A Guest Blog from Rev Prof A T B McGowan
October 2017 marked a very important anniversary. On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. On the same day, he sent them to the Archbishop of Mainz. This is normally regarded as the beginning of the Reformation and the 31st October is marked by many churches all over the world as ‘Reformation Day’. The Ninety-Five Theses consisted of a series of statements questioning some of the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. It sounds very dramatic to nail his theses to the door of the church, but this would not have been regarded as unusual at the time. Luther was a monk and a Professor of Bible in the University of Wittenberg. Before the days of academic journals, posting theses in this way was intended to open up a debate and a wider discussion of the matters under consideration.
Luther’s theses were prompted by what are called ‘indulgences’. It was being taught that by purchasing a piece of paper known as an indulgence (sanctioned by a bishop or by the Pope) it was possible to get remission from Purgatory and to have sins forgiven. It was when an indulgence seller by the name of Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg that Luther posted his theses.
The Reformation, of course, did not spring ready-made in October 1517. It was a complex movement and, for Martin Luther himself, many factors came together in its origins, including personal, ecclesial, political, biblical and theological factors. It was also a slow, developing process, although punctuated by moments of crisis.
In 1505 Luther had entered an Augustinian monastery and for years he struggled to understand God and his grace. It was during this time, in 1513, when he was studying Romans and Galatians that Luther finally came to his greatest discovery, namely, an understanding of justification. He saw that the only way to be justified in God’s sight was by faith and not by religious rites and sacraments. In this way he re-discovered the doctrine of justification by faith. He wrote later, ‘I felt as if born again, and it seemed to me as though heaven’s gates stood full open before me, and that I was joyfully entering therein’. Having re-discovered the truth that salvation is by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, Luther continued to study the Scriptures in depth (as well as translating them into German) and began to see other areas where the Church was out of step with Scripture and needed to be reformed.
It is important to remember, however, that Martin Luther was seeking the reformation of the Church rather than the creation of a new Church. Indeed, the very idea of a new Church was something entirely foreign to the mindset of medieval Christians. Whereas the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses in October 1517 is regarded by many as the spark which created the Protestant churches, nothing was further from Luther’s mind. As a priest and university professor, he had identified a pastoral problem relating to the sale of indulgences. When he issued his Ninety-Five Theses, he intended to begin a debate so as to reform the practice.
Luther continued to protest about various matters and was fiercely opposed. His books were publicly burned, and his life was in constant danger. He did, however, have some powerful friends who protected him and gave him sanctuary while he worked.
The Church authorities eventually took action against Martin Luther and excommunicated him. By this action, the creation of a new Church was forced upon him, but this was not his original intention. It is to be regretted that Luther ultimately failed in his attempt to reform the Church. Instead, a new church was formed. Shortly afterwards, another division took place, with Zwingli and others, leading to the formation of yet another Church. Since then, Protestantism has demonstrated an infinite capacity for disruption, schism, secession and division.
Once again today, we find the Church in need of reformation. The Church of Scotland needs to be reformed according to Scripture. Sadly, some have left the Church to form new congregations or denominations, or to join existing ones. Martin Luther’s approach was the correct one: work for the reformation of the Church from within. If this fails, or if like Luther we are put out of the Church for our refusal to conform, then at least we will have tried. The last thing Scotland needs is more division, disruption and schism. Let us work and pray in our day, as Luther did, for the Reformation of the Church.
We owe a great debt to this scholarly man who found in Scripture what the Church of his day had forgotten. This year, as we mark the 500th anniversary, take time to reflect on the true meaning of justification by faith.