Reformation and a man named Luther

Monday marked one of the most significant days in the history of the Christian religion, for it was on Oct. 31, 1517, that Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 “concerns” for public debate to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, and changed Christianity forever.

Luther’s seemingly simple act transformed the Church and the changes have been phenomenal. The Church has never been the same in unity or diversity and, to this day, the Church is still reeling from the changes that occurred during that time period.

The challenges of our own day are not so much about issues of systematic theology, as they are about matters of anthropology, ethics, and science. But in Luther’s day, theology was the issue. The question of the day was almost singular:  how can someone gain right standing with God?

Luther’s procedure was in accordance with established custom then, for anyone desirous of having public debate on church related matters. However, his act that day would be different, for the sound of his hammer would be heard around the world, and for centuries, with the echo continuing to be heard in our time.

Luther found particularly offensive the dynamism of the Dominican friar and indulgence evangelist, Johann Tetzel, who peddled merits of God’s grace in polished propagandistic, persuasive style.

Tetzel told public assemblages of mostly frightened illiterates to contribute money that could gain them the release of their deceased loved ones from the fires of the afterlife.

In poetic attractiveness he used the jingle: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Of course, this oft-quoted trope was by no means sanctioned by the Catholic church but likely illustrated Tetzel’s particular gift for embellishment.

Tetzel soon fell quite out of favor with the populace and later died in obscurity.

Nevertheless, Tetzel’s tactics angered Luther, himself an Augustinian monk. But Tetzel was a mere agent of something bigger, he was involved in a collection drive, approved by the Holy See, launched by the Archbishop of Mainz for (among other things) raising funds for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Indignant about the whole thing Luther listed 95 Theses against the practice of the sale of indulgences and nailed them to the Church door for open discussion.

Filled with passion for purity in his personal life, as well as within the Church, the young Luther (who was only 21 years old when he joined the Augustinian monastery) vented his feelings in strong language.

Luther was impatient of the slow reform developments. Thus, at age 34 and a doctor of theology within the Church, he performed the historic act that led eventually to the revolutionary developments known today as the Reformation.

So, what does this mean in our own day?

At the heart of the Reformation was a yearning for “access” as much as anything else, access to the teachings of Jesus Christ and a relationship with the Lord.

Up to that time, the Roman Catholic priesthood acted as formal “mediators” between people and God. The Bible too was distant, as it was written only in Latin (the language of scholars) and not made available to the general public. If you wanted to know what was in the Bible, you had to trust a priest to read and explain it to you. Furthermore, the priesthood could only espouse the teachings that were deemed appropriate by a magisterium in Rome.

Luther did not set out to destroy the established church of his day, rather he sought to purge the infection that had been festering in Christendom for ages. As a consequence, followers of Jesus Christ soon found they could study His teachings in their own language and make their own determinations as to what His words meant.

The Reformation stands as a victory for The Church and, in my opinion, for Roman Catholics and Protestants alike. For each can personally defend, debate, and justify their own faiths using the Scriptures themselves.

Which is, at its very essence, is much of what the Reformation stood for all along.

Soli Deo gloria, and semper reformanda!


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