Editor’s Note: Dr. Stephen B. Eccher is Assistant Professor of Church History and Reformation Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This article originally appeared in Barnabas Magazine.
As Martin Luther’s life drew to a close in 1546 his friend Justus Jonas questioned him about his willingness to stand firm on his teachings. The reformer’s response was both simple and stern: “We are beggars. This is true.” Thirty plus years in ministry left him clinging to that basic, yet profound truth. Salvation was God’s work, but what an amazing work that was. Above all things, that truth must be maintained and proclaimed. Therefore, the Reformation was worth it.
Luther’s role in God’s work was equally clear. He had been a prophetic voice to his world, calling others to recognize the amazing work of God in Jesus Christ. By leading in the work of the Protestant Reformation, Luther was convinced that the gospel had been recovered and the trappings of late-Medieval Roman Catholicism could no longer veil the beauty of what Christ had accomplished for His bride. Luther’s life was driven by a divine calling and guided with a providential purpose. However, his life’s work also came with a long-standing consequence. This important gospel work came with schism in tow.
Accordingly, commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is as much a celebration of division and discord, as it is a celebration of the gospel itself. Throughout 2017 a steady stream of conferences, books and articles will commemorate the actions the reformers took some five hundred years ago. Similarly, throngs of religious pilgrims will make their way to Germany to retrace the steps of the men and women whose lives forever transformed not only their native lands, but the Christian faith itself.
Amid all the excitement and activity, questions about this seminal event in the Western Church’s life still remain. A young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther first helped to usher in this new era for the church with the posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on 31 October 1517. But how did that ostensibly insignificant act facilitated by a then inconsequential figure in an obscure and marginal locale lead to something historic? What initiated the cries for reform from Luther and others and what were the reformers trying to change? Moreover, how did the reformers’ vigilant attempts to recover the gospel lead to the splintering of Protestantism in the years that followed? Should not Jesus’ words in John 17 lead believers to decry the painful division that befell the church following the period? Or is the Reformation an event modern Christians should celebrate?
To answer these questions and better understand the Reformation’s paradoxical legacy, we must journey back in time to the volatile, revolutionary, painful and complex world of the sixteenth century. As we meet the reformers in their unique contexts, a window into their lives reveals a distant and disparate world from our own. Yet, while the reformers ministered in a time and place that may appear foreign to modern sensibilities, we cannot escape the impact they have on us today. The Reformation continues to shape and direct a myriad of Protestant doctrinal beliefs and worship practices around the globe. Whether we know it or not, we are indebted to the reformers for much of the doctrine and church practice that guides our churches today. We are also left to gather as a church fragmented on the basis of the reformers’ convictions, which is an odd and regrettable legacy indeed.
European culture convulsed at the dawning of the sixteenth century. The reformers were not aware of it, but they were uniquely situated in history at a time in which the late-Medieval Period was preparing to give birth to the Modern Era. In fact, the Reformation and Renaissance movements coalesced to help form a bridge that linked those two discordant eras. Much like the Renaissance artists of the day, the reformers envisaged a new era for the church through their cleverly crafted critiques and innovative calls for change. Printed words and pulpit declarations became the reformers’ brushstrokes of correction polemically cast upon the newly emerging canvass of Early Modern Europe. Their redress and re-imagination of the faith brought not just reform, but a new era for the church.
Prior to the Reformation the climate of late-Medieval Europe may best be described as one of apprehension and angst. The Black Death, famine, war and rudimentary medicinal practices all combined to generate a season of suffering hardly rivaled in history. Death was a character all too familiar to the people of the period, an ever-present reality embodied in the artistic renderings of the day that trivialized the “Dance of Death”. Moreover, advancements in science and geography, most notably through men like Columbus, Copernicus and Galileo, were realized alongside the slow decay of the political, financial and social structuring of culture with the crumbling of feudalism. Thus, with the eclipse of the old order people were forced to ask foundational questions about their changing world. Given the confluence of these changes, feelings of excitement, confusion, fear, uncertainty and unrest built in the minds and hearts of the people.
With their cultural moorings destabilized, many people looked to the church to help them make sense of and navigate the shifting currents of culture. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church was in no position to speak into the people’s concerns. Theologically, the late-Medieval Period saw both the growing consolidation of power in the papacy, as well as the continued expansion of a sacramental theology that the reformers came to believe was a blatant distortion of the gospel. Additionally, an increase in the overall moral corruption of the clergy plagued the church. The history of Roman Catholicism during this time is replete with political corruption, moral failings, and sexual scandal. That some of the most famous figures to emerge during the Reformation were the illegitimate sons of priests betrays a systemic corruption in the fabric of the clerical order. The pervasive nature of clerical corruption left many commoners of the period with questions not only about the trustworthiness of the church, but also about the eternal state of their souls. This was an era of dissatisfaction and disenfranchisement. And these concerns were not merely temporal in nature, for the eternal state of the souls of men, women and children were at stake.
Why Martin Luther?
Martin Luther was born into this tumultuous and unstable world in 1483. At first there was nothing discernably significant about the Martin Luther that posted the 95 Theses. He was not of noble birth, nor was he in any position of ecclesiastical prominence. The German monk was not even the first to elucidate the ills of the Roman Catholic Church. Long before Luther, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus had raised relatable concerns. But Luther personified the German populace. His education and upbringing in Germany meant that he was steeped in a liturgically ordered life, which also included strong beliefs relating to the spiritual realm. Spirits, angels and demons were real entities to Luther. His life and mind became a spiritual battlefield in an eternal struggle of good versus evil, a tug of war between heaven and hell, where eternity hung in the balance.
Though it remained throughout his life, the internal struggle for Luther’s soul waged most fiercely during his years as a monk in an Augustinian order in Erfurt, Germany. Two encounters plagued Luther during those years. First, what he described as the Anfechtungen, bouts of spiritual despair and dread, left him with the burdensome realization that the salvific prescriptions of the Roman Catholic Church were wanting. Although he had followed the program of piety set forth by both Rome and his monastic order, nothing seemed to assuage Luther’s guilt-ridden conscience. Thus, rest for his weary soul eluded Luther, as did the assurance of his own standing before God. Second, this young Augustinian monk also came to loathe the wanton immorality he witnessed among his clerical brethren. This disdain was etched in his mind on a fateful trip to Rome in 1510/11. A sojourn to the Holy See was supposed to bring unique opportunities for Luther to find absolution. But when he witnessed the clergy’s unabashed, immoral actions in Rome, alongside the surfacing of questions related to the efficacy of the sacraments, he left the city heartbroken, angry and confused. Rome was nothing like he had imagined.
Luther’s dissatisfaction with monasticism later became jointly embodied in his concern over papal indulgences. Initially established to secure the services of crusaders in the Middle Ages, during the late-Medieval Period indulgences were sold as certificates that provided documented remittance for the temporal punishment of sin in the recipient’s life. And sell they did. Through the efforts of traveling indulgence preachers who played on the fears of the age, Rome’s coffers were filled with German coin. Once Luther caught wind of the selling of these so-called “acts of righteousness”, he crafted a series of ninety-five suppositions questioning the veracity of indulgences. Luther’s own personal struggles and his pastoral care for the German populace would not allow him to remain silent.
Why Any Impact?
That should have been the end of the story. A series of seemingly random concerns about a time-honored ecclesiastical practice offered by an unimportant monk in Wittenberg meant nothing. So, how did those ostensibly obscure ideas spark the Protestant Reformation? Two important innovations transformed Luther’s regionalized words into a religious, cultural and political revolution that swept across Europe.
First, Luther’s agitating words were printed and disseminated widely. Pope Leo X eventually received Luther’s query into indulgences. More importantly, so did many Germans, whose concerns and fears mirrored those of the insolent monk. The role of print, realized through the innovative advancement of Guttenberg’s moveable type press, cannot be overstated. Publishing gave Luther access to the people, both the common peasants and the clerical elites. Although literacy was widespread, the reformers’ ideas were easily portable through the pulpits of Europe and via the new medium of flugschriften (“flying papers”). The former of these directed the populace’s thoughts and actions through the reformers’ prophetic voices. The latter were inexpensive, mass-produced documents that melded words and images into pugnacious criticisms of Rome. These pithy polemics also afforded people an opportunity to literally put their hands around the reformers’ radical ideas and served as badges of identification with the Reformation movement for a common people not trained in theology. Rome was eventually forced to react to the torrent of Luther’s pen with actions aimed to silence his voice. In the end, Luther’s use of the press as a weapon against Leo X was undeniable; his own words served as ammunition for defending himself against the papacy and its long reach of excommunication.
Second, Luther’s embrace of the vernacular shifted the discourse of theology. This makes Luther’s Explanation of the 95 Theses, published in August 1518, actually more historically important than its more famous preceding work. Printed words in German became a nexus that gained Luther access to the hearts and minds of a people growing increasingly restless and discontent. Here, Luther’s voice was unmistakable and empowering. All individuals, not just priests, now had a say in the Christian faith. Luther’s willingness to write in the German language democratized theological debate and gave the reformer access to previously unreached sectors of culture. He also simultaneously muzzled his papal critics who were unwilling to utilize a medium they thought taboo and unbecoming. This deviation in discourse coincided with Luther’s early appropriation of another key theme in his writings, the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Driven by the conviction that all believers had direct access to God by means of the saving work of Jesus, Luther ushered in a radical reorientation to the faith. According to Luther, the divide between clergy and laity was a fictitious and oppressive creation of the papacy. Once broken, men and women alike were not just allowed to enter the Reformation discourse; they had a responsibility to speak truthfully regarding matters of doctrine and church practice. Consequently, religion and theology became the topics of discussion in universities, churches, homes and pubs across Germany. Though these discussions were grounded in Germanic concerns, they had a wider reach and broader application as well. Soon Luther’s ideas were helping to reshape places like the Swiss Confederation, France, England and Scotland. The Reformation would not remain confined to Germany alone.
The Protestant Corrective
The four years following the indulgence controversy proved formative for the recasting of the faith according to what would later become Protestantism. As Luther’s personal war with Rome continued, recognition of not only what was wrong with the Roman Church, but also the subsequent corrective began to materialize. This began rather inauspiciously during a debate at Leipzig when the famed Catholic apologist, Johann Eck, trapped Luther into aligning himself with Jan Hus. This was the same Hus that had been burned as a heretic at Constance in 1415, so this was a damning historic link for Luther. Through these proceedings, Luther came to realize that indulgences were symptoms of a much deeper, more systemic problem. The greater issue rested in the papacy’s reliance on a secondary source of authority outside of Scripture – church tradition. Conflicting papal decrees from prior centuries had proven that humans could and did err. According to Luther, that is why the Bible must serve as the one, normative and final arbiter when establishing doctrine and practice. This belief framed sola scriptura as a guiding light for the reformers.
Now rooted in Scripture, Luther’s attacks on the Roman Church became more persistent and impassioned. Arguably the high point of criticism came in the latter part of 1520 through three treaties: To the German Nobility of a Christian Nation, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and Freedom of a Christian. These works were virulent polemics aimed at both the papacy and the sacraments. As Luther’s voice found both a sympathetic ear and practical resonance among his fellow Germans, the reformer’s notoriety and following grew; however, so too did the papacy’s ire toward him. Rome was forced to respond in kind with actions aimed to silence the reformer. In a papal bull entitled Exsurge Domine, Pope Leo X eventually cast Luther as a wild boar destroying the vineyard of the Lord. That Luther publicly burned this decree of excommunication in Wittenberg at the end of 1520 demonstrated his resolve on the matter. Martin Luther was officially excommunicated 3 January 1521. Three months later, in April of 1521, Luther faced another crossroads when confronted by Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms. Again, despite the threat to his own life, Luther refused to recant his positions. Truth demanded as much; he was beholden to the words of Scripture, not those of fallible men.
Why take such a bold and defiant stand? Sometime during this crucial period Luther came to reject Roman Catholicism’s sacramental theology. For Luther, the notion of securing one’s salvation over time exclusively by participating in the Roman Church’s sacraments was akin to a false gospel. With a new reading especially of the book of Romans, Luther came to affirm justification by grace through faith alone. Humanity was no longer relegated to finding absolution for sin through the church’s sacramental prescriptions. Such a pursuit came without the assurance of salvation that Luther had sought his entire life and was a journey fraught with doubt. Instead, the gospel was based solely on God’s work and initiative. It was rooted in the Lord’s divine act of declaring sinners righteous based solely on His grace (sola gratia). Even the human receptor and indicator of that grace, “faith”, was a gift given from God. This “sweet exchange” as Luther later characterized it, was a beautiful act whereby Jesus’ righteousness was transferred to sinners and their sin, in turn, given to the Christ to be dealt with on the cross. At this realization Luther believed himself reborn by this correct, biblical understanding of the gospel.
In all of this Martin Luther struck a blow deep at the heart of Roman Catholicism. Luther’s 95 Theses had first begun to chip away at the foundations of the Roman Church. However, the reformer’s understanding of justification crushed the papacy’s authority and the power of sacramental theology, the two main pillars upon which the late-Medieval church was founded. With those two foundations removed, the reformers needed replacements. These came in the form of the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. The former of these denoted an evangelical reading of the Scriptures based on justification by grace through faith alone. The latter meant that the gospel was no longer veiled by the Roman Church’s misappropriation and misapplication of the sacraments, those very things designed to offer assurance of one’s salvation. To that end, the visible face of the church and salvation, the Roman Mass, had to be abolished.
Why the Fragmentation?
By the end of the 1520s the Reformation was taking root. Through intentional, measured actions the Mass had been formally abolished in places like Wittenberg, Zürich, Berne and Strasbourg. Inroads were being made into Roman Catholic territories with the expansion of Protestantism in both key urban centers and in the rural communes. The proclamation of the evangelical gospel was having a dramatic impact. Institutions and lives were both being changed simultaneously. Yet, just as the Reformation was finding solid footing, controversy loomed on the horizon. Ironically, the religious rite most understood to embody unity, the Lord’s Supper, served as a catalyst to the impending schism to come.
At a gathering of key reformers in Marburg, figures like Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer and others sought an alliance in the promotion of this newly realized evangelical gospel. Contextual circumstances, including responses from Roman Catholicism and the Turks marching toward Vienna, demanded as much. Though there was agreement on almost all major points of Protestant doctrine, an accord on the question of Jesus’ presence in the Supper eluded them. Marburg revealed a fundamental problem that would plague the reformers moving forward. Although all the mainline reformers affirmed the doctrine of sola scriptura, there was no consensus regarding how to interpret the Bible. Who was to adjudicate what was a proper, orthodox reading of Scripture from what was dangerous or heretical? With papal authority now spurned, the loss of that ecclesiastical arbiter left the reformers without an authoritative voice. Instead, they were left with voices and those voices read the Bible differently. Sadly the very thing that had once united the reformers, the Bible, became the thing that irreparably separated them. In the end, this interpretive problem proved both subversive and damning for the unifying cause of Protestantism.
The division over the Supper was an indicator of things to come. As time would demonstrate, differing hermeneutics led to divergent understandings of the sacraments, worship practices, the language of salvation, church polity, the pace of reform and much more. The Protestant church became a divided church, with each emerging Reformation tradition offering its unique corrective to late-Medieval Roman Catholicism. At times these changes overlapped, but frequently they did not. The convictions of the reformers were no longer framed exclusively against Roman Catholicism, but now against other fracturing traditions within Protestantism itself. Followers and advocates of these distinct movements eventually bore monikers like Lutheran, Zwinglian and Calvinist. As those developing beliefs became further entrenched over time, coupled with the expanded usage of confessions to codify doctrine, the splintering multiplied exponentially and became irreversible. The Age of Confessionalization was realized and the further fragmentation into a legion of denominations was the natural consequence. This was a logical corollary realized by the decentralization of authority that came with the ascendency of the Bible over anything relating to the Roman Curia.
Division is one the Reformation’s enduring legacies. There is no way of removing or downplaying that heritage of schism. However, so too is the reformers’ efforts to recover the gospel from a Roman Church they believed had lost its way. Accordingly, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation will inevitably raise questions about the nature of the Reformation, its successes and failures, even whether it continues until this day. While those are worthy questions to ponder, perhaps those are queries that miss the point of the Reformation era altogether. Regardless of how one interprets the events of the Reformation, the hopes, dreams and desires of the reformers remain clear. These were men and women who desired to know God and who were deeply committed to order their lives, both in doctrine and practice, to His voice as revealed in the Scriptures. To that end, believers in our day have a shared affinity with the reformers, as we also seek to hear the voice of God against the deafening and distracting noise of modernity. Thus, our celebration of the Reformation is the celebration of human striving and struggle; it is a commemoration of humanity desperately trying to relate rightly to the God who created us and redeemed us by the work of Jesus. And so it is true, we are as much beggars today as Luther was in 1546. Modern advancement and innovation have not altered the human condition, nor has time changed our struggle; only God’s gracious work in redemptive history and the promise of His return can accomplish that.