One of my favorite things about seminary wasn’t a major prayer event or some grand scholarly function, although those were great, too. It was having German food every October 31st. Wursts, sauerbraten, potato salad . . . I ate more like a king than a monk (while many of my classmates instead opted for the ubiquitous pizza). Aside from indulging my love of German cuisine, the meals reminded us all of our theological heritage as Protestants.
October 31st is Halloween for most, but for theology nerds like yours truly, it’s first and foremost Reformation Day. On this date in 1517, The Reverend Father Martin Luther, O.S.A., a professor and priest in Wittenberg, Germany, nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church. The world was never to be the same again.
Luther’s original document is almost exclusively devoted to refuting false beliefs about indulgences, but he would come to author a number of tracts and books taking issue with papal authority, purgatory, transubstantiation, the wealth of Rome, the role and importance of the Bible, and myriad other subjects. By far, however, even beyond his translation of Scripture into the vernacular, his most significant and most lasting contribution was his rediscovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. We are not forgiven of our sins because of our deeds or because we purchased a piece of paper granting us an indulgence; we are forgiven by the free grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ — nothing more, and nothing less. The Roman church had lost that truth across the centuries, and it took Luther to remind them.
Or try to, at least. Through the excommunication of Luther and the edicts issued at the Council of Trent, which began some thirty years later, the Roman Catholic Church made its position clear: it had never erred, in doctrine or in practice, and therefore would reform in no way. Unfortunately for the Bishop of Rome, it didn’t matter what Trent decided. The Protestant Reformation had begun. The ranks of the Reformers grew, and Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cranmer, Menno Simons, and countless others joined Luther in his protest.
None of these were perfect men; none will ever be granted sainthood today. Luther himself was a virulent anti-Semite. Calvin ruled Geneva with a theocratic iron fist, burning perceived heretics at the stake. And yet these flawed, imperfect men were the chosen vessels for the return of theology ad fontes. They alone could bring the Church back to the Bible and bring the Bible back to the common laity. Without these men and men and women like them — John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Katharina von Bora, Jan Hus, and others — there would be no Bibles in your homes today. Even now you would not be able to offer your opinions of holy Scripture.
We thank God for the Reformers.
But we do not accept them uncritically.
Much of what passes for “Reformed theology” is, in my own estimation, itself unbiblical. Too often the Reformers threw out the theological baby with the ecclesiastically Roman bathwater, and our worship is the poorer for it. Moreover, the nascent Protestantism almost immediately fractured, and we must now live in the reality of 30,000 Protestant denominations. Schism has given births to tens of thousands of other schisms. The Church will never again be whole as long as she remains on this side of eternity. By outright rejecting even ecclesial tradition and insisting on Scripture as the sole source of truth, the Reformers paved the way for the billions of individual interpretations of the Bible we now see, each equally valid, each without the normative force of historical, traditional interpretation. These things give me pause. While I fully embrace the necessity of the Reformation, I do wish at times they hadn’t reformed quite so much, tried to fix things which weren’t broken.
Nevertheless, the Reformation was, is, and is to come — ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. Today we should remember the beginning of that road. Let us celebrate the brave work of a German monk five hundred years ago today — soli Deo gloria.