Five Hundred Years!
Has the Reformation Shifted into Reverse?
Five Hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a professor of theology, prepared a list of challenging doctrinal statements for discussion. Posting one copy on the church door at Wittenberg for his students, he circulated several copies elsewhere. Energetic students grasped the list and had them set in type, distributing the list throughout the Wittenberg, in the Saxony region of Germany. Soon the “95 Theses,” originally written in Latin, were translated into German. Quickly the challenging theses made their impact throughout Germany and eventually the world.
The inquiring, probing of the 95 articles of faith turned out to be the lighting of a candle that would eventually enlighten the world amidst the darkness that had enveloped it for more than a millennium.
As the Half millennium anniversary arrives on this October 31—much has changed! Notably, Pope Francis is expected to attend the commemoration at Wittenberg this year! A recently broadcast PBS documentary "Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World," interviewed numerous Protestant theologians as well as Roman Catholic Cardinal Dolan of New York. Cardinal Dolan’s comments actually acknowledged 16th Century corruption in the Roman Catholic Church.
Over a century of noble efforts made by leaders of the various major Christian sects have been making progress toward Christian fraternity and unity—ecumenism. While most all leaders express sentiments of support for the efforts being made to seek common ground for such fraternity, the reality is that achieving “common ground” comes with a compromising price tag. Since what is not truly held in common is painfully prickly as “thorns” (Nahum 1:10), or and must be ignored—leaving the question: Is there true fraternity? Where is ecumenism going? What will be the ultimate price paid?
A Shooting Star in the Dark Ages
The storm that would eventually be caused by Martin Luther’s theological challenge would turn out to be of greater magnitude than the bolts of lightning the day when Martin prostrated himself and made his commitment to God. While it is not “politically correct” to refer to the “Dark Ages,” in the 2003 movie—Luther—Martin is called a “star” rising out of a very dark time in Christian history. Bible Students see Martin Luther’s ministry described as one of the “seven stars” in the hand of Jesus enlightening and guiding true Christians through the Gospel Age (Revelation 1:16, 20). While the film did not specifically emphasize “justification by faith,”—Luther’s crucial doctrinal revelation and teaching found in Romans 1:17—the film certainly advocated a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as the basis of our Christian faith.
The number of Protestant Christians who saw the movie Luther may not have been great, but Catholics were warned against seeing it. And certainly it was but a mere bump in the road to ecumenism since the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” by Lutherans and the Papacy was signed October 31, 1999. Now, approaching 2017’s conclave at Wittenberg, Germany, is a significant ecumenical agreement to be announced at this “Half millennium” event?
A Match that Ignited the Reformation
Earlier attempts to reform the Church of Rome by Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus came short of the dramatic success Luther achieved. Luther, the Reformer, responded specifically and powerfully to the Roman Church’s practice of selling “Indulgences.”
It was nearly a century after the invention of movable type printing, and people were beginning to reason on Scripture independently. A clash with the public sale of Indulgences by the authority of the Pope for the purpose of raising money may have been inevitable. But raising money for the completion of Pope Leo’s project to build St. Peter's Basilica at Rome—and particularly methods used by John Tetzel, a Dominican monk of notorious character—aroused general indignation. The timing was perfect! When Luther responded to Tetzel’s “fraud” in 1517, and nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Church at Wittenberg, he launched the Reformation.
Tetzel and his methods are gone, but the Papacy still provides Indulgences for those looking for relief from punishment beyond justification, beyond the blood of Christ. Luther despised the Indulgences and sought reform in 1517, but now in 2017, Cardinal Dolan acknowledged the corruption of the past. Nevertheless, Indulgences are not theological matters of the past alone. Regarding “The Great Jubilee of 2000” the faithful were still being encouraged to obtain Indulgences to save souls from Purgatory. “With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven as regards the fault.” (1998 Papal Bull, John Paul II)
However, Luther wrote: “Those who believe that they can be certain of their salvation because they have Indulgence letters will be [judged], together with their teachers” [Thesis 32]. “Any truly repentant Christian has a rich right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters” [Thesis 36].
Reformation only Helped a Little
As incomplete as Luther’s personal work of reform was, it was nevertheless a landmark effort to face the corrupted Church of Rome and its raging abuses. The work of Luther and others brought western society a step away from the intoxication of a Church that fraternized with emperors such as Constantine and Justinian and kings such as Charlemagne. Nevertheless, Luther’s own conservatism and his need to cooperate with the princes of Germany continued church-state union abuses. But, the the Roman Church faced further problems during days of the French Revolution and finally saw its most serious abuses purged in the Napoleonic Era, when its heavy handed persecuting power was broken.
However, even if the whole system was pure, its major failing was to claim to be Christ’s Kingdom before Christ Jesus—the King—returned.
Under the bold leadership of Luther, Zwingli, Karlstadt, Melanchthon, and others, a Reformation movement progressed—albeit beset by many hindrances, such as the “flatteries” of Civil Leaders (Daniel 11:35). So the Reformation pressed forward the utter repudiation of priest craft and the various superstitions and errors of the “Dark Ages,” back to the primitive simplicity and purity of the apostolic church—both in life and doctrine.
Luther and the Common Man
While hiding for ten months in Wartburg Castle —under the protection of Frederick the Elector Saxony—Luther translated the Bible (1534) into a more readable form of German, the common language of the people. This alone was a revolutionary act—in defiance of Rome—but it met with the support of local secular rulers.
The people encouraged by Luther (and some others) gathered in associations and drew up their grievances against the oppressive practices of princes and landlords in a petition called the “Twelve Articles.” This was followed by episodes of the violent Peasants’ Revolt. While sympathetic to the grievances of the peasants, Luther was also attentive to the privileges and duties of the nobles. Luther called on the authorities to forcefully suppress this revolt.
Luther and Antichrist
Although it is not commonly stated that Luther called the Papal System “Antichrist”—by 1520 Luther was very specific in identifying “Papacy” as “Antichrist.” (History of the Christian Church, Phillip Scahff, vol. VII, ch. III sec. 48).
Luther and others of that time, though still affected by the errors of Papal doctrine, made remarkable progress out of the darkness toward the fuller and clearer light. When all the circumstances of their time are appreciated, it cannot be denied that they were remarkable men, and that they not only took a courageous step, but a long step in the right direction.
Since the Fourth Century, an adulterous liaison of the Church of Christ with the worldly kings and princes presented itself as though it was the Kingdom of God on earth. The pure virgin Christian Church in reality did not wait for Jesus Christ to return. Instead, she united with the kings of earth to set up an apostate Kingdom—losing her virginity. Perhaps if Luther had understood the concept of spiritual adultery, he would not have compromised himself with the German princes. Sadly, Luther’s dependence upon them gave birth to the first of many church-state “daughters” of the “mother” church (Rev. 17:5).
The German princes, on the one hand, were glad to be freed from their abject bondage to Papacy and, on the other hand, glad to escape the growing tendency of more progressive teachings such as those of Karlstadt and Zwingli. The princes recognized the teachings of Luther and Melanchthon as the way of escape, still preserving their powers—and even increasing them. Out of necessity, therefore, many of the German princes embraced Luther’s cause, which prospered. (What followed were the 16th and 17th Century Wars of Religion with a death toll in Europe ranging from 5 to 16 million—in battles, massacres, famines, disease and genocide.)
Shining Light Contribution
Why did not God advance even greater and purer views at that time it may be asked. Simply it was not then God’s due time. Slowly, after centuries have passed, careful students of the Bible people will admit that Zwingli and Karlstadt were much nearer the Truth, much more thorough teachers of reform than Luther (or Calvin). D'Aubigne, in his History of the Reformation,Vol. 3, p. 243.) upon this subject, cautiously but forcibly remarks: “Notwithstanding his opposition to Papacy, Luther had a strong conservative instinct. Zwingli, by contrast, was predisposed to progressive reforms. Both these divergent tendencies were needed. If Luther and his followers had been alone in the work, it would have been stopped short. The principle of reformation would not have wrought its destined effect.”
The impact of Luther’s challenge to the Church of Rome came after sincere attempts to reform abuses he believed were damaging the Church. By far, Luther’s greatest contribution to the Church was his shining light on the doctrine of “Justification by Faith,” instead of assuring salvation by sacraments. In spite of his other imperfections, his work opened the way for a Reformation movement that far exceeded the work of his predecessors. The impact of Luther’s influence was to be worldwide, and would also be felt as revisions in social, political, economic affairs, as well as religious reform. Yes, the end of the 18th Century, the dark Papal System that Luther valiantly confronted would be humbled first by the people of France—once a citadel of the Church of Rome—and eventually by Napoleon.
Luther’s name and the Protestant Reformation are virtually synonymous. The need for that reform was great—and certainly he was a bright shining “star” for his time. But today as the storms of the nighttime of sin still ravage the whole world, we need to correctly understand what many Christians have known for centuries—the identity of the Antichrist! Luther already made that identity known.
Has the Reformation shifted into reverse? Will end-of-the-age, fears and worldwide challenges to Christianity actually reverse the Reformation enlightenment of the last 500 years. Why might that occur? For the same reason as the past liaisons of Church and State—the expediency of survival. Thus, it remains to be seen whether the quest for fraternity and survival will ignore Scriptural warnings.