Martin Henry | Reformation 500 and beyond
Joining the crowd gathering for the festival of All Saints Day, 34-year-old Augustinian monk and university professor of theology, Martin Luther posted on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, a document with 95 theses, or propositions, against indulgences and declaring his willingness to defend the theses at the University of Wittenberg the next day against any and all who wished to attack them.
The castle church at Wittenberg in what became the eastern part of Germany owned many relics that were exhibited on holy days with full remission of sin promised to all who visited and made confession.
Aided by the newly invented printing press, Luther's theses spread through all of Germany and Christendom like wildfire, creating great excitement. He had been railing against the sale of indulgences. A papal ambassador, Johann Tetzel, had been despatched to Germany to conduct the sale of indulgences to raise money for building
St Peter's Basilica in Rome. "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs," Tetzel is said to have told the credulous people as he conducted his assigned trade of selling forgiveness.
On October 31, 1517, Luther also wrote to his bishop, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, which came to be known as the Ninety-five Theses. Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg did not reply to Luther's letter. He had the theses checked for heresy, and in December 1517, sent them off to Rome. He needed the revenue from the indulgences to pay off a papal dispensation for his tenure of more than one bishopric. As Luther later noted, "The Pope had a finger in the pie as well because one half was to go to the building of St Peter's Church in Rome."
In Thesis No. 86, Luther tartly asked, "Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?"
Tortured by his sense of sin and the need for forgiveness, Luther had visited Rome some years before, seeking release from his sins through pilgrimage. In the 'holy' city, he witnessed dissipation and debauchery and profanity, among clergy and laity alike, he had never seen or heard before. "No one can imagine," he wrote, "what sins and infamous actions are committed in Rome; they must be seen and heard to be believed ... . If there is a hell, Rome is built over it; it is an abyss whence issues every kind of sin."
In Rome, Luther was creeping up 'Pilate's staircase' on his knees. Jesus had descended this staircase, it was claimed, on leaving the judgement hall, and it had been miraculously conveyed from Jerusalem to Rome. A recent pronouncement from the pope offered an indulgence to all who would climb the staircase on their knees. As he ascended, Luther heard a voice like thunder speaking the words of Romans 1:17 to him, "The just shall live by faith." This became the cornerstone of Protestantism. Luther sprang to his feet, aborted his climb, and hastened away in horror and shame. Luther had set out to reform the Church. This incident was the turning point for the break with Rome.
LEARNING JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH
As a young student at the University of Erfurt, he stumbled upon a Latin Bible, a book he had never seen before and did not even know existed. He had heard as a child portions of the Gospels and epistles read at public worship, but had never seen or handled a complete Bible. Luther became a keen Bible scholar and rediscovered the doctrine of justification, or salvation by faith, particularly in the books of Galatians and Romans.
Luther explained justification by faith: The first and chief article is this: "Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ... . Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31)."
There were other reformers before Luther, like the English John Wycliffe, the 'Morning Star' of the Reformation, a century and a half before Luther. When Luther discovered the writings of Jan Huss, the Bohemian reformer who had been burnt at the stake a century before, he found that Huss had defended the doctrine of justification by faith, which he himself was then fiercely upholding and teaching. "We have all," Luther wrote, "Paul, Augustine and myself, been Hussites without knowing it! God will surely visit it upon the world that the truth was preached to it a century ago, and burned!"
Before his excommunication, fiercely attacking the errors of the papacy, Luther had written, "I am reading the decrees of the pontiffs, and I do not know whether the Pope is Antichrist himself, or his apostle, so greatly is Christ misrepresented and crucified in them." His response to the papal bull announcing his excommunication was titled 'Against the Execrable Bull of the Antichrist'.
With the nominal conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century, the paganisation of Christianity was greatly accelerated. On top of the intrusion of clearly pagan practices, the people were taught to look to the pope as their mediator, assisted by priests and saints and Mary. They were led to trust to their own good works to atone for their sin. Pilgrimages, like Luther's to Rome, penance, the worship of relics and images, the erection of churches' shrines, and altars, and the payment of money to the church were so many pathways to salvation, to appeasing the wrath of God, and securing His favour.
The Church claimed that it had never erred, or could ever err, and claimed the power to depose kings. No sentence that the Pope pronounced, it was declared, could be reversed by anyone, but it was his divine prerogative to reverse the decisions of all others. The Pope, it was claimed, was the vice-regent of Christ on Earth, that is, in place of Christ, exercising delegated power on His behalf.
The Protestant Reformation rejected these positions and practices and embraced five solae: Sola Scriptura, the Bible alone; Sola Gratia, Grace alone; Sola Fide, Faith alone; Sola Christus, Christ alone; Soli Deo Gloria, Glory to God alone. The Reformers rejected the sacrifice of the Mass and the mediating priesthood in favour of the once-only complete sacrifice of Christ for the sin of the world and the priesthood of all believers.
But the term Protestant did not come from Luther's actions. 'Protestant' comes from the protest of the princes at the Diet of Spires in 1529, which was called specifically to crush what was deemed heresy and vanquishing the Reformation, which had been gaining ground in the Holy Roman Empire. The compromise position, delivered as an imperial edict, was to allow Reform states and Catholic states to hold their ground. The reformed princes protested in a formal declaration.
In recent years, since the Second Vatican Council, there have been several acts of dÈtente and reconciliation. Pope Francis last October led a joint Catholic-Lutheran Reformation commemoration service in Sweden, which officially started the one-year countdown to the 500th anniversary. Francis' Jesuit order was founded in 1534 as highly successful shock troops of the counter-Reformation. Now at year 500 since the posting of Luther's 95 theses, there will be joint commemoration of the Reformation on October 31. Some are declaring the protest over. For others, the fundamental reasons of protest remain and the protest is to continue.