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The Consequence of Conscience

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This week the world passed a milestone in the history of Christian spirituality: the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—traditionally pegged to October 31, 1517. On that date, Martin Luther is said to have posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” on the door of a Wittenberg cathedral, criticizing the Roman Catholic clergy for the practice of selling indulgences.

Five hundred years is a long time in human terms. But it’s a short span to a culture that reaches back to antiquity, and still reveres events and people who flourished in the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 12th centuries. One might well ask: Why should Luther and the Reformation matter to Armenian Christians?

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Certainly, the Roman Catholic Church of the 16th century was liable to corruption, abuse, injustice, and cronyism. As a focus of worldly authority, its officers could be smug and imperious. Some sincere Catholic clergy, like Charles Borromeo, noticed this, deplored it, but sought to patiently reform the church from within. Others, perhaps wishing to keep their hands clean, pretended to rise above the corruption, but by their silence only facilitated the misdeeds of others.

Martin Luther—at the time a monk and professor of moral theology—could not remain indifferent. Something in his defiant spirit compelled him to take up the fight where others would prefer to step aside.

“If I profess with the loudest voice every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are attacking, then I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ,” he would write.

So Luther stood his ground against the worldly power of his own church. He did so as a spiritual matter: a matter of conscience. And it was as a matter of personal conscience that he eventually broke with Roman Catholicism. The repercussions of that stand would be felt across the world.

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The early Protestants were well aware that there was another Christian world east of Europe. It’s little known that after Luther’s death, his successors made overtures to the churches of the Christian East, hoping to find among them (at the least) an ally to validate their break from Rome, or (at the most) a potential institutional “home” whose roots lay in the Apostolic Age, instead of a mere generation past.

The Greek Orthodox ultimately rejected this call to join forces with the emerging Protestant community, and the prospect of an early alliance between Eastern Christianity and the Western Reformation withered on the vine.

As for the Armenian Church of the 16th century, it was involved in its own existential crisis, as its homeland struggled against external enemies. Yet the idea of a “protestant” Christianity might have been seen as old news among the Armenians. Long before Luther’s time, the Armenian Church had dealt with “protest” uprisings from within—notably from the Paulician and Tondrakian movements of the 6th through 11th centuries.

Still, with the hindsight of 500 years, it’s hard to deny the resemblance between Luther’s defiant spirit and certain aspects of Armenian character. We too have stood against powerful forces for the sake of principle. We have shared in the refusal to stand docile and silent before imperial rulers who would diminish and degrade our distinctiveness. And like Luther, too, we have been called to sacrifice in the cause of spiritual integrity.

Luther’s translation of Scripture into his native language unleashed a new era of spiritual art and music, and heralded the blossoming of a national identity among his countrymen. His eager use of the “high tech” innovation of his day—the printing press—spurred a revolution in literacy. These are all familiar themes among the Armenians, who long supported popular education, and were early adopters of printing.

Even the severe commitment to Truth against “official” falsehood, which famously fueled Luther’s righteous anger, should strike a chord with Armenians who protest against the denial of the Genocide and the destruction of churches and monuments in our historic lands.

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Armenians can acknowledge these important areas of common ground with Martin Luther’s project. But perhaps some of the consequences of that project might be viewed with a more wary eye.

Luther sincerely believed that by breaking with the historic church, he would be liberating the Christian soul from strictures that had nothing to do with faith. But his act also ushered in 500 years of fragmentation in the Christian religion. In retrospect, such a break could never have been a one-time occurrence; instead, it became a license for churches to splinter apart, eroding credibility and teaching authority, and in the extreme case isolating the individual believer from a larger community of faith.

That sense of belonging to a larger community of believers—of having a home that pushes back against the worldly forces that isolate and fragment us—has been one of the most durable assets of the Armenian Church through its history. If it is imperfectly realized in our own time, then we have all the more reason to cultivate it, honor it—and not idly dispense with it, or descend into apathy.

Indeed, it is in his rejection of apathy that Martin Luther offers his most powerful example to us. If there is one lesson to draw from the drama of the Reformation—exemplified both by Luther and his sincere opponents—it is that faith truly mattered to them. The human conscience seeking to obey God was consequential to them in a way few today can even imagine.

Even if Armenian Christians must ultimately reject the historical results of the Protestant Reformation, the faithful spirit of its founder—his urgent desire to confess Christ, and not merely profess him—is something we can honor, and share, 500 years later.

—Christopher H. Zakian

Above: The statue of Martin Luther (by Adolf von Donndorf, 1885) outside the Lutheran Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) in Dresden, in Germany.

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