The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation
October 31, 2017
By G. Steve Kinnard
Toward the end of the second Star Trek movie,The Wrath of Khan [spoiler alert], Spock, who is about expose himself to lethal doses of radiation in order to save the Enterprise and her crew, incapacitates Dr. Leonard (Bones) McCoy’s with a Vulcan nerve pinch. Spock then does a Vulcan mind meld with McCoy and places his spirit (his katra) inside McCoy. Spock says one word to McCoy during this Vulcan ritual, “Remember.”
Our memories make us who we are. When our memories begin to fade, we don’t recognize the world around us and we stop growing. When we are able to reflect on our memories, then we can learn from our wise and unwise choices in life and become better people.
On October 31st (Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve) many people in the US, if not most, will don costumes, parade around their neighborhoods, knock on doors, and say, “Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat” with the expectation that their neighbors will open their doors, and hand them candy. The day will come and go without many, if not most, realizing that October 31st is also the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. They will fail to remember a seminal event in human history that happened half a millennium earlier on All Hallows Eve in 1517.
This was the day when Luther nailed (or perhaps glued) a handwritten document his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany. Luther wrote against the Catholic Church and its sale of indulgences. Luther never planned on starting a revolution. He simply wanted to discuss grievances against the sale of indulgences with the hierarchy of the Church of Rome. (An indulgence was a pardon from sin granted by the pope for both sins in the past and in the future. A person could also buy an indulgence to release a deceased family member’s soul from purgatory. Indulgences were sold to fund the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.)
Martin Luther, posting his 95 Theses
Luther wrote his document in Latin. He meant for other priests to read his grievances and discuss them. But someone translated his 95 Theses into German. Then, because of the invention of the printing press in 1450, publishers printed Luther’s complaints, and they spread across Germany and his voice of protest against the sale of indulgences swept across Europe.
Luther has become a fabled character in church history. There is much to appreciate about him and much to learn from him. As far as historical figures go, he’s one of my personal favorites. He kinda like the Batman of church history. He was courageous, bold, learned, and earthy (but not Batman rich).
What do I appreciate about Luther and what can we learn from him?
First, Luther was a student of God’s Word. He believed that the authority of Scripture was primary over the authority of the church. He was a student of the Word. He had a working knowledge of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. When he was in exile in the Wartburg Castle, he translated the New Testament from Greek to German in about nine months. His believed regular people, not just the religious hierarchy, ought to be able to read the Bible in their common language. He was an expert on the Book of Psalms and the book of Romans. In fact, his preface to Romans led to the conversion of John Wesley who shaped the face of the Methodist church and thus framed the portrait of the American frontier some 250 years after Luther.
Second, Luther stood against hypocrisy and corruption in the church. Luther went to Rome in his early twenties to visit the center of Catholicism. Early in his visit, Luther became disillusioned with the Catholic church, especially with the papacy and the priesthood. Luther himself was a priest. When he said mass to a congregation, he proceeded slowly through the ritual to allow the congregants to meditate and focus. The priests of Rome hurried through the mass to move as many people through their services as possible. Local priests criticized Luther for taking so long in mass. They pushed him to speed up the mass. Luther did not agree with their criticism.
When Luther went to confessional, he liked to mention any and every sin that came to mind, no matter how big or small. The first time he said a confession after becoming a priest, Luther confessed his sins for six hours. The priests in Rome did not want to take time to listen to such long confessions. Luther was criticized for the amount of time he spent in the confessional.
Luther observed the lives of the priests of Rome. They had taken the vow of chastity, yet some had families on the side. They had taken the vow of poverty, yet some had accrued wealth and lived in luxurious apartments. Some simply went through the motions of being a priest, but their hearts were not engaged. Luther was offended by the attitude and lifestyle of these priests.
Luther left Rome with a heavy heart. He tended toward depression, and his experience in Rome exacerbated his dark, heavy mood (like Batman). He decided he would speak against what he saw in Rome. This would make him an enemy of the pope. Luther was okay with that. He decided that someone had to take a stand against the corruption of the papacy. Luther would be that person.
Third, after studying the book of Romans, Luther elevated and appreciated the role of faith in salvation to heights that had not been seen in over a millennium. Luther protested against the works-righteous approach to salvation of the Catholic Church. Luther believed that salvation was by faith alone, and works proceeded from an appreciation of salvation. In 1532, Luther wrote,
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was all together born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” (From Luther’s Works, Vol 34, p. 337 as found in Eric Metaxas’s Martin Luther.)
Luther allowed the phrase “the righteous shall live by faith” to fuel his church work, his writings, and his personal choices. He believed that righteous acts and a righteous life must proceed from faith.
I don’t believe Luther perfectly understood the connection of faith and works. I’m not sure I understand that connection perfectly either. I am grateful that Luther struggled to counteract the human tendency toward legalism and works-righteousness by emphasizing the role of faith in the life of a Christian. I personally need to be reminded that my actions need to be centered in proper motivation. And that my motivation ought to be to please God and to make him happy. I need to remember Paul’s word, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Am I a faithful person? Does faith proceed my actions? Am I guided by faith to live a righteous life? How can I increase my faith? These are questions I need to consider.
Fourth, Luther believed he was engaged in a spiritual battle against the devil and his minions. Legend states that while Luther was in exile in the Wartburg Castle (living under the alias of Junker George (kinda like Bruce Wayne had the alias of Batman) he threw his ink well at the devil. Tour guides point out ink stains on the walls of his one-room study. The stains don’t date back to the time of Luther, so it is unlikely that Luther literally threw ink at the devil. But Luther did throw many uncharitable epitaphs at the devil with ink on paper. He believed the devil was real and the devil was after his soul. He believed this because the Bible said it. Luther believed Paul admonition in Ephesians 6:11-12 to, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
The Wartburg Castle
In our modern, humanistic society, it is easy to shrink back from this language. That’s a mistake. Luther knew he was in a battle against the accuser of humanity. He knew it because the Bible said it. He also knew that God had equipped him through Jesus to fight against satan and his demons. Luther wrote, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, son of God, and where he is there I shall be also!'” To that, I simply add, “Amen.”
Fifth, Luther loved his wife and his family. Later in his life, Luther became a family man. He never planned on marriage. As a priest, he was married to the church. But after he was excommunicated, he helped liberate a dozen nuns from the Nimbschen convent. He helped find husbands for many of these nuns. And, he fell in love with one of the nuns named Katherine. Luther called her, Kate. They had several children, and Luther relished in his married life and his family.
Luther said many great quips about marriage. One was, “It is impossible to keep peace between man and woman in family life if they do not condone and overlook each other’s faults but watch everything to the smallest point. For who does not at times offend? Thus many things must be overlooked; very many things must be ignored that a peaceful relation may exist.” Well said, Martin.
Sixth, Luther was a prolific writer. During his most productive period, the outcome of his written efforts equaled a book every fortnight. That’s unbelievable, but true. He wrote over 100 books. Phenomenal. And he never got paid for a single page. This was before the day of copyrights. Printers got rich publishing Luther’s works, but Luther didn’t. Luther believed in the power of The Word, and thus published many works elucidating The Word of God.
Luther wrote hymns. He believed in the power of music to move the soul. His most famous hymn is “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” I love that hymn. It is majestic.
Luther wrote, “The devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as before the Word of God….Music is a gift and grace of God, not an invention of men. Thus it drives out the devil and makes people cheerful. Then one forgets all wrath, impurity, and other devices.”
Seventh, Luther was not perfect, and he knew it. No human is perfect, therefore, we should never deify leaders. Luther knew the pope and church councils had made mistakes. Therefore, he did not put his faith in the pope or councils. And, Luther did not want anyone to put their faith in him.
Luther drank too much, ate too much, and cursed too much. On drinking beer, Luther wrote, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” Luther was earthy. Perhaps earthy to a fault.
Luther picked intellectual fights with people like the reformer Ulrich Zwingli (another personal favorite of mine). He wrote disparaging epitaphs about his enemies, like the Pope Leo X, Johannes Tetzel, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and any and every Anabaptists within throwing distance. When you read Luther, it is as if he has the attitude, “I’m right; you’re wrong; so away with you.” He was crude and brutal in this way (like Batman).
Luther committed egregious errors. Later in his life, Luther wrote anti-Semitic rants that Hitler and other Nazi officials would use 450 years later to fuel their persecution and desired eradication of the Jewish people in Germany, Poland, and Europe. He also sided with the German nobility during the Peasant Revolts in Germany, and called on rulers to wipe out the peasants by any means necessary.
Luther was unable to reconcile the Epistle of James with his own view of faith and works, so he called James’ letter “a strawy epistle” and stuck in the back of his Bible. This was an overreaction to the works-based religion of the Catholic Church. By doing this, Luther picked and chose one passage of Scripture over another and in essence produced his own canon of Scripture. This hermeneutic has plagued the Reformation Movement throughout history down to today.
Luther’s followers founded the Lutheran church in Germany. The Lutheran church would become the state church of Germany. This led to Protestant denominations cropping up all over Europe. Calvinism rose up in Geneva. The Anglican church became the state Church of England with Henry VIII as sovereign. The Church of Scotland with John Knox as its leader became, well, THE Church of Scotland. Catholic leaders criticized this obvious lack of unity among Reformation leaders and Reformation churches. It was and is a valid criticism. In the early 1800s in the United States, Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell cited this disunity among the reformers as a reason to restore New Testament Christianity, and thus the Restoration Movement began.
Barton W. Stone
So, Luther wasn’t perfect. But who is? However, he stood up and spoke out against the failings of Catholicism. He stood against the powers that be to expose the wrongs of the sale of indulgences and the corruption of the Catholic hierarchy. Luther did this at his own peril. He never expected to live into his sixties. And if the Catholic officers could have gotten their hands on him, he wouldn’t have lived to be married, have children, and see those children grow.
Luther never planned on starting a revolution that would spread across the Western world. He had a conviction that what was happening in the world around him wasn’t right, and someone ought to do something about it (like Batman). He wanted to discuss a set of grievances that he had against the Catholic Church, and he would not be silenced. This led him to ignite the fire of the Protestant Reformation.
Remember the best of Luther. Remember the worst of Luther.
Who will be like Luther in the twenty-first century? Who will be like Luther in the modern church? Who will step out on biblical conviction and ask hard questions that will lead to revival in the church? Who will allow the Holy Spirit to lead them on a quest to restore Jesus’ ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing? Who will stand against the policies of evil that continue to devastate the lives of countless innocents around the world? Who will “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God”? Who will stand against violence, racism, hatred, and injustice? Who will lead the way in planting churches in areas of the world where Christianity is not only unwelcome but is looked upon as the enemy? Who will rise up and lead others to rise up and change the current landscape of the modern church?
Who will remember? And who will build on the memories of history and go out and write another chapter of history, a new Holy Spirit-driven and Jesus-centered chapter of history for God and his church?
Copyright © 2017 by G. Steve Kinnard
For further reading:
Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History, Modern Library, 2003.
Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, Viking Press, 2017.