Picture, MARTIN LUTHER . . . 15th Century Socialist?

Was Martin Luther an early "socialist hero"?

East German government thinks he was an has formed a committee to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Luther's birth, on Nov. 10, 1983.

The formation of the state committee may have interesting repercussions for the relationship between East Germany Christians and their government because the German Democratic Republic Protestant Church formed its own committee for the Luther commemorative in 1978.

The state committee will be headed by GDR leader Erich Honecker and will consist of representatives of the government, Communist party theologians and the academic and arts union. Four representatives from the Protestant Church will serve on the committee in an dvisory capacity.

It is a far cry from the days when Luther was denounced in the GDR as a traitor and "vassal of the princes." Honecker's announcement has led to much speculation in West Germany about the seasons -- and the possible results -- of the government's new perspective on the Reformation leader.

One common view is that Honecker hopes to win more open support from GDR Christians.

The result is a portrait of Luther as an early advocate of socialist ethics and of the Reformation as a forerunner of the social philosophy of East Germany today.

In his announcement of the state committee, Honecker said, "In our socialist society, which has abolished the explotation of the people, Luther's encouragement of creative, meaningful activity has become an essential motivation for the common activity of Christians and non-Christians in constructing socialism."

"Altogether," he said "Luther social-ethical conceptions, which gives evidence of a deep alliance with the people, deserve our respect today."

Honecker said that the tragedy of Luther is that he was caught "in the contradiction between his role as the initiator of a great revolutionary movement and his inability to recognize its social legitimacy."

The church committee, however, appears to still be planning to put forth its traditional view of the Reformation leader.

Whatever the outcome, the key word of the Honecker committee seems to be "unity." The GDR government clearly hopes that Christians and non-Christians alike will find something in Luther's life and work with which to identify. The result may well be an anniversary celebration that would surprise the "father of the Reformation," who once wrote: "Rarely is a work undertaken out of wisdom and precaution, but everything is undertaken out of ignorance."