Martin Luther: 500 Years On
It was around two o’clock in the afternoon on the eve of the Day of All Saints, October 31, 1517. With a hammer in hand, Martin Luther purportedly nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses on the the main north door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In doing so, he unwittingly created a portal from the medieval to modern world, setting off in its wake radical changes in both Church and Society which are still felt today.
Luther was born in 1483 in what is now central Germany but then was a separate principality called Saxony. His parents tried to give him a good education and hoped he would become a lawyer. Instead, when he was twenty-one he became a Catholic monk. He wanted to earn God’s love but was tormented by the sense that he could never be good enough. He punished himself mercilessly until finally a wise mentor sent him to study and teach the Bible at the then new University of Wittenberg.
Not long after he arrived there, he became incensed by the church which said, in effect, that if people bought a certain document - an indulgence - it would provide God’s forgiveness for their (or a loved one’s) sins. Being a university professor, he wrote this list of ninety-five sentences to debate about the topic. He was a pious monk, intensely obedient to authority, who was convinced the pope could not possibly approve of turning indulgences and the forgiveness of sins into a kind of merchandise at the expense of Christ’s people.
What Luther did not know at the time was that the pope and the archbishop were the ones profiting from this merchandise, each claiming half of the take. So it was not surprising that events took a turn he did not anticipate. That list, the Ninety-Five Theses, stirred up a hornet’s nest in the church and began the Reformation. As it was dated on October 31, 1517, this date is seen as marking the beginning of the Reformation.
Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at a meeting in the imperial city of Worms. Asked to take back what he had written, he refused and was declared an outlaw. Anyone could capture or kill him or turn him over to the authorities, in which case his death was likely. Fortunately, his own prince protected him, hiding him out in a castle where he began translating the Bible into German. In the process, he helped create the standard German language.
Luther wrote many influential books, most of which are still valued today. He was a pas-sionate, sometimes crudely mannered man. Imperfect like any other, in later life he wrote some unhelpful things about the Jewish people, statements for which the Lutheran church has apologised.
The winds of Reformation affected the Church in England, providing the spiritual motivations and political force for change.
To understand the full import and impact of Luther’s Reformation, modern evangelicals will do well not to domesticate Luther’s contributions to just the doctrinal idea of “justification by grace through faith.” We will not learn very much from the past if all we see in it is our own reflection. In fact, many modern Protestants will find Luther’s understanding of the Gospel and Sacrament problematic.
But moving from dogma - and the battles and dividing lines associated with them - the spiritual commitment of the early Reformers and their quest for moral/devotional purity should continue to inspire us. Their emphases on hearing and reading Scriptures need to be reheard.