther2017 office manager. For him, the year 2011 with its “Freedom” theme clearly belongs in the latter category.
That said, it did feature a number of major events: in early March 2011, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office held a conference, inviting Protestants, Catholics and Moslems to speak on the subject of freedom. In June, at the German Protestant Kirchentag (i.e. church congress) in Dresden, the Luther Decade was presented at a forum jointly organized by church and state and by the tourism industry. In September, Pope Benedict XVI visited the monastery in Erfurt in which Luther lived – a visit that certainly would not have taken place if it were not for the Reformation decade. Generally, however, the theme year saw somewhat lower-key celebrations – in church parishes, at conferences and at writing workshops for schoolchildren.
Which freedom is meant?
Logo of the Luther decade | © Luther2017
Although freedom is one of Luther’s central tenets and remains an important issue today, giving Luther a modern relevance with respect to this theme has its problems, points out Robert Leicht, former editor-in-chief of German weekly Die Zeit and a longstanding member of protestant synods. In an article he wrote about the Luther Decade, he explained that Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian – one of the reformer’s best-known treatises – by no means refers to the individual and political freedom of the Enlightenment age. Indeed Luther also wrote a treatise entitled De Servo Arbitrio (i.e. “On Unfree Will”) in which he vigorously opposes the early humanism of Erasmus of Rotterdam. All the same, the Luther Decade attempts, even on its website, to establish a link between the reformer’s intention and the freedom of conscience we enjoy today.
Gerhard Sauter, a theologian and Luther expert who published a theological anthropology in 2011, is somewhat sceptical about such efforts to give Luther topical relevance and about giving the Protestant Church the striking title of “Church of Freedom”: he believes this can be all too easily misinterpreted as mere freedom from traditions and obligations.
“Luther did not talk about the freedom a person has, but about a process of liberation that happens to him”, explains Sauter: “God frees man from his self-inflicted incurvatus in se, the state of being curved inward on himself, which is how Luther defines sin.” Man is not able to liberate himself from this egocentricity of his own accord. A modern scientist of all people – the philosopher and physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker – did not regard freedom as the reformer’s central insight but this recognition of man’s lack of freedom: an insight which holds a critical mirror up to the modern age.
Liberation from oneself and towards responsibility
Does today’s freedom of conscience have any basis in Luther? “Only to a certain extent”, says Professor Sauter. “When Luther, standing before the Diet of Worms, says: ‘Here I stand. I can do no other’, he is referring specifically to his conscience which is bound, obliged to the word of God.” That is also something which no church and no state could subjugate, however, which is why Sauter sees modern freedom of conscience and religion to some extent as being a consequence and side-effect of the Reformation: to be liberated by God, to believe and to devote oneself to one’s neighbour is the experience of freedom which Luther meant.
This devotion to one’s neighbour is also something which Stefan Rhein picks up. He believes it is legitimate to bring Luther’s understanding of freedom into the present day when it is a question of social responsibility. “Freedom also means taking responsibility for others and gives rise to social engagement. That is at once modern and good in a Lutheran sense”.
“Help, they’re all singing!”
Rhein expects much greater public resonance in 2012. “The Luther Decade is now really taking off”, he explains with great delight and stresses that the Reformation anniversary is now becoming more of a nationwide event rather than one celebrated only in Central Germany – music being the linking element.
The theme year began in Eisenach, a city in which both Luther and Johann Sebastian Bach worked. Leipzig is incorporating the 800-year anniversary of the Thomanerchor (the boys’ choir at the church of St. Thomas) into the theme year, organizing musical events all over Germany under the banner “366 plus 1”. Composition and band competitions will be held in a bid to encourage modern variations of Luther’s church music. “There will be both: high-brow culture and music to join in with”, says Stefan Rhein.
The Reformation itself was also a musical event. Luther played the lute and composed numerous songs. Singing in German became the trademark of the Reform movement – the Protestants protested in song. In Lemgo, for instance, this is allegedly what made Catholics realize that a congregation had converted to Lutheranism. “Help, they’re all singing!”, one of them shouted. The split in the church has now been overcome, at least in this respect – Catholics have long since adopted the Protestant custom of singing.