The Reformation of Luther

 

Today, October 31, 2017 is the day that will be universally celebrated as Reformation Day, specifically the 500th Anniversary of the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenburg with the goal of generating an academic debate.  What followed were a series of events wherein Luther rejected the unscriptural practices of the Roman Catholic Church, upholding Scripture alone as the sole instrument of faith and practice.  As we’ve already seen, on the day when Luther nailed his theses there is a high probability that he was yet to be genuinely saved.  So, before God could use Luther in the way that He intended at the time and place that He intended for the purposes that He intended, Luther was in need of a reformation of his own, a personal reformation, one that could only be wrought by a divine work of God in the heart.

It has often been said that before God uses a man to do a widespread work of revival and reformation, He first does a work of reformation in that same man’s heart.  Such is certainly the case with Luther.  The controversy in which Luther eventually found himself, namely questioning the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and her leaders brought about by their improper use of indulgences strictly for the sake of financial gain, forced him to the Scriptures to search for support of this teaching and subsequently support of his own position.  Once here, Luther concluded that Scripture was the ultimate authority, not the Church.

Recall that in his own words, Luther considered himself a faithful son of the Roman Catholic Church and a faithful servant of the Pope, as of 1517 at least (though as we will see later, possibly as late as May 1518).  By October 1518, Luther was in direct defiance of the Pope.

Citing Luther’s interviews with Cardinal Cajetan on October 12, 13, and 14 in 1518, Phillip Schaff writes, “Catejan treated Luther with condescending courtesy, and assured him of his friendship.  But he demanded retraction of his errors, and absolute submission to the Pope.  Luther resolutely refused, and declared that he could do nothing against his conscience; that one must obey God rather than man; that he had the Scripture on his side; that even Peter was once reproved by Paul for misconduct (Gal. 2:11), and that surely his successor was not infallible.”

By March 13, 1519 Luther had declared, regarding the Pope, “I know not whether the Pope is antichrist himself, or his apostle; so wretchedly is Christ, that is the truth, corrupted and crucified by him in the Decretals.”

How then can Luther make such a drastic turn about in 18 months?

Our answer is coming.

Finally, for the point of our discussion here, on April 18th, 1521 Luther stood before the new Emperor Charles, 6 Electors (Princes over City-States; including his own), “The Pope’s legates, archbishops, bishops, dukes, margraves, princes, counts, deputies of the imperial cities, ambassadors of foreign courts, and a numerous array of dignitaries of every rank; in one word, a fair representation of the highest powers of Church and State.  Several thousand spectators were collected in and around the building and in the streets, anxiously waiting for the issue.” (Schaff, Vol. 7, pg. 300)

What began as a “innocent” attempt to generate academic debate had now morphed into the entire Roman empire against one man who once claimed them as his own.  It was here, at the Diet of Worms, that Luther uttered his now famous defense and for us, answers the question of how reform was conducted in his own heart.  Schaff again recounts the moment for us, “Unless I am refuted and convicted by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments (since I believe neither the Pope nor the councils alone; it being evident that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures quoted by me, and my conscience is bound in the word of God: I can not and will not recant any thing, since it is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against the conscience.” (Vol. 7, pg. 304-305)

Before Luther could act as the spark that would ignite God’s reformation, he was first in need of God to do a work in his heart.  This work was performed by God’s Spirit working through the Word of God to enlighten and illumine the mind of Luther to the truth’s of Scripture.  The overflow of this is seen in Luther’s words above, “I am conquered by the Holy Scriptures…my conscience is bound in the word of God.”

Much like Josiah 2100 years earlier and every other “reformer” that God has raised up for His own glory, Luther was the product of divine grace working in the heart.  This work of grace was and always is the first reformation and for Luther, it was his most lasting reformation.  From beginning to end, reformation, whether internal in the heart or on the world’s stage, is entirely a work of God.

To God Alone be Glory.

The Motivation of Luther

 

In our first post on the Reformation, in this broader series on church history, we simply introduced the Reformation with a few general thoughts on how some of the events surrounding this historical occasion have been subjected to tradition.  Here, we’ll discuss Luther’s 95 Theses as well as some correspondence surrounding the event to gain additional insight into his motivation.

When articulating Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses, we often hear his motivation presented as a desire to uphold “justification by faith alone” or sola fide.  However, it should be noted that Luther posted his theses, intended for academic debate only by the way, in 1517, while his doctrine of justification likely evolved and developed from at least that time (possibly a year or two earlier) until its full gestation around 1531 when he formally taught Galatians and penned its commentary.  Despite this, it’s probable that for Luther, “justification by faith alone” became part of his vernacular in 1519, two years after posting his theses, and the year which he taught the Psalms for the second time.  At the very least, it was likely this year that Luther became a Christian, at least as he describes in his own words.

Additionally, as we look to Luther’s own 95 theses, we would find them to largely espouse Roman Catholic doctrine and not, as we may have been led to believe, a protestation against her doctrine, instead upholding it.  Regarding the theses, Phillip Schaff writes, “They sound very strange to a modern ear [1858], and are more Catholic than Protestant.  They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse.  They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes that have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50).  They imply belief in purgatory.  They nowhere mention Tetzel.  They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety.  He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. “  Citing Luther’s own comments on the republication of these theses in his collected works, Schaff writes, “I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business.  I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.” (Vol. 7, pg. 157)

Luther’s first correspondences regarding these 95 Theses was to the Elector, Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern (Brandenburg; Mayence/Mainz) on October 31, 1517, the same day he posted his theses, where he decries the selling of indulgences without the Electors knowledge and consent.  The excerpt below summarizes the situation well.

“With your Electoral Highness’s consent, the Papal Indulgence for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome is being carried through the land. I do not complain so much of the loud cry of the preacher of Indulgences, which I have not heard, but regret the false meaning, which the simple folk attach to it, the poor souls believing that when they have purchased such letters they have secured their salvation, also, that the moment the money tingles in the box souls are delivered from purgatory, and that all sins will be forgiven through a letter of Indulgence, even that of reviling the blessed Mother of God, were any one blasphemous enough to do so. And, lastly, that through these Indulgences the man is freed from all penalties ! Ah, dear God ! Thus are those souls which have been committed to your care, dear father, being led in the paths of death, and for them you will be required to render an account. For the merits of no bishop can secure the salvation of the souls entrusted to him which is not always assured through the grace of God, the apostle admonishing us ” to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” and, that the way which leads to life is so narrow, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, likens those who attain to eternal life to brands plucked from the burning, and above all, the Lord points to the difficulty of redemption. There fore, I could be silent no longer.”

As mentioned earlier, this letter affirms the motivation of Luther in calling out those who were preaching the sale of indulgences for salvation from purgatory as being out of step with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  He therefore was not protesting against the RCC, but was appealing to her in order to correct these perceived deficiencies. Boiling down Luther’s focus, essentially he was shining a light on greed and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and it was this, the love of money, not a disagreement over the pure doctrine of Scripture or even the inconsistent application of Rome’s corrupt doctrine, that would warrant such a strong response from the Pope.

He concludes his letter above, which accompanied a copy of his 95 Theses, with these words

“What else can I do, right reverend father, than beg your Serene Highness carefully to look into this matter, and do away with this little book of instructions, and command those preachers to adopt another style of preaching, else another may arise and refute them, by writing another book in answer to the previous one, to the confusion of your Serene Highness, the very idea of which alarms me greatly. I hope that your Serene Highness may graciously deign to accept the faithful service which your insignificant servant, with true devotion, would render you. The Lord keep you to all eternity. Amen. Wittenberg, the night before All Saints’ Day 1517.

If agreeable to your Grace, perhaps you would glance at my enclosed theses, that you may see the opinion on the Indulgences is a very varied one, while those who proclaim them fancy they cannot be disputed. Your unworthy son, Martin Luther”

This letter isn’t earth-shattering, but it does go along way in showing that Luther wasn’t initially acting as a revolutionary, nor was he acting in isolation from his superiors, rather he was appealing to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to bring resolution to the errant ways of the indulgence preachers.  Remember that Luther posted these theses for academic debate.  The problem was that not one single professor or academic responded to the challenge.  For Luther, the real reformation, namely an internal one, was yet to come.  However, the match that the Lord would use to ignite the reformation had been nailed to the door.

Soli Deo Gloria.

On Wittenberg’s Door

 

If you’re familiar at all with the history of Protestantism or if you follow any other blogs that are “Reformed” or true to the Doctrines of Grace, then you’re probably aware that this year, 2017, will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.   In fact by this point, you’ve probably heard so much about the Reformation that you could care less if you hear anything else, but bear with me in this post and those related that follow because it may include somethings you weren’t familiar with.

Historically, the beginning date for this movement of reformation is traced to Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517.  However, limiting this movement to a specific day, let alone year or decade, dare I say century, is far too narrowly focused.  While much has been said in recent months about Luther’s exploits and subsequent Reformers such as Zwingli, Calvin, etc., you’ve probably heard very little from first hand sources about the events and people leading up to the Reformation, let alone what actually happened (Though DesiringGod.org has a good series on this).  Largely at our hearts we are traditionalists and regurgitators of traditions we hear because, well, it’s easier.  Unfortunately we not only take this approach with history, and more specifically church history, but also with our biblical interpretations, which as you may imagine has led to a whole host of problems.

The motivations for addressing this particular blind spot regarding the Reformation are numerous, but chief among them has been my own journey in understanding this history.  For awhile I had loosely thought that after the time of the Apostles and “Church Fathers” (~2nd to 4th Century), the Church slipped into the darkness of medieval Catholicism only to burst forth in the light of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation under the guiding hand of Martin Luther.  I’d assumed that during this period there were true, genuine believers within the “Roman Catholic Church” throughout the centuries, but that largely it was a dark period for the Church.  In short, I would’ve concluded that the Church of Jesus Christ, the one purchased by His shed blood was within the Roman Catholic Church from the 4th to the 16th Centuries.  However, this assumes a monolithic church history, and despite the overwhelming majority of tradition that teaches this, it’s simply not the case.  Largely I’ve been ignorant of the details surrounding the Reformation, the streams of faithful believers outside the Roman Catholic Church,  the faithful men and women who fought for reforms prior to the 16th Century, and the influences and impacts on today’s “Church”.

One example of this, and the lead into this series (Lord willing), is the role that Luther played in the Reformation.  As the story is often presented, Luther defiantly nailed his 95 theses, a summation of all the contradictions of Scripture by the Catholic Church, onto the church door at Wittenberg thereby firing the proverbial shot  heard round the world and launching  the Reformation, a full-scale frontal protest against the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the Pope.

Does this brief summary sound familiar?  This is a rather glamorized and misleading recount of the details, but it is a common overview and until recently is how I would’ve summarized the event that lead to the Reformation.  However, this isn’t entirely accurate and certainly masks Luther’s motivation behind the theses.

Rounding out our general introduction to the Reformation and Luther’s infamous actions, we need to add that the Church at Wittenberg, after the construction of the University of Wittenberg in 1502, was annexed to serve as the University chapel, as well as the academic and worship center.  So when we think of the event of  Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door, it was essentially tacked to the university bulletin board in the hopes of generating academic debate among fellow professors and scholars, not for launching a theological movement against the Roman Catholic Church and certainly not fodder for the common man to rebel against their authorities.  Whoops…

In our next post in this series we’ll look at Luther in his own words to gain insight into his motivations and reaction to the response of Wittenburg.