By Amanda Boston
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, protested the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church when he nailed his famous essay to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.
The essay begins with “Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place.”
During this era, it was standard practice for the church doors to act as a bulletin board. Luther titled his essay, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, but its formal title was abbreviated to the 95 Theses. In it, Luther compiled a list of 95 propositions that argued against the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the selling of indulgences for the absolution of sin.
Before the reformation, the Bible was not available to commoners, and only priests were permitted to interpret it. This practice contributed to corruption in many of the church practices and officials. Preceding Luther’s call for reform, English theologian John Wycliffe and Bohemian religious leader Jan Hus had attempted to reform the church, but it was with little avail.
Luther’s small act of defiance inadvertently sparked the start of the Protestant Reformation. Fueled by the power of the printing press, Luther’s 95 Theses quickly spread throughout Germany and the rest of Europe within two months. The Protestant movement gathered momentum as other religious leaders also insisted on the authority of Scripture alone and justification by faith rather than works.
As a result, the early reformers endeavored to restore God’s Word as the sole authority for the church rather than the pope’s authority or tradition. The Reformation’s central message was summarized into five Latin declarations: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) and soli Deo gloria (the glory of God alone).
Other notable reformers during the sixteenth century included Ulrich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger of Switzerland, Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale and John Rodgers of England, Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon of Germany and John Calvin of France.
Luther never recanted his writings, and in 1521, he was declared a heretic and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. While forced into hiding, Luther published a German translation of the Bible, making the Bible available to commoners. Luther remained faithful to the end as he continued to write, preach and debate until he passed away in 1546.
Despite papal reluctance, the Catholic Counter-Reformation began in 1545 with the Council of Trent. Over the course of 18 years, Catholic bishops convened in Italy to dispute church doctrine and practices. Although the Catholic Church did not revise any of its church doctrine, it did remove practices that were contrary to its doctrine. Today, Catholics and Protestants remain as divided on church doctrine as they did 500 years ago. From theological discussions to violent religion-fueled wars, the debate continues…
As the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation approaches, a few local church leaders weighed in on the meaning of the Protestant Reformation.
Dr. Stephen Rummage, Senior Pastor, Bell Shoals Baptist Church
“As a Baptist, I rejoice with the churches of the Reformation in celebrating this significant anniversary. The central truths proclaimed by the Reformers — salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed by Scripture alone, for God’s glory alone — form the non-negotiable bedrock for any genuine follower of Jesus Christ.”
Ric Hesse, North America Director for Crossing Cultures International
“Well, for me the greatest impact is the change in the understanding of the role of God, Christ and the church in salvation: God drew me to Christ and knitted me into the church, whereas the pre-reformation idea was that God drew believers to the church and through the church to Christ.”
Pastor Mike McCormack, the Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon
“Protestants do not work and play well with others. We asked too many questions and got kicked out. But we
couldn’t help it. It’s part of our charm.”
Travis Lowe, College & Career Pastor and Historian for Bay Life Church
“The spirit of the Reformation remains of vital importance for the church today. Luther, Zwingli and Calvin’s desire to stand for truth over and against the prevailing culture of their age is the call of Christians, just as much now as it was back then. The great reformers weren’t interested in re-inventing anything, but rather, they wanted to see the Scriptures, written by common men and inspired by the Spirit once again accessible to the common man. Their conviction that Christians return, ‘to the sources’ of the New Testament and creeds and councils of the early church might even be more important now than it was in 1517. They knew well what we must often be reminded, the church in every age is being formed and reformed into the image of Christ by the power of the spirit, through the Scriptures.”