Dead history or living future? – part 1
This month is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a major revolution in the Christian church. It lifted the lid on small, popular movements for reform of the church. In very general terms the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages had become very institutionalised and worldly. Martin Luther, a German monk with a sensitive conscience, went to scripture and found the reassurance he needed personally that salvation is available through our faith.
On 31 October 1517 Luther famously kick-started the Reformation by publishing “95 theses” (95 short assertions or arguments). It is said he pinned them to the door of the cathedral in the small city where he was a university professor, which was the usual way of participating in public theological debate. They were an attack on various abuses in the Roman church, principally the sale of indulgences. These were certificates given by the Pope that purported to relieve the person buying one from a period in Purgatory, being sold to finance wars against the Turkish invaders attacking Austria.
Luther had no idea at the time that this would lead to churches being reformed and organised separately from Roman church structures. He was summoned to the German imperial court in 1521 and was pronounced a heretic by the Pope’s representative. He might have been arrested and executed (like an earlier reformer, John Hus, summoned to a similar conference and martyred in 1415). But Prince Frederick III of Saxony protected him, whether for reasons of conscience or of politics is not clear.
Luther’s theology was based on a revelation that scripture alone is the guide for faith and doctrine (the Roman church effectively taught that church tradition was more important and in practice kept scripture away from uneducated people). Through reading scripture he became convinced that salvation is by faith alone and by grace alone.
At first Luther argued strongly that any person could interpret scripture but over time he became more cautious and when the Lutheran churches became organised they placed strong emphasis on preaching: ministers were the guides and guardians of truth. The Peasants Revolt in many German areas, that was quashed in 1525, was a significant factor in his change of mind, and Luther argued strongly that Christian princes should put down the revolt by force. From then, reformation on Lutheran lines happened in states where the ruler was inclined to the Reformation. The Prince of Saxony protected Luther but gained in terms of political control and prestige, and others followed suit.
However, Luther had set a revolution going. The invention of printing a few decades more made it easy to distribute copies of the Bible translated into the languages people spoke (previously it was available in Latin and for the use of clergy only). As people read for themselves, they sometimes came up with their own interpretations, some of which were inspired by the Spirit and some were not! Printing made it easy to distribute copies and hard for the religious and government authorities to stop it being read. Sadly, they tried, and the mainstream Reformation, principally through Luther and Calvin and their followers, and the Catholic Church, used the power of governments to control what people believed.
Martin Luther made a great start, but he was not the first to preach reform and he did not see all the reform necessary. He never broke free from the notion that anyone born in a Christian country and christened was of necessity a Christian, even though his theology suggested that an individual needed to respond by faith. Therefore, when the state churches in most North German principalities and states became Lutheran, worldly powers continued to exercise control of religion.
A Swiss-German theologian of the 20th Century, Karl Barth, talked of the church being reformed but also in need of continuing reformation. So as we look back at the great things achieved in the Reformation we also need to look forward to the unchanging truths that still need to be restored fully in the church. We will look at this a little more next week….