Why commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?

Rev. Dr. Matthew Rich

EDITOR’S NOTE: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which brought about significant religious and societal changes that reverberate to this day. The following is the first in a series of columns examining the Reformation’s historical and modern impact.

 

It started 500 years ago with a monk hanging 95 Theses, or topics for debate, on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. It was the eve of All Saints Day in 1517 – a day we know as Oct. 31 or Halloween. Yet in most Protestant Christian circles, Oct. 31 will always be known as “Reformation Day” for with the hanging of his Theses, the young monk, pastor, and university professor Martin Luther birthed the Protestant Reformation.

The presenting issue for Luther might not be a matter of great controversy today. However, the sale of indulgences greatly troubled Luther. The theological thinking of the time was that at one’s death there remained sins needing atonement and acts of penitence. Until that debt had been paid, one’s soul remained in purgatory instead of moving into heaven. An “indulgence” was a sum of money paid to the church on behalf of the dead so that he or she could be released early from purgatory. Selling indulgences became quite a money maker for the Christian church with the catch phrase, “As soon as the coin box rings another soul from purgatory springs!”

Luther recognized the selling of indulgences and the theology of purgatory stood in marked contrast to his understanding of the biblical witness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. So, he did what any university professor of the time would do: He challenged the proponents of indulgences to a debate. The 95 Theses were not an attempt to rebel against the pope or the church. They were not a call to revolution. They were an attempt to bring the theology and practice of the church closer to the scriptural witness.

The result of this call for debate was resounding silence. The 95 Theses were written in Latin, a language read and understood by very few. None of Luther’s fellow university professors wanted to debate his points. Those selling indulgences certainly did not want a public questioning of their practices. So for several months nothing happened at all.

Then, at the encouragement of his parishioners, some of Luther’s university students translated his document into German – the language of the people. Interest began to grow, neighboring towns and churches shared Luther’s concerns, and a populist movement began that ultimately spread around the globe.

In 2017, we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Whether one is a church member or not, it is an event worth marking. For not only did the theological trajectory of the Christian church change with a renewed focus on “grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and scripture alone,” but almost every aspect of society felt the impact as well.

As we commemorate the beginning of the Reformation, it is important to note that some of the movement’s impacts were quite negative. Initial leaders in the Protestant movement soon found themselves at odds with each other. Various branches or “denominations” of the church developed, which were often quite antagonistic toward others. Once those splits developed, it seemed that every minor disagreement led to a new denomination. Some estimates indicate there are more than 30,000 Protestant denominations today, severely undermining attempts at unity.

The fracturing of the Christian church often had political consequences as well. Various political magistrates and rulers chose sides in the conflict. Some chose out of religious conviction. Others saw opportunity to claim political power for themselves as opposed to allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. The response from the church and the empire was swift. The Thirty Years War and the English Civil War are just a few examples of the armed conflict and immense bloodshed that followed the beginning of the Reformation.

Protestant churches and communities commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation can use it as an opportunity to model unity and reconciliation in the midst of our world, which seems to grow more fractured and divisive every year. In 1999, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, healing a significant theological division of the Reformation. United Methodists joined the agreement in 2006. In 2017, Reformed (Presbyterian) Christians signed a declaration endorsing the agreement and the Anglican (Episcopal) Church is expected to do the same later this year.

(Dr. Matthew A. Rich is the pastor of Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church in Augusta.)

 

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