“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.”
So begins a series of 95 propositions posted by Martin Luther on the church door in Wittenburg on October 31, 1517. Luther’s intent with the 95 Theses was not to start a reform movement or to cause what would eventually become the Protestant movement. Rather, he wanted to debate the validity of the sale of indulgences. Luther was personally invested in this issue because, as a monk, he was responsible for the care and nourishment of his parishioners. Among these he saw those who had bought indulgences in outside of dioceses return home, enter confession, and demand remittance of sin without showing any remorse or repentance. Luther’s goal was the salvation and nourishment of his flock’s souls.
Luther’s willingness to call out the corruption and errors within the church led to a burgeoning movement within his native Saxony that spread within a few short years to the whole of Europe. For centuries the church had cycled through periods of intense devotion and service to God followed by bleak periods of corruption. Others had worked for and accomplished some reforms within the church before, but, more often than not, those seeking piety would be outweighed by those seeking power. So, the cycle continued, often with the periods of corruption becoming worse than they had been before.
Luther himself was a devout though flawed Christian. Early in his life as a monk he seized upon the belief that it was by faith alone that man is justified before God. This belief, which ran contrary to the official teachings of the church at the time, prompted Luther to delve into the writings of Augustine and the other early church fathers, and, most importantly, Scripture itself. And so it was that Luther began to place his convictions not on the decrees of councils or church officials but on the authority of Scripture alone.
It is on these convictions that Luther based his closing statement at the Diet of Worms in 1521. “Unless I am convicted of error by the testimony of Scripture, or by manifest evidence (for I put no faith in the mere authority of the pope, or of councils, which have often been mistaken, and which have often contradicted one another, recognizing, as I do, no other guide than the Bible, the Word of God), I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience.”
We often stop here. Luther has made his declaration. He has set in motion the Protestant Reformation. But we would be remiss if we did not continue in the proceedings of the Diet of Worms and see the reaction that Luther’s statement had upon the clergy gathered there. Johann Eck was the papal legate in charge of the Diet, and in his response to Luther he provides these words,
You have resuscitated dogmas which have been distinctly condemned by the council of Constance, and you demand to be convicted thereupon out of the Scriptures. But if every one were at liberty to bring back into discussion points which for ages have been settled by the church and by councils, nothing would be certain and fixed, doctrine or dogma, and there would be no belief which men must adhere to under pain of eternal damnation. You, for instance, who today reject the authority of the council of Constance, tomorrow may, in like manner, proscribe all councils together, and next the fathers, and the doctors; and there would remain no authority whatever, but that individual word which you call to witness, and which we also invoke.
What is to be made of this? Jacque Barzun, historian and author, dated the beginning of the decline of Western civilization to the events set in motion by Luther’s statement at Worms. Luther’s call for the supremacy of the conscience in obedience was both a blessing and, in some ways, a curse. A blessing because it freed a people from the institutionalized dogmas of a body that had fallen into nepotism, simony, and debasement and which had held the doctrines of grace captive in favor of a salvation of works for far too long. A curse because it began the dissolution of Christendom from a unified body into disparate bodies separated by individual calls to conscience.
This Reformation Day let us all look to the teachings of Scripture, and be grateful that the events Luther set in motion almost 500 years ago have allowed us access to Scripture and salvation in a way that our progenitors did not know. But also let us reflect on the loss that occurred and pray for the day when we will once more be unified in the Kingdom of Christ.