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.