October 31st, known to many as Reformation day, marks the day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.
I can hardly believe it – 499 years. Next year will be the 500th anniversary! I know lots of people are making plans already and organizing tours to Wittenberg in remembrance of the man who sparked what would become the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther.
Question: What Happened?
Good place to start! What exactly happened when Luther nailed the 95 theses up on the church door? To give a short answer, the fabric of the church was ripped. I think that looking at this in retrospect we are much more aware of how monumental this single event was, because we can see how the reformation followed on its heals.
The theological discussions and debates that erupted as a result of October 31, 1517 marked the move from a single western church to the formation of some of the largest denominational trends that carry all the way down to today. Lutheranism, the Reformed movement, Anabaptism, Anglicanism, and Presbyterianism were all born out of this time period. It’s important to note here that the Reformation is not the cause of these denominational splits. However, it does set the stage for them because it removes the papacy. And when the papacy is gone, people are free to assemble however they choose.
Luther, however, standing on the steps of Castle Church with hammer in hand, was quite unaware that all this would occur as a result of this single action. He had no idea he was starting a Reformation – let alone a new church, or a few new churches! He was simply looking to debate with other scholars on a theological subject he felt passionate about – justification by faith in Christ alone, no indulgences needed.
Luther later admitted that if he had known what he was really getting himself into he would never have done it. For many years he retained a tremendous respect for the mother Church and had no desire to break away from it. His only desire was that it be cleansed of certain abuses and false doctrines.
Let’s Go Back in History. . .
Now that Reformation day is right around the corner, we’re going to go back in time and look at its historical medieval backdrop and its role in shaping the modern western world. Many people are familiar with Luther’s internal struggle to find peace with God, his reformation breakthrough where he finally understands “the just shall live by faith,” and his subsequent penning of the 95 theses. But a vastly smaller number are aware of the state that the church had reached, its relationship with the political orders of the day, and what really propelled Luther to write and display the 95 theses.
The Reformation was shaped by so much background and context, and when we understand its history we more easily grasp the importance of what occurred. What I’m trying to say here is that when Luther arrived on the scene, he wasn’t speaking into a vacuum. The historical stage had already been set. The Papacy had been weakened by a series of crises; people were aware of the corruptions within the church and they were ready for reform.
Ok, next we’ll be covering some medieval history of the Catholic church as it leads into the Reformation. I’ll do my best to provide a good summary and overview without boring you all out of your minds with too many details!