On Monday, many of those who call themselves Protestants stopped to remember that 499 years earlier, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Wittenburg Castle. That marks for most of us who call ourselves Protestants the beginning of our movement. It was to be a movement of reform, but it also lead to increasing division within the body of Christ. That said, this coming year will offer us an opportunity to remember what happened half a millennia in the past and ask how it influences us today.
With that in mind I share a few words about the Reformation. I wrote these words as part of a lecture for Fuller Theological Seminary some time ago, but I think they offer a nice intro upon which I can build.
If we consider ourselves to be Protestants, we are theological descendants of the sixteenth century reformers. Religiously, the sixteenth century serves as a crossroads, no matter whether one considers the period an extension of the middle ages or the beginnings of the modern era. For Christians our lives were changed for better or for worse by the events that transpired after 1517. The Reformation as we know it can be traced back to Martin Luther's nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Church at Wittenburg. But that event only signaled the beginnings of the process, and Luther himself had not yet come to the full understanding of what his mission would be.
At the heart of the Reformation is the question of authority: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Menno Simons all insisted on the principle of Sola Scriptura. Though the authority of the patristic fathers, the councils, and even the medieval theologians were not rejected outright, the Reformers insisted that Scripture be seen as the norm for faith and practice. All other authorities were to help interpret Scripture not replace it. The reformation also had to do with abuses within the church. The selling of indulgences, the immorality of the renaissance papacy, the worldliness of the church all conspired to lead concerned churchmen to attempt its reform. Some, such as Erasmus or Ignatius Loyola, chose to remain within the Catholic Church, others including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, and Menno Simons thought reform could only come if the church was removed from papal control. Luther's emergence as a Reformer was very personal, for it emerged out of his desire to find justification before God. It was only as he discovered that justification, and therefore salvation, came from God by faith and not by works that he was able to embark on his reforming career.
There are many reasons and explanations for the reformation, some have to do with theological concerns, such as justification by faith and scriptural authority, and others have to do with political considerations. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer are referred to as the Magisterial Reformers, not because of the majesty of their work, but because it was undertaken with the support and authority of the magistrate. Wittenburg, Zurich, and Geneva, were all governed by princes or local councils who sought to gain autonomy from the Holy Roman Emperor. Cranmer's Church of England had also broken with Rome over political concerns, and true reform occurred within that church only gradually, only really taking hold after 1559 and the Elizabethan settlement.
Though Zwingli, Calvin and numerous other reformers contributed greatly to the success and expansion of the Protestant Reformation, its greatest figure has to be Martin Luther. Luther, though he was a biblical theologian and not a systematic theologian, ranks with St. Paul and Augustine as the greatest among Christian theologians.