Lecture on Luther Kicks Off Year's Reformation Series

On the surface, the observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by a state university seems a bit strange. But go a little deeper, Susan Karant-Nunn says, and it's not so peculiar at all.

The Reformation, a schism from the Roman Catholic Church, was launched by Martin Luther in 1517 with the publication of his "Ninety-Five Theses" against Church practices and doctrine. Luther, a German friar, became the charismatic face of a movement that extended into the mid-17th century and whose sweeping influence in literacy, work, economic development and governance is still evident today.

Other giants of Western civilization — Galileo, da Vinci and Magellan, to name only three — were products of the same era in history.

"There are people who regard this (period) as a major religious, cultural and political shift," said Karant-Nunn, a Regents' Professor of History at the University of Arizona who is director of the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies at the UA. "There is a historical attraction to this phenomenon. Rooms like this one keep filling up, and books keep being published."

Indeed, Holsclaw Hall on the UA campus was near capacity last Wednesday evening for Karant-Nunn's lecture, "The Emotions of Martin Luther," which launched the University's calendar of events surrounding the Reformation's anniversary. Several more lectures and a panel discussion are scheduled through Oct. 31, identified as Reformation Day because it was the date on which Luther sent his theses to the Archbishop of Mainz.

The highly charged theses spread like wildfire, thanks in part to Johannes Gutenberg's nascent printing press, and capitalized on a building resentment of the Church over practices such as the sale of indulgences, said to reduce the amount of punishment in the afterlife for sins. Luther's passion was implicit in the theses, according to Karant-Nunn, a Reformation scholar who has authored five books on the period and edited six others.

"He had seized the courage to confront the very rulers of the Church," she said.

Karant-Nunn focused on three primary emotions — fear, anger and love — in her reflection on the life of Luther, who had planned on a career as a lawyer until a terrifying experience in a thunderstorm in 1505 elicited his vow to become a monk, much to the dismay of his father. Luther saw the storm as "a direct communication from God," Karant-Nunn said, and his fear of divine judgment would never leave him, becoming a theme in his writings.

Luther turned the anger he felt as a child over alienation from his parents and severe discipline from his teachers into rage against the Church — and eventually against other theologians of his time. He viewed Scripture as the sole authority on religious truth, and the theses were "imbued with his passion for theological propriety," Karant-Nunn said.

Eventually, in balancing his sorrow for sin with his reverence for the divine, Luther was able to see God as loving and to express that love to his wife, Katharina von Bora, a former nun, and to his parishioners and readers.

"He gave an assurance of God's loving mercy in a way that (John) Calvin did not," Karant-Nunn said. "He would say, 'I announce that God loves you' and 'God kisses you.' ... He believed in God's wrath and love, and his expressiveness lent him charisma."

Luther was surprised by his fame, Karant-Nunn said, adding that his writings resonated with the lower classes even as they pricked the conscience of the Church's hierarchy.

"There is something we recognize about him, no matter what our religious perspective might be," Karant-Nunn said. "It demands that we go back and look at him and try to understand him."

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By Doug Carroll, University Communications

Original article here

Published Date: 

02/03/2017 - 9:24am