When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, 504 years ago this week, he probably had little idea what forces he was unleashing. This posting is considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It started an unexpected series of events that led to Luther's excommunication by the papal authority, Pope Leo X, in early 1521.
But the most critical "posting" of the "95 Theses" wasn't Luther's attaching them to the door of the Church in Wittenberg. Instead, the vital posting was that, after writing his theses, Luther sent them to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz, the most powerful Churchman in Germany, who sent them on, in turn, to Rome.
Far from being an obscure grassroots movement, Luther's actions moved things in motion at the highest levels of the Church. The multiple printings of the "95 Theses" by the end of 1517 were the beginning of Luther's emergence as a prominent reformation figure.
The key question for Luther was: "How do I find a merciful God?"
He was a product of his time. Like many others of his time, Luther wrestled with profound worry and uncertainty regarding the state of his soul. His search for solace led him to read the Bible. It was through the study of Scripture that he found answers to his uncertainty. He was deeply moved by the teaching of Apostle Paul, who claimed, "For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (Rom 3:28).
Luther learned that the righteousness of God is revealed not through the church structure or authority but by the gospel through faith in Jesus Christ. Sola Fide — Faith alone. Subsequently, Luther opposed the papacy and the practice of indulgences. He based his protest on scriptural grounds. To quote Luther:
"In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no one by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God's Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything." Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone!
It worked because Luther succeeded in giving the Bible to the German people in a language they could understand. His translation of the Bible into German was arguably the most important event that shaped the protestant movement.
Another important contribution of Martin Luther as an Augustinian monk was his claim that lay Christians are spiritual and religious. Luther believed that neither ordination nor religious vows make one spiritual or religious; instead, it is achieved through baptism and faith. Against conventional wisdom, Luther claimed that ordinary people are spiritual. The common people are the priesthood. Lay Christians do not need a priest to bridge the divide between the common and the holy.
By declaring the priesthood of all believers, Luther stood up against the spiritual tyranny of his day. For Luther, tyranny occurs when a spiritual authority sets itself up as master over others, claiming to rule their lives by requiring obedience to rules and traditions.
Ultimately, we know, the church hierarchy was abolished in the protestant territories, and the priesthood of all believers was established, at least theologically.
Almost 504 years later, we wonder what the Reformation means today. What bearing does the Reformation have on Church and society, on our lives and faith?
The 21st-century world is a world of multimedia. We connect via Zoom, Facebook, Facetime, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google, and YouTube. Our daily lives are run by apps on tablets, smartphones, smartwatches, smart TVs, and clever exercise devices. We reap the benefits of medical sciences: retinal implants, bionic limbs, and lenses. Not to forget, camera pills, tooth chips, brain implants, and artificial intelligence.
So, how do we preserve the legacy of the Protestant Reformation? What does it mean today?
My university professor of Church History once said that the best way to understand the Reformation is to think of it as a child playing with play-dough. That is a child forming and reforming play dough in different shapes and sizes. In the process of moulding it, shaping it and manipulating it, the play dough transforms from a shapeless lump into something interesting.
The point is that the play dough in its essence is not changed, but its shape is reformed, remade. I think Martin Luther, a university lecturer and Augustinian Monk wanted that for the Church as he knew it. A Church that had, in his view, questionable practices such as the selling of indulgences to assure salvation for the right price. He probably sensed that the Church needed to be reformed. It had gotten out of shape; it was not helpful to the common person.
Today if we take the mantle of Martin Luther and look at the spiritual landscape of the Church in the world, I wonder if we will notice something that is out of shape. Something that is out of place in the Church.
There is one thing we learn from Luther: reformation is necessary. Reformation is where we keep the fundamental nature of who we are – faith, hope, love. But we reshape and reform for the sake of checks and balances to ensure no one entity has absolute control over decision making. But also to get back to the fundamental message of the Christian gospel.
As Protestant Christians, our faith is shaped by what Marin Luther did in 1517. I'm grateful for the Reformation. After all, who would want a church or broader society that is irreducibly bound to the medieval past? But at the same time, we cannot overlook the carnage, the fragmentation, and the institutionalization of the gospel that followed in its aftermath.
So, perhaps, I quite like the mandate that emerged among some early reformed communities: "the church reformed, but always needing to be reformed."
The European Reformations, (Second edition), Carter Lindberg.