Chaplain’s Letter

Pilgrimage to Wittenberg

On the 16 to 18 of November, eight pilgrims from Holy Trinity Utrecht made our way in two cars to Wittenberg Germany as part of the commemoration of the 500th year since the historic nailing of the 95 theses of Luther to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Pilgrimage was organized by Heikki Rusama, a Finnish Lutheran who, with his family, has been attending Holy Trinity over the past couple years while in the Netherlands for work.

Pilgrims at Wartburg Castle

The trip was an opportunity to reflect upon the profound movements for Reform of the Church in the 16th century. In our discussions we had a longing to understand better what happened and to give thanks for the insights about our  Christian faith that have been passed on to us. We expressed also a kind of ambivalence in our feelings about this, considering the great wound of division in the Church that Jesus founded, divisions that remain to this day, and a certain spirit that was unleashed and which has remained a temptation and scourge in Protestantism ever since. It seems that fragmentation is much easier than unity.

Daniëlle and I prepared ourselves while travelling by reading an introduction to the life and works of Luther. We arrived in Wittenberg at about 5pm on Thursday and stayed at The Old Latin School, a building from the time of Luther, that has been completely renovated and opened since 2015. It is run by The International Lutheran Society of Wittenberg Charity as a place for visitors/pilgrims and conferences and I would highly recommend it ( It is in the very centre of Wittenberg and right beside the City Church where Luther preached over 2000 sermons during his long stay in Wittenberg.

After prayers in the chapel, a brief walk through the town, we ate, discussed what we’d like to see the next day and went to sleep in anticipation! Friday we saw the City Church, with its pulpit and altar and many paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder and the Younger. The Cranachs were friends of Luther and did their part in expressing the Reformation insights in images, both in paintings and in woodcuts for written materials. We then visited Castle Church, with the door where (though since the 1960s much debated whether it happened) Luther is said to have nailed the 95 Theses. The Castle Church is also where Martin Luther and his fellow reformer, Philipp Melanchthon, are buried. The reason for the importance of the 95 Theses is that it was the beginning of a more public expression of Luther’s growing awareness of the need for profound reform of the Church. He was a monk and professor at the University and a priest, who had a ministry among the lay people as a confessor.

Luther’s Pulpit in the City Church

He was surprised that many parishioners were no longer seeking him out for confession and when he met some, they explained that they had purchase an indulgence, a piece of paper from the religious authorities promising them God’s forgiveness for past sins and future sins! We saw one of these actual certificates at the Luther House museum – nicely printed, with blank spaces that would be filled out with the name of the person and the amount they gave.  These “indulgences” were also being offered to assure mourning relatives that their beloved departed would spend less or no time in purgatory! Luther was outraged by the danger this posed to souls. He understood that forgiveness requires a penitent heart, it was not a simple a monetary transaction. The 95 Theses are a series of statements of criticism of this whole system.

Luther sent them to his religious superiors and, rather than bringing about a change in practice, it resulted eventually in an investigation of Luther’s teaching, with papal authority, and his condemnation as a heretic.

Many things contributed to the fire storm that ensued. The lack of response of the Church to this abuse, the danger to Luther’s life for being a “whistle-blower”, the demand for Luther to recant against his conscience, his further reflections about what else must be reformed, and a whole complexity of other cultural and political forces that were ripe to challenge the authorities that be. As you read about the times, you realize that there was much more involved in the bringing about of such profound disruption and reform to the life of the Church.

The walk from Luther House to City Church taken on Sundays by Luther

We visited Luther House (see after lunch. This is a very large home that Martin Luther, the University of Wittenberg professor, lived in with his wife, a former nun, Katherine van Bora. They had to supplement their income with students living in the home – 30 to 50! It gave us a picture of what his daily life was like. There was a room where propositions were given and the students were to vigorously defend or attack ideas. There was a room where the students met with Luther after dinner for table talks, which some of the students recorded on paper and later published. You were given a sense of the ups and downs of his own spiritual life, his struggles and joys. Some of us went next to the Lucas Cranach house, to view the place where the first German Bible of Luther was published and many treatises, as well as to see the artist’s studio, which was very active with other painters.

We finished Friday with a Holy Communion service in the chapel of the Old Latin School. It was interesting to see afresh in our liturgy, elements of Reformation teaching around our understanding of the need for true repentance, real change of life, and not trusting our merits but in God’s mercy. Then it was off to supper at a typical German restaurant – I enjoyed roasted goose breast with red cabbage and potato dumplings – yum!

An actual letter of indulgence

Saturday we began with prayers in the chapel, breakfast, and then off on our way back, but with a Southern dip in our trip to take in Wartburg Castle, which is about 3 hours from Wittenberg. After Luther had been tried at the Diet of Worms and refused to recant, he was secretly kidnapped by his political supporter, the Duke of Saxony, and even to his own unknowing, brought to Wartburg Castle and hidden there from the political and ecclesiastical authorities who were seeking to put him to death. The Castle stands high on a hill in the countryside, we saw it from quite a distance, truly a mighty fortress!  Surely this experience was part of Luther’s inspiration for his famous hymn.

We arrived around noon. It was dark and cold and very windy and the walk from the parking lot was up a lot of stairs – up and up, and finally through a drawbridge and into the Castle and for a guided tour. A medieval castle from the late 12th century, whose inhabitants included St Elizabeth of Hungary, and for about a year, 1521-1522, Martin Luther. During that time, Luther translated the whole of the New Testament directly from Greek into German in 11 weeks! We saw the room where it was done. His translation was important in the development of a common German language. He also wrote many other foundational reformation treatises while there.

We left Wartburg Castle sooner than we would have liked to, but needing to return to Utrecht for commitments. The Pilgrimage was a great experience of travel, of building friendships among the participants, and of an opening of our eyes or reacquainting ourselves with the theological and spiritual issues so alive at the Reformation. There is a sense of gratitude and inspiration from the courage shown by Martin Luther and other defenders of the truth of the gospel and the freedom from bondage that it is meant to bring. And there is also the remaining sense of ambivalence about the divisions that still exist as a result.

Something beautiful that has come about in the past few years in our Churches is a convergence of opinion on one of the key Reformation doctrines, Justification by faith. The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church have agreed in 1999 on a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ). It states that the two Churches share “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” According to Wikipedia, “In 2006 the World Methodist Council unanimously voted to adopt the document. The leadership of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, representing 80 million members of Congregational, Presbyterian, Reformed, United, Uniting and Waldensian churches, also signed the document and formally associated with it at an ecumenical prayer service on 5 July 2017.” In 2016, the Anglican Consultative Council (a body made up of clergy and laity from every Anglican Diocese in the world) passed this resolution:

“The Anglican Consultative Council:

  1. welcomes and affirms the substance of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), signed by Lutherans and Roman Catholics in 1999; and
  2. recognizes that Anglicans have explored the doctrine of justification with both Lutherans and Roman Catholics; and
  3. recognizes that Anglicans and Lutherans share a common understanding of God’s justifying grace, as the Helsinki Report stated that we are accounted righteous and are made righteous before God only by grace through faith because of the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and not on account of our works or merits; and
  4. recognizes that in 1986 the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) produced a statement Salvation and the Church, which observed that our two Communions are agreed on the essential aspects of the doctrine of salvation and on the Church’s role within it.”

May God continue His work of bringing us into unity within the Church and help us to continually reform it until it is made ready as a bride adorned for her Husband!

The room in Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Bible