The Protestant Reformation
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Tradition holds that in 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church in Germany. Actually, the legend is wrong. Luther, a professor at Wittenberg University, circulated these Ninety-five Theses to his compatriots at the university. Later, an unknown person nailed them to the door of the church.
Aided by the Gutenberg printing machine, the Theses spread throughout Europe in a matter of three weeks. In this age of immediate news, three weeks may sound like a long time, but in the early part of the 16th century, three weeks was remarkable.
The First Two Theses
The first two Theses are the most important part of Luther’s text. His first thesis was, that God intended believers to seek repentance. In other words, Luther believed that in humankind existed the compelling force of God pushing us to seek good and not evil.
The second was, that faith and divine grace alone, and not deeds would lead to salvation. In other words, actions are not relevant to salvation, but it is only through our faith in God and belief in the free and unmerited gift of grace by God we are provided salvation.
Luther studied Augustine’s writings and was heavily influenced.
Out of this study, Luther came to believe that the Bible was the central document for all believers. Luther extended this belief by stating the Bible shouldn’t be just written in Latin but in the language of the people. In fact, Luther’s translation of the Bible became the foundation for the existing German language.
Centuries before Luther, others had proposed similar ideas, but the reason Luther’s ideas “went viral” was because of the times and the Gutenberg press. The environment was ripe for these ideas to take hold and the Guttenberg press, akin to the introduction of smartphones in the 21st century, propelled the Theses in the 16th century.
The selling of indulgences also gave rise to the acceptance of Luther’s Theses. At the time, the Catholic church needed to raise funds to renovate St. Peters Basilica and so began selling indulgences to pay for the renovations. Indulgences were sold as a way of “buying” one’s salvation. In Germany, a local friar named Johan Tetzel was the chief salesperson. Many saw through this scheme, which created dissent among the intellectuals and clergy. Luther himself a Catholic priest, recoiled at this selling of salvation.
The political climate was also changing.
Luther had local support from the German princes. This nobility was seeking more freedom from the church to grow their business enterprises. These princes railed against the influence of the Holy Roman Empire and sought to distance themselves from it to become more powerful. Luther was a vehicle for them to create this power.
Luther, a Catholic priest, never really wanted to leave the church. His goal was only to reform internally. But subsequent events made this impossible.
The leaders of the Catholic church were obviously upset with Luther and declared him a heretic, a crime punishable by burning at the stake. Ona number of occasions the pope asked Luther to come to Rome and discuss his position. Luther, well aware of the trickery that had befallen Jan Hus a century before, refused. Hus had accepted a similar meeting and was captured then burned at the stake.
Protected by the German princes, Luther was able to continue his campaign. The crisis reached its apex when Luther called the pope the “Anti-Christ.” After this, no resolution would be possible. This was when the Protestant Reformation took hold.
Many followed suit, like Calvin and John Wesley.
Other nobles, sensing an opportunity to be free of the pope, took action and joined in. Henry the Eighth wanted a divorce, and when the pope denied him, he started his own church called the Church of England, also known as the Anglican church.
The Bible was soon translated into native languages, and the Protestant churches started to develop.
The church services themselves changed. They didn’t follow the Catholic church system of prescribed services. Instead, the local pastor decided on the structure of the service.
In many churches, the Eucharist was no longer held at the end of every service, as still occurs in the Catholic church. Eventually, it morphed into a once-a-month celebration in the middle of the service.
The pope had warned Luther that by allowing the individual to decide what the Bible said would lead to a fracture in the church, which it certainly did. Today, eight hundred million Protestants are members of hundreds of individual denominations.
Luther is considered the father of Protestantism.
He benefited from the times, political support, and a temporary ebb in Catholic morality. Luther was the right person at the right time in the right place. His independent thinking and bombastic style also made him the best catalyst.
He was able to appeal to both the noble and peasant classes. Both were in an emerging state of growth in the early 16th century. Luther was valuable to the nobles because he created a way for them to separate from the influences of the church. And for the peasant class, Luther made God more accessible.
However, there were many grandfathers of Protestantism who hide in obscurity, notably Jan Hus and John Wycliffe, whom we will discuss in future writings.
Before we take too harsh a view of the Catholic church, we must remember that of the 2.5 billion Christians, 1.5 billion are Catholic. They are faithful Christians with many wonderful traditions. In many parts of the southern hemisphere, it is the fastest growing branch of Christianity. The Catholic church has slowly reformed over the years, and ironically, many of Luther’s original theses have been adopted.
Creating other options
To me the reformation was more about creating other options for worship. Expanding the way we worship versus a repudiation of the Catholic church. All organizations have blind spots and the Catholic church is no exception. But I don’t feel comfortable judging the Catholic church, rather admiring its wonderful history and the saints it produced. I remain a Methodist because it fits me. And it is more than okay for others be members of other denominations. We are all Christians first and denominational second.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman