Image of St Margaret's Church, Westminster.

Rethink, Reform and Re-unite?

How do you celebrate 500 years of Reformation? University of Sheffield researcher (and 500 Reformations speaker) Robert Stern took part in two different events, each marking the date Luther posted his 95 theses.

Bob writes:

On 31 October, Westminster Abbey organised a symposium “Liberated by God’s Grace: 500 years of Reformation”,’ which attracted an audience of 350. Together we explored Luther’s reception.

The talks began by considering initial reactions to Luther in England. Alexandra Walsham argued that in this context, Luther was less significant than later reformers such as Calvin. David Crankshaw traced Luther’s influence through the evidence of collections of portraits, manuscripts and publications in this country. He emphasised that translations of his writing were incorporated unattributed into work by English authors such as Tyndale. This gave them a kind of “undercover” influence.

I then presented my own paper, on the relation between Luther and the Danish philosopher and theologian K. E. Løgstrup (1905-1981). I suggested that Løgstrup can be seen as secularizing Luther’s account of sin and grace. Like Luther, Løgstrup treats sin as a turning in on ourselves. But unlike Luther, he holds that this can be overcome through an ethical encounter with other people. It therefore does not require God’s grace.

Eamon Duffy explored changing views of Luther in the Catholic tradition. What began as hostility and incomprehension has evolved to greater appreciation and understanding. Finally, Martin Lind looked at Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who protested against the Nazi regime and was executed in 1945. Lind related Bonhoeffer’s theology to Luther’s theology of the cross, which stresses the fragility and difficulty of life.


From London I travelled to Aarhus in Denmark, for ‘RETHINK Reformation 2017’. Like the Westminster event, this three-day conference was timed to commemorate the official start of the Reformation. Løgstrup spent his academic career at Aarhus, and is widely studied at the university. I presented a longer version of my paper and organized a panel on ‘Luther as a philosopher?’ Philosophers have paid less attention to Luther than other religious thinkers like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). We asked why, and reflected on key philosophical issues raised by his work, such as the nature of freedom.

In other main papers at the conference, John Milbank asked ‘Is the Reformation to Blame for Modernity?’ (answer: a qualified yes). Niels Henrik Gregersen considered Luther in relation to current debates concerning ‘post-secularism’, which aims to get beyond a simple ‘religion or secularism’ divide. Claudia Welz put Luther into dialogue with the French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).

What would Luther think?

Both events were marked by a sense of reconciliation between religious traditions, an underlying ecumenism. This was also visible in a service held at Westminster Abbey immediately before the London symposium: The Archbishop of Canterbury, on behalf of the Anglican Communion, formally affirmed a joint declaration on justification that had between agreed between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. The service itself was a rather magnificent event. There was wonderful music and singing from Lutheran choirs from across the world, and the Archbishop preached a forceful sermon.

In Westminster and in Aarhus, we reflected on the significance of the joint declaration. This document proposes a common view on an issue central to Luther’s disagreements with his Catholic contemporaries. It formed the focus of the paper by Theodor Dieter in Aarhus, who helped to write the joint declaration. He reflected on the process of ecumenical convergence, and how common ground can be found despite other differences. As one of the audience in London suggested, it is interesting to reflect on what Luther himself would have made of these developments: Would Luther have welcomed the terms of agreement?

Featured image: The Church of St Margaret, Westminster. The 31 October symposium was held in this church, next to Westminster Abbey.St Margaret’s Westminster.
Image adapted from an original photograph, copyright (c) Jaguar and available via Creative Commons license 4.0.