Martin Luther’s “Final Straw” and the contemporary liberal church

On October 31, 1517 (500 years ago, this past Reformation Day), Augustinian monk Martin Luther—outraged by Pope Leo X’s new round of indulgences to help build St. Peter’s Basilica—nailed a sheet of paper with his 95 Theses on the University of Wittenberg’s chapel door. That is, essentially, the story that has come down to us. What is certain is that—aided by the recent invention of the printing press—Luther’s 95 Theses (actually a document entitled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”) were quickly disseminated throughout Europe.

Basically, indulgences were meant to be “good works” that could be performed in lieu of penance for sins—or even to shave some time off a stay in Purgatory. Often, these “good works” involved monetary payments. Inevitably, this practice soon devolved into a corrupt system whereby sins could be paid for (sometimes, apparently, in advance) via financial transaction.

At any rate, Pope Leo X offered indulgences for those who gave alms to support his building project in Rome. To Germany, he dispatched a salesman by the name of Johann Tetzel, whose aggressive marketing practices provoked Martin Luther to compose his 95 Theses—which were all about condemning what he saw as the sale and purchase of salvation. The first two of the theses contained Luther’s central idea: that faith alone would lead to salvation—not deeds, and certainly not bribery! The other 93 theses, a number of them directly criticizing the practice of indulgences, supported these first two. In Thesis 28 Luther objected to a saying attributed to Tetzel: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs” (or whatever that sounded like in 16th-century German).

Luther’s dissertation not only denounced such transactions as worldly but also denied the Pope’s right to grant pardons on God’s behalf in the first place: the only thing indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed, because the pardon of the Church was in God’s power alone.

Well, I’m sure you know how the rest of the story played out. Leo excommunicated the rebellious monk, huge numbers of German clergy and laity sided with Luther, and the Protestant Reformation was soon gathering steam.

Truth to tell, Martin Luther’s conscience had for some time already been troubled by abuses and rampant immorality in the Catholic Church of his day. As well, Luther’s intensive study of Scripture had raised in his mind serious doubts about the legitimacy of much of the church’s teaching. The peddling of indulgences was, more or less, the “final straw” for Luther.

Ironically—by offering absolution for a price—Pope Leo pulled the pin on the grenade that would quickly explode and shatter his own corrupt preeminence. Soon papal authority was being attacked from many sides, and the western church began to splinter, as men and women of integrity found their voices.

Leap ahead some five centuries to a book entitled With or Without God* and its author, the Rev. Gretta Vosper.

Vosper is an ordered minister in the United Church of Canada—the same denomination in which I serve. She is also, quite possibly, this country’s best-known atheist.

A graduate of Mount Allison University, Vosper received her Master of Divinity degree from Queen’s Theological College in 1990 and was ordained in 1992.

Vosper has been a minister with West Hill United Church in Toronto since 1997, and for much of that time has been quite open about her non-belief. As she says on her website: “In 2001, I made it clear that I did not believe in a supernatural, interventionist, divine being. At first, I identified as a non-theist as I do in my first book published in 2008. Then, in my second book, I felt the need to further distinguish myself from those who used the term non-theist but retained a belief in the supernatural aspects of god; there, I identified as a theological non-realist. In 2013, I embraced the term atheist which means, literally, no belief in a theistic, supernatural being.” []

No one can accuse Gretta Vosper of dishonesty. Or reticence. She has broadcast her viewpoint widely, even going so far as to challenge the faith of all the rest of her colleagues, implying that those of us who studied at United Church colleges must certainly concur with her assertion that the God of Israel is but a fiction.

While that isn’t completely true, I have to admit that—when that statement of hers was first reported—I wasn’t surprised by it. Then—to my great dismay and disappointment—I read a defence of her position by one of our denomination’s notable thinkers, who asked whether Vosper’s critics had “forgotten their theological education.”

Sigh. When “College Sunday” rolls around—and congregations are urged to throw money at our United Church schools—such comments ought to give us pause. Why should we support institutions that churn out atheist clergy?

But I digress. The reason I’ve mentioned Gretta Vosper and Leo X in the same post is because I think they have something important in common.

What do I mean?

Well, it seems to me that—just like Luther’s nemesis Leo—Gretta has provoked a response she probably did not foresee or intend.

In the few years since Gretta became too high-profile in Canadian society for the church to ignore any longer, I have noticed a profound change in the attitude of a great many of my colleagues in ministry. And I’m not just talking about those of us who have always self-identified as “evangelical.”

No. Even some of those whom I have regarded as the most extremely liberal are now taking pains to distance themselves from the Atheist of West Hill. Or at least, to openly identify themselves as believers.

That Christian clergy should espouse faith in God … might seem to many like a no-brainer. As if that might be the bare minimum requirement for a church leader. But, take my word for it, in the United Church of Canada, this is amazing news! And I suspect it might be amazing news in some other areas of the North American mainline churches, as well.

However, I can speak with confidence only of what I see happening within my own denomination. And I have to say, I think Gretta Vosper has done us an immense favour.

Gretta, bless her, has not only rocked our theological boat, she has come close to capsizing it! No one at any level of United Church leadership can pretend they haven’t heard her opinions. I mean, she once even wrote an open letter to then-Moderator Gary Paterson in which she called him to task for suggesting that there is a real God who will answer prayer. []

Turns out, Gary Paterson makes no apology for believing in a God who is not only very real, but also alive and active in the lives of people. And he isn’t the only one. It’s as if Gretta Vosper—just by being her flamboyantly heathen self—has caused every one of her ordered fellows to ask: “What do I believe, anyway?”

It looks like a goodly number of them have discovered that they do believe … something. Now, God (and God-language) is back in vogue! Suddenly, “evangelical” is once again an acceptable descriptor within the United Church of Canada—and being one … doesn’t feel quite so lonely!

Probably, there’s more behind these changes than one loud infidel from Toronto. But I have to give credit where credit is due. Gretta Vosper has provided—at least, for many—the “final straw” that has brought forth a resurgent articulation of faith. I hope that trend continues … and I think there’s every reason to believe it will.

As for Vosper herself … Well, despite a finding in September 2016 by the church’s Toronto Conference Review Committee that her atheism makes her “not suitable to continue in ordained ministry,” her congregation has remained staunchly supportive, and—as far as I know—Gretta remains in place, her credentials as a minister still intact.

And you know … maybe that’s as it should be. Perhaps—to use a western-Canadian metaphor—we need her around to be “a burr under our saddle.” Or to put it another way: perhaps the 21st-century liberal church needs Gretta Vosper every bit as much as Martin Luther needed Pope Leo!


* Vosper, Gretta. With Or Without God: Why the Way We Live is More Important Than What We Believe. Canada: HarperCollins. 2008. ISBN 1-55468-400-5.

One Reply to “Martin Luther’s “Final Straw” and the contemporary liberal church”

  1. Hi Gary, thoroughly engrossing and entertaining and spot on! You made me laugh and think quite differently about dear Gretta. Some years back I wrote a letter to the editor of the observer in response to some of Gretta’s strange ideas and coverage in our ‘national’ magazine. I don’t think she liked it very much. and if she gets to read your blog (which you should post to her church website via the dark web) I hope she does see that she might indeed have done all of us a great favour. Blessings on you!
    Ed Lewis

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