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Some Reflections on Visiting Wittenberg on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

At the end of October 2017, I had the pleasure of visiting Wittenberg, Germany to attend a Reformation 500 conference put on by the World Reformed Fellowship, and to visit some of the famous places associated with Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg.  In many ways, it was a surreal experience to be in Wittenberg and to walk where Luther walked, to see his house, his table, the Castle church, and to imagine what the village of Wittenberg would have been like 500 years ago.  In this post, I want to share a few of my personal reflections on visiting Wittenberg in order to help all of us to gain some insight into the past and its relevance (or lack thereof) for the present.

1) The Commercialization of Luther

One of the remarkable things about the unremarkable little town of Wittenberg is the marketing of Luther and His image.  This town has one claim to fame, and that’s Luther.  So they are trying to milk Luther for all he is worth.   You can buy anything imaginable with Luther’s image on it.  Luther coffee mugs. Luther plates. Luther socks. Luther pasta. Luther cookie cutters. Luther t-shirts. Luther posters. Luther books. Luther mini-statues. Luther beer. Luther wine. Luther re-imagined as Che Guevara “Viva La Reformation!”   It just seems like too much.  Admittedly, I did buy a couple Luther posters, a mug, and postcards.  And the Luther socks.  They were hilarious.  The calf is emblazoned with “Here I Stand. I Can Do No Other” and it struck my funny bone.  That said, I came away wondering if Luther is more than a marketing opportunity for the residents of Wittenberg.  Do the people selling Luther memorabilia embrace what the Reformer stood for, or is this just a way to make money?

 

2) Wittenberg is SMALL

I had read that Wittenberg was a small town but I didn’t realize how small.  Given the fact that it isn’t very big today, I can only imagine what a sleepy little village it was in 1517.  I stayed at the Luther Hotel in the older section of town which consists of two cobblestone roads running east-west.  At the east end is the former Augustin monastery that became the Luther family’s home.  Right next door to Luther lived his friend and right-hand man Philip Melanchthon.  From Lutherhaus, walk 5 minutes west and you arrive at St. Mary’s Church where Luther preached regularly.  A couple minutes walk south of there are Cranach’s house and workshop, as well as some buildings that used to belong to the University of Wittenberg where Luther and Melanchthon taught.  Walk 5 more minutes to the west and you reach the end of the old town and the Castle Church where Luther posted his 95 theses.  And that seems to be the entire old town.  Wittenberg has grown and expanded over the years so I am sure it is bigger than when Luther lived there, but from looking at the architecture and location of the historical sites, it would seem that Luther’s whole world in Wittenberg was walkable in about 15 minutes, end-to-end.  

 Old Town in Modern Wittenberg

Former Wittenberg University buildings 

3) Luther at Home

The former Augustin monastery that Martin and Katy Luther called home has been turned into a splendid museum where you can see not only many 16th century copies of works by Luther and associates but also several displays about Luther’s home life.  While I loved seeing all the old books (as well as an actual indulgence chest), it was equally fascinating to learn about Luther’s kitchen, farm animals, fish pond, and property purchases.   From the exhibits, it was obvious that his wife Katy must have been a highly competent household manager.  There were many people living at Luther’s house besides Martin, Katy, and the kids and they did so on a minimal budget, at least at first.  Lots of guests and activity.  

The Lutherhaus was filled with many notable quotes from Luther but one in particular caught my attention. He was writing to a merchant in the next town because his wife wanted him to do so, and he told the merchant as much.  She wanted a particular type of chest without iron fittings on the inside so that the clean laundry wouldn’t get dirty when put inside.  Discovering that Luther did this type of mundane correspondence for the sake of his wife reminded me of the emails and other tasks that my wife asks me to do.   Luther had a “honey-do” list as well. Realizing that Luther didn’t do theology 24/7 brings him a little bit closer to home, and makes him more human.  Yes, he was a great Reformer, even the most famous Protestant Reformer, but he still had stuff that he needed to do at home.  Not too different from you or me.

Lutherhaus

Luther's students wrote down his sayings while they talked and drank at this table in this room.  The quotes were later published as Luther's

 

4) The Importance of Friends

I already knew that Philip Melanchthon was Luther’s right-hand man but I didn’t know that they were next door neighbors.  The Lutherhaus museum and the Melanchthonhaus museum are right next to each other and I visited one right after the other.  I can easily imagine Luther and Melanchthon popping in to each other’s homes on a regular basis as need or whim arose.  It makes me want to learn more about their relationship.  In a similar vein, there was a whole room in the Melanchthonhaus museum dedicated to Melanchthon’s friendship with Joachim Camerarius.  Even though they didn’t live in the same town, they maintained a lifelong friendship which was very important to Melanchthon, as testified to by a massive amount of personal correspondence from Melanchthon to Camerarius.  Melanchthon must have meant a lot to Camerarius too because when Melanchthon’s wife died, Camerarius rode 400 kilometers to tell him in person (Melanchthon was traveling at the time).  The Reformation did not run on theological writing and preaching alone, but also on the grace and love of God expressed in personal friendships.

Luther and Melanchthon, painted by Cranach, 1543

 

5) The Reformation Has Moved On

Before going there, my entire frame of reference for Wittenberg was historical.  I knew that modern Wittenberg would not be the same as it was in Luther’s day but now that I have seen the modern town, I realized that Wittenberg in my mind was frozen in the 16th century.  Things like shopping malls and cars seemed incongruous.  But of course, life moves on. 

Visiting modern Wittenberg reminded me that the Reformation has moved on.  For Wittenberg residents, and probably Germans more generally, the Reformation is historical and a source of national pride, but not much more.  There were few people in the town during the time I was there although German tourists did start to arrive in greater numbers on October 30th as I was leaving.   Wittenberg may have been the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation and an important center for reform in the 16th century but it is no longer.  God is moving in the world today in many places, especially in the non-Western world, but Wittenberg has already had its 15 minutes of fame.    

It is great to visit historical places, especially those associated with the work of God in the past, but we shouldn’t become overly attached to them or view them as sacred. We should cherish, but not cling to people, places, and things from the past.   The world is indebted to what God did through the Protestant Reformers and we should remember and thank God appropriately.  But we must not engage in Protestant saint worship.  The pastor who said the opening prayer at the Reformation 500 conference I attended set the right tone when he said, “We are not here, Lord, to glorify Martin Luther or John Calvin or any other Reformer.  We are not here to glorify the Protestant Reformation, but we are here to glorify You."

 Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 Theses

Castle Church where Luther posted the 95 Theses

Site where Luther posted the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door

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