Luther’s 95 Theses. Ferdinand Pauwels, via Wikimedia Commons
Here I stand, I can do no other.
This is what Martin Luther, the original reformer, has been believed to have said at the close of his speech at the “Diet of Worms,” a meeting at which he was told to either “take back” what he’d written in the 95 Theses that he’d nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517—or be excommunicated and defrocked as a priest in the Catholic Church.
He had gone to the meeting thinking he would be given the opportunity to explain and defend his views, and many think, believing that once those in power heard these explanations, the need for change would be evident, and the church would respond. Like so many who’ve “changed the world”—he didn’t set out to start a new church, or want to leave the institution he had been serving—he believed that the ways of the church were not true to the ways of Christ, or to the scriptures, and he felt compelled to speak out and work for change within the institution. However, when the “Diet of Worms” convened, Emperor Charles the V, who was in charge, would only accept a total recantation of the statements. In response to this, according to modern historians who’ve investigated this, apparently what Luther actually said was this:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.”
Apparently, someone in the room, or reporting out what happened later (because it was not, of course, on video tape, or immediately Tweeted, and Facebooked to the world), summarized this quote by adding the now famous phrase: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And it has stuck . . . with those same historians suggesting that, if Luther heard about it, he probably didn’t object, since it was more or less, what he meant.
October 31 marked the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s nailing the theses to the door, stating the 95 abuses of power he saw happening in the leadership of the church, and thus the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, to which Protestant churches owe our existence.
The Christian tradition from which we are descended was born of the compelling need to “speak truth to power,” as Martin Luther shared his deeply held and hard won convictions despite great personal loss and exclusion from the institution he loved despite its flaws.
Protest and resistance is in the very bones of who we are as Protestants; John Calvin and John Knox and all the reformers carried forward this act of “truth telling” in their own contexts; to speak against what we believe to be wrong is at the root and core of our faith. These beliefs are to be based in scripture and our understanding of God’s Word through the teachings of Christ within scripture—but when what we conclude is that what is happening around us is wrong, it is our responsibility to say so, whether that is about the church itself, or the world around us.
Protest and resistance are also an integral part of the DNA of this nation— the Revolutionary War was often called the “Presbyterian Rebellion” by King George—because many of the early leaders were Presbyterian, and brought their faith to bear on the political happenings around them, once again, changing the world, this time, perhaps with a little more intentionality.
I suspect that the turmoil of our time in history is not unlike that of 1517 and 1776, with change swirling around us, protest and resistance taking many forms and from many sides . . . . it is a frightening time, sometimes an exciting time . . . . with opportunity for both hope and despair. As Presbyterians, our heritage teaches us that God is a God of history, a God who is present within the changes that happen. and with us as we live through them. May this God be with us all as we move forward into the next 500 years of Reformation. And may we emerge from this time filled with Hope and Faith for the future.
Kathy serves as co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, NY. In addition to working as a Teaching Elder, Kathy earned her Master of Social Work from Rockefeller College at SUNY Albany, and is a Licensed Master Social Worker and works part-time as a Domestic Violence Counselor at the YWCA of Schenectady, where her work includes a support group for women at the County Jail. You can reach Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org.