As Protestants everywhere celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Eastern University’s own Dr. Phillip Cary travelled to Wyoming on Oct. 16 to deliver a lecture in honor of this anniversary. His speech, called “How Luther Became Protestant,” was given during a conference sponsored by the Religious Studies department at the University of Wyoming, titled “The Protestant Reformation: 500 Years and Counting.” Other notable speakers at the conference included Matt Goldish, Samuel M., and Esther Melton from Ohio State University, and numerous other scholars from the University of Wyoming.
To anyone familiar with Dr. Cary’s published books, the fact that he has delivered multiple speeches on Martin Luther might be a bit surprising, considering the bulk of his publications have been on the work of St. Augustine. “The reason I began doing scholarly work on Augustine,” Dr. Cary explains, “…was because I wanted to understand the background to Luther’s theology. I was originally planning to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Luther, with a first chapter on Augustine as background. That first chapter expanded eventually into three books.” His research for his “first chapter” of his doctoral dissertation has lasted 25 years, and he shares that he is just now “getting back to the work on Luther that originally led [him] to Augustine.” He is currently finishing a book that focuses on both Luther and Augustine. Though Dr. Cary is just now publishing his first book on Luther, he has written many articles about Luther’s theology, including one he describes as “somewhat influential,” titled, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant” for the theology journal Pro Ecclesia in 2005.
After recounting his scholastic experience with Luther’s works, Dr. Cary then describes his personal interactions with Luther’s writings. “To love Luther, as I do, gives you a peculiarly complex task,” Dr. Cary explains. He agrees with many of Luther’s theological ideas, claiming “the thing Luther gets right is his concept of the Gospel.” He elaborates, “[The Gospel] is the saving Word of God because it gives nothing less than Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to all who believe. This is the heart of Protestant theology, the great gift that Luther and Protestantism have to give to the church: an understanding that since we sinners can do nothing to make our way to God, God has made his way to us through the Gospel that gives us Christ.”
While he agrees with many of Luther’s theological claims, Dr. Cary goes on to explain why appreciating Luther is a “complex task.” He writes that Luther was caught up in “fierce verbal fighting” against Catholic and other Protestant theologians, and sometimes the discourse turned particularly ugly. Luther also wrote what Dr. Cary calls “the most inexcusable work of wickedness ever produced by a Christian theologian,” addressing Luther’s remarkable hatred and harsh words directed towards the Jews. Dr. Cary acknowledges that
loving a brilliant, but also imperfect human being is a tough job. We cannot ignore the evils and errors in Luther’s works, but we can love and appreciate him for the truth and goodness he does offer the Christian Church. Dr. Cary describes this complex relationship: “We must love him as a grown-up loves a glorious but deeply-flawed ancestor.”