Thursday, July 19, 2012


Berlin—July 19

Today we went to Wittenberg. It was an hour-long train ride from Berlin but we went just so we could see “the door”. The town has been around awhile. It was first mentioned in official documents in 1183. It is also where one of the Elector Princes lived (this was Friedrich the Wise) at the end of the 15th century. His political astuteness, the founding of the university in 1502 and Luther's presence there as the local priest from 1511 set the stage for what was to change the world.

Of course, Wittenberg is the town in which Martin Luther “started” the Reformation by nailing his collection of 95 grievances against the Catholic Church to the castle church door. He thus issued a challenge to Church representatives to debate these “theses”.

You gotta give Luther a lot of credit. He took a huge risk in going against the all-powerful Church. A Catholic priest himself, he had come to the conclusion that salvation was not gained by means of the Church or a priest or the purchase of indulgences. He realized, as a result of personal Bible study (there it is again, that Bible study thing), that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works.

People caught onto this idea really quickly. It was a note of freedom to a people who were desperate—hungry, diseased, oppressed, frustrated with an obscenely rich and powerful Church and nobility. These people were ready to step out of their comfort zone—their zone was not so comfortable as it was.

Wittenberg the town was just nice to visit. It is really clean. Many of the buildings have been restored—the streets, the building facades almost look “new.” This little city is the home of the University of Wittenberg—and a seminary that to this day trains Protestant Church pastors.

The images of Luther and Philip Melanchthon (Luther’s partner in his "crime", sometimes called the “theologian of the Reformation”) are seen in statue and painting and sketches all over town. Clearly, this town is proud of its heritage—and has figured out how to profit from the tourists who come to soak up some of it.

Sadly, the door is not there. (When I was here years ago, I had gone up to the guy at the church and asked “to see the nail hole.” He said it had been gone for hundreds of years.) This part of the world has been through a bunch of wars (I think more years of war than years of no war). In the 1700s, the church was burned and the door was lost. It was replaced in 1858 by a bronze door—no nail hole.

The castle church is a lovely Protestant cathedral—not as large as the churches in the bigger cities but big enough. Both Luther and Melanchthon are buried there. Paintings and statues and coats of arms give evidence of the presence not only of the Reformers but the nobility who supported them. The protection of the civil leaders made it possible for the Reformers to continue to write and preach and travel. Church and state connections made the Reformation possible in this sense. These same connections also contributed to a rise in power of the Reformer's church that in some places enabled it to defeat the Catholic church as well as to persecute smaller faith groups that did not align with its theology or practices.

Former Augustinian monastery (where Luther served before the Reformation and before his marriage), which today contains a  Museum and parts of Luther's original living room.

The door into the monastery of his day. Luther served here, taught here, and later lived here with his wife, Katarina.

Inside the passage is the doorway into the present seminary. No, it did not make me want to go back to seminary but it did make me curious as to what is taught to Lutheran pastors in Germany today.

Melanchthon is sometimes referred to as the "theologian of the Reformation", perhaps the brains behind the movement. His house, where he lived and died, is being restored as a museum so we were not able to get in. Note that he is described as a learned humanist  . . . humanism was the philosophical and intellectual framework for the Reformation.

Looking down the main street toward the castle tower. Really liked the feel of the town--the little canal, the clean streets, restored buildings dating back to the middle ages . . . .

Around the tower is emblazoned the first line from the hymn, "A mighty fortress is our God . . . "

"The door." In 1517, this was the main door into the castle church. This is where Luther did the nailing of the 95 theses. The doors are bronze and the 95 theses appear on the door in six full columns. Installed in 1858.

A view of the door from a little further back. You can see the church walls are high (like every other church in this part of the world!)

This is the castle church. Built as a church for the Elector Prince, it was attached to the university in 1507. Today, it is the "Memorial Reformation Church."

Paintings of Luther and Melanchthon on the wall in the church.

Bronze relief of Luther a little further in.

The tomb of Luther.

The pulpit. Lots of pulpit pictures. Preaching was a central focus of the Reformers. The pulpits bespeak the importance and power of the preacher and the word preached.

The tomb of Melanchthon, across the chancel from Luther's.

Inside the church is a reproduction of sorts of the castle door as it might have looked in Luther's time. It has a copy of the 95 theses, appropriately written in Latin, nailed thereon.

The fancy chair reserved for the Elector Prince, whose bronze relief is just behind it.

Jesus makes an appearance on the altar of the castle church.

The altar of the castle church . . . classic high stained glass with biblical scenes and Reformers, statues of Jesus, biblical figures, and Reformers, special seating for important guests, baptismal font, and quotes from Reformers.

Luther's "rose" coat of arms.

Coats of arms arranged over the seats of the appropriate nobility, lined up on both sides of the chancel. Keeping the nobles close and happy and feeling special was advantageous.

Back on the street, we have to eat lunch at a place called the Wittenberg Potato House.

This is mighty fine eatin' . . .  roast potatoes, beef, vegetables, cheese, onions, and other stuff.

Vegetables and potato cakes with cheese.

Roast potatoes, bacon, vegetables, cheese, onions, peppers, and apples.

St. Mary's town church, the oldest building in Wittenberg and the church where Luther preached.

The Marktplatz in front of the Rat Haus . . . market place in front of the city hall. There was a fair of some kind going on. Luther's big statue is right in the center.

The Reformation altar painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder. On the right, Melanchthon is shown baptizing a baby; in the middle, a stylized Last Supper; on the right, Luther holding forth.

This is the little chapel situated outside the big St. Mary's church. It was a children's chapel among other uses over its 500 year life span. Now it is used for English worship services. At 4:30 today, people were invited to come for worship and sing "A Mighty Fortress." Note the sign by the door below.

Pastor's come here from all over the world for a week at a time. They lead the services and are available for pastoral ministry as needed for their week. Sounded like it might be an interesting way to spend a week. Upon asking the pastor who was there how this works, he said, "You have to be a Lutheran pastor to qualify. Anabaptists need not apply!"

This is a better view of the Corpus Christi chapel. Not big, not fancy, sitting in the shadow of the massive town church--but cool!


  1. Did he REALLY say "Anabaptists need not apply"? Or is that just the impression he gave?

    Why are they so focused on "A Mighty Fortress"? Luther did write a lot of other hymns...

  2. He was a very nice if reserved gentleman. Used to tourists coming by, no doubt. Probably gets lots of the same questions--so though not exactly curt, he did not have a lot of extra words to say. So, I don't have a verbatim of the conversation but here it is pretty closely:
    Me: "So, pastors come from all around the world, stay for a week, preach, and serve?"
    Him: "Right. You have to apply, of course, with the main office which is in Woodbridge, Virginia."
    Me: "Are there many applications? Is there a lengthy waiting list? What are the criteria for acceptance?"
    (Did I seem overeager . . .?)
    Him: "Are you a pastor?"
    Me: "Yes, I am."
    Him: "Where are you from? What is your church?"
    Me: "I live in Los Alamos, New Mexico and am a Baptist pastor." (It just occurred to me it might have sounded like I said 'an anabaptist pastor' . . . how funny!)
    Him: "Ah, oh, well, um . . . . you know, I was just having a conversation with someone earlier about the Free Church and the anabaptists [sic]. We had quite a discussion about the troubles in the past. You, um, have to be a Lutheran pastor, you know, and um, well, you might not feel comfortable applying to serve. Well, you wouldn't qualify, anyway, not being Lutheran. So (uncomfortable chuckle), you probably don't need to worry about it. However, our service starts in a little while and we will be singing 'A Mighty Fortress", Luther's famous hymn, you know--you are welcome to join us."
    Me: "Well, thanks for the information. Sorry I can't stay. I've got to go terrorize some Reformers now and baptize some adults." NO . . . I promise I did not say that. Didn't even think it (until just now . . . curmudgeon alert.) He was a nice guy. I have no quarrel with the Lutherans. I love Lutherans.

    They are so focused on that hymn because it is "THE hymn", known around the world. (And it is a great hymn except for the abstruse timing of the phrasing.) The first phrase of the hymn appears on the castle tower and in many other places around town and on Luther monuments, ""Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott, ein' gute Wehr und Waffen" ("A mighty fortress is our God, a trusty shield and weapon.")

  3. Oh, my! That conversation IS amusing! So, was there anything to the service other than singing THE hymn? Did they serve communion? I imagine not since they would have no way of confirming that everyone shared their beliefs...

  4. Um, we actually didn't stay for the service. We had a train to Berlin in an hour and it was a 40 minute walk back to the station. Honest. Genuine excuse.