Pastor Terry Goerz,
High Prairie Redeemer Lutheran Church
It was 500 years ago, Oct. 31, 1517, that an only locally known monk, priest and professor named Martin Luther posted 95 thesis on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and touched off a history shattering event now known as the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation divided the Western church and transformed millions of people’s understanding of their relationship with God.
Luther, 33, was faithful to his church, the Roman Catholic Church, and had progressed in the church from monk to priest and then to a professor at Wittenberg University relatively rapidly. He posted the thesis to invite theological debate on some issues he was struggling with, not as an act of rebellion. A debate, however, never occurred.
John Gruenenberg had recently invented the printing press and by the early months of 1518 copies of Luther’s posting were reprinted in many cities and copies had been sent to Rome.
Luther’s main issue with his church was the sale of indulgences. The sale of indulgences, introduced during the Crusades, remained a favoured source of papal income. In exchange for a meritorious work, frequently a contribution to a worthy cause or a pilgrimage to a shrine, the church offered the sinner exemption from his sin.
At this time, there was a need for funds to complete the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and a Dominican named John Tetzel was preaching throughout much of Germany on behalf of this need. Tetzel boasted he would provide donors with an indulgence that would even apply beyond the grave and free souls from purgatory.
Luther was zealously studious, and studied the Bible in the original languages, Greek and Hebrew, while Rome insisted on only using a Latin translation from the original languages called the Vulgate. Through this, Luther discovered errors were made in the Vulgate translation and he became convinced that righteousness and therefore salvation, was a result of faith alone in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice, that is, by grace alone. Rome stuck with salvation by faith and good works including virtuous acts [like indulgences], acceptance of church doctrine and participation on church ritual.
Luther wanted debate and he initially remained loyal to Rome and the Pope. However, the Dominicans in Rome [of whom John Tetzel was a member] denounced Luther as a man guilty of preaching dangerous doctrines. A Vatican theologian issued counter theses claiming anyone criticizing indulgences was a heretic.
As time went on a number of formal deliberative assemblies called Diets were held where Luther and his supporters presented documents defending his writings, but in each instance no debate occurred. It was insisted that Luther recant.
Luther insisted that any error in his writings be substantiated by scripture. This became the third of Luther’s three solas, first by faith alone, and then by grace alone, and now by scripture alone was added. The Roman Church excommunicated Luther and would have most likely burned him at the stake, as they had done to a previous “reformer” named John Hus, had they been able to get their hands on him.
By this time, Luther and his associates had gathered broad support in many parts of Germany and Luther was protected by his friends and supporters. The initial movement within Germany diversified, and other reform impulses arose independently of Luther.
The spread of Gutenberg’s printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the languages of the many different regions of Europe. The largest groups were the Lutherans and Calvinists. Lutheran churches were founded mostly in Germany, the Baltics and Scandinavia, while the Reformed ones were founded in Switzerland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands and Scotland. The new movement influenced the already independent Church of England decisively.
Luther went on to write a great many works but perhaps his greatest contribution was the translation of the Bible into German from the original languages.
Luther suffered ill health in the last years of his life and died in 1546 from heart failure, becoming known as the father of the Reformation, which transformed not only Christianity but all of Western civilization.