The Protestant Reformation - Commemorating 500 Years

It was 500 hundred years ago, on All Hallows Eve (October 31) 1517 that a bible professor and monk named Martin Luther is said to have nailed a manifesto containing Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle. This was the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. Those of us who find ourselves within the Protestant portion of the Christian community are, to some degree, theological descendants of those sixteenth century reformers who challenged the reigning religious authorities. Luther nailed those theses to the door in order to start a conversation about reforming the church, as well as the nature of religious authority. At first Luther had no reason to believe that a schism within the church would emerge, but it did. So, in many ways this 500th anniversary is more commemoration than celebration.

At the heart of the Reformation is the question of authority. As they engaged in their reforming work in the years that followed Luther’s first calls for reform, Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Jean Calvin, and Menno Simons began to look to scripture for guidance. They came to embrace the principle of Sola Scriptura, even if none of them completely adopted the principle in practice. Simons probably got the closest to living out the principle. They didn’t reject outright the authority of the patristic fathers, the councils, or even medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas, but the Reformers insisted that Scripture should be seen as the norm for faith and practice.  All other authorities were to help interpret Scripture not replace it or be seen as equal to Scripture. 

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 reforming leaders, such as Erasmus or Ignatius Loyola, chose to remain within the Catholic Church. Others including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Simons, and Thomas Cranmer 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.  Wittenberg, 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 also broke with Rome over political concerns. True reform occurred within that church only gradually. The break was fully established only after 1559 and the Elizabethan settlement, but the nature of Reform would still be a matter of debate for generations to come.

                Although Zwingli, Calvin and numerous other reformers contributed greatly to the success and expansion of the Protestant Reformation, it is to Luther whom we look as the great Reformer. It is he who led the charge. While he was a biblical theologian and not a systematic theologian, he is said to rank with St. Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas, as one of the greatest Christian theologians. It is probably appropriate to call him the "founding father" of the Protestant Reformation. There were, of course, others who were forerunners, including John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, but neither reformer was able to establish a reforming work quite like Luther did.

                Looking back in time Luther can be judged harshly for some of his views and actions. His writings about the Jews and his encouragement to the princes to violently resist the peasants are deeply problematic. Yet, this very human theologian and church leader got the ball of reform rolling, and for that I am grateful, even if I also regret the schism that emerged. Indeed, once the schismatic spirit was unleashed it was difficult to restrain. Thus, Protestantism is a divided and often divisive movement. My own tradition, the Disciples of Christ, is rooted in a Reform effort that was designed to unite Christians, but over time it has divided several times. Yes, the spirit of schism seems to accompany the spirit of reform.

                While I repent of our schism, on this day I would like to celebrate Martin Luther in all his humanness, as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the nailing of those theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle!  On Sunday I'm looking forward to singing Luther's famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.   In the meantime, sing along with the choir below.


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