Journeys in Faith
Oct. 31, 2017, marks the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
This was the day, 500 years ago, when monk and academic Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of his home church (sort of a community bulletin board) at Wittenberg Castle, Germany. His selection of Oct. 31 was ingenious, not because it was Halloween, but rather because it was the day before All Saints and All Souls Days, which commemorated all saints and remembered the dead.
More people than usual would be going to church on this day and would see what Luther had nailed to the church door. His purpose was not to create a new church but to foster debate and reform the Church.
The theses were radical beliefs criticizing what he considered abusive practices of the Church, one of them the selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. Members of Luther’s church, who purchased indulgences, claimed they no longer had to repent for their sins. Luther was particularly distressed because he believed they were leading people away from God.
Luther was a very devout and faithful theologian. He continually struggled to answer the question, “What makes me a good, righteous person; how do I get God’s love and salvation?” Luther confessed his sins for hours at a time but was still tormented by guilt over his failings.
He searched the New Testament for an answer and found it in passages in the first chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “A righteous person lives by faith alone.” God’s favor could not be earned, even partially, by doing good deeds. What a break-through for Luther!
With God’s grace, people were free to love and serve others, doing what was helpful for their neighbors, as works of God ‘s love. Luther believed the Bible leveled the playing field, insisting that priests, monks and nuns had no higher calling than the housemaid, merchant or farmer.
The common people were equally holy in doing the work of God. Luther rejected the edicts of the Pope and proclaimed the supremacy of Scripture over papal authority.
Luther’s radical ideas were spread far and wide because the printing press came to Wittenberg! Printers needed content, and they found it in Luther’s 95 Theses. Luther didn’t know he had become a celebrity. People were ripe for Luther’s revolutionizing ideas because of the oppression they suffered under a feudal economic system, autocratic rule and mass illiteracy.
Luther’s writings “went viral.” His writings accounted for one-quarter of all the books sold in Europe. Perhaps he would not have been so successful if he had not been an arrogant leader, a colorful writer and a bombastic speaker.
But his ideas were a threat to church authority. Luther refused to silence his words. In 1521, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. In that same year, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared him an outlaw and heretic to be punished for high treason. Knowing the danger he was in, his supporters kidnapped Luther and lodged him in a secret room in Wartburg Castle.
There he spent his time translating the New Testament from Hebrew and ancient Greek into the language of the people of Germany. Luther wanted the common men and women to hear and understand for themselves the word of God.
The Reformation swept across northern and central Europe, resulting in new and lasting religious and political freedoms, and intellectual and cultural developments. Public education and universities flourished, scientific thinking exploded, and art and music was enriched.
Today, the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches have been in profound theological dialogue, examining their commonalities and differences. This dialogue has led to closer ties between the two church bodies and further doctrinal consensus, detailed in “From Conflict to Communion,” a report of the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity.
Many of the observances of the 500th Anniversary taking place across the world are ecumenical, involving Lutherans, Catholics, Methodists and other religious traditions.
Truly, the Reformation in Action.