This year October 31 marks the 500 anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. On this day, All Hallow’s Eve, Martin Luther, a German monk, nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. It was a university community where ideas were often debated; so, Luther added his own ideas to the mix of the discussions.
As with anything happening in the church, nothing happens in isolation. What happens in the culture affects the church and what happens in the church affects the culture. Many of the nations of Europe were making moves toward independence from Rome; Germany was among them. So, many were questioning the practices of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.
Also, the printing press had been invented and it made it possible to put out volumes of printed material for everyone to read. To this point, only Priests and teachers had access to the Bible, mostly in Latin. It was not available to the average person. With the printing press, the scriptures were made available in the language of the people for the first time in history. Everyone could read their own Bible.
Even to this day, this has led to many abuses as anyone may make their own interpretation of the scripture without benefit of scholarship or commentary. But, the benefit of having scripture in your own hands is such a gift.
The Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther was founded on several notions. One, had to do with justificaiton. Martin Luther said that we are justified before God by faith alone. It was a swipe at the tradition of the church and the other requirements that were laid on Christians. No, said Luther, it’s about faith in God in Christ. Faith alone.
There were other sillier notions that one could buy one’s relatives or friends from purgatory. The jingle went: “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
Catholics celebrated seven sacraments, but Protestants had only two. They made the decision as to what should be a sacrament with three questions: 1. Did Christ command it? 2. Are there physical elements/symbols? 3. Is it available to all people. The two were/are: Baptism and Holy Commuinion. Now, I might argue that marriage, when it’s right, is in fact a Sacrament. And, prayers at the time of death are sacramental. But, you see the point.
Martin Luther started a movement that is still going on today. We all, sort of, argue every so often whether the church we are now located in is still the Church that is the body of Christ. And, all these different churches that spring up around us are attempts in the minds of those doing the churches an attempt to reform what has gone before.
Every generation believes that they are reforming the excesses of the generation before. The church is the same way.
But, in the church, we believe that the Holy Spirit is always refining and sharpening us. We all have the need to be reformed, made better. After the Protestant Reformation, there was a Counter Reformation in the Catholic Church that brought sweep changes. And, so it goes with the Spirit.
We celebrate that the voice of one monk, in the power of the Spirit, had the power to change the church and the world! Thanks be to God.