Bringing Luther to ... Wittenberg?

luther_wittenberg_1517Every time I read a story from the Washington Post Foreign Service, it makes me sad that newspapers can't afford to have correspondents throughout the globe. The latest exceptional piece was filed by Craig Whitlock and headlined "In German Birthplace of Reformation, a Revival of Interest." Here's how it begins:

WITTENBERG, Germany -- Martin Luther, a renegade monk, triggered the Reformation here five centuries ago by nailing a long list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church. But as Wittenberg celebrates the founding of Protestantism, it is finding one thing in short supply: Lutherans.

Generations of secularism and communism have exacted a severe toll on church membership in this eastern German city. Today, fewer than one in five people identify themselves as Christian, one of the lowest percentages in the country. Most worshipers who fill the pews in local churches are tourists longing for a glimpse of the holy sites frequented by Luther when he lived here between 1508 and 1546.

The story explains that east Germany is so atheistic that both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod (my church body) have significant outreach efforts there. The LCMS bought a Reformation-era school building in Wittenberg right next to the old Town Church, where Luther used to preach, and is refurbishing it to house a bookstore, a visitors center, and a new confessional congregation in that city.

"In east Germany, you actually have to go up to people and tell them who Jesus was," said Wilhelm Torgerson, a German Lutheran pastor who serves as the Missouri Synod's representative in Wittenberg. "They say, 'Oh yes, Christ. Didn't he have something to do with Luther?' " . . .

Some Missouri Synod leaders have declared that their congregation would be the only true Lutheran church in Wittenberg -- an assertion that irritated members of the Evangelical Church in Germany, the largest Protestant body in the country. The Evangelical Church comprises Lutherans, Calvinists and other denominations.

"It was strange for them to come here and say, 'We are the first real Lutherans,' " said Siegfried T. Kasparick, the Evangelical Church's bishop for Wittenberg. "We've had a Lutheran congregation here since Luther."

I know a few of the people involved with this project and it's true that there's been some conflict with the state church. I was impressed that this detail would be included and briefly described. To be sure, my Lutheran church body in America arose precisely because the state was forcing Lutherans to worship with other denominations, and there's much more to that story than could be included here. But I'm not sure how into the weeds any reporter should get on an issue such as that.

But it's a great story with tons of information about the demographics of Germany and the history of Luther and Lutheranism. The Communists suppressed Lutheranism for decades, we're told. Apparently the strong interest from American groups is causing some of the east Germans to reconsider their heritage.

There was this bit:

One public-television series a few years ago ranked Luther as the second-most admired figure in German history, behind post-World War II Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. But many Germans are unfamiliar with Luther's theological achievements. He is primarily known as a father of the modern German language, the first person to translate the Bible from Latin into German.

While Luther's translation is notable for being the first person to translate into the vernacular, he did that by translating from Greek and Hebrew, not Latin.

Please respect our Commenting Policy