Celebrating 500 Years of Reformation

Martin Luther: From Pastoral Concern to Church Scandal

Written by Zachary Nelson

      On Oct. 31, 1517, a pious Augustinian monk sent a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Brandenburg, informing him of the mass sale of indulgences near Wittenberg, Germany. This letter contained 95 theses concerning the power of indulgences (i.e., grants on behalf of the Pope to expedite temporal punishment in purgatory) to be discussed using the common academic practice of formal disputation. The content of the theses was not too controversial—after all, this man was a faithful Roman Catholic. However, his honest questioning of indulgences would come to expose one of the greatest corruptions within the Roman Church at the time. This man is none other than Martin Luther.

      When Luther wrote the 95 Theses, his primary concern was the people of Wittenberg, who were buying indulgences as a result of the cruel manipulation of the theatrical indulgence seller, Johann Tetzel. He encouraged people to buy indulgences under the pretense that “once a coin in the coffer dings, a soul from purgatory springs.” People were promised that if they give a mere coin for indulgence, their deceased friend or relative would be released from the pangs of purgatory. Once Luther heard of Tetzel and his indulgence selling, he was infuriated. Luther believed that true forgiveness was the result of inner spiritual penance, not by an external good work such as buying indulgence. However, what was originally a pastoral concern for Luther quickly became an issue of theology and authority.

     What Luther unraveled with his 95 Theses was a corrupt system laced with usury and greed. As Luther soon discovered after sending his letter on Oct. 31, Albert of Brandenburg was part and parcel to Tezel’s selling of indulgences. Albert, since he bought his bishopric with a loan from the infamous Fugger bankers, needed some way to pay back the interest charged by the Fuggers. Pope Leo X saw this as a mutually beneficial scenario, since he needed money to fund the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Hence, Pope Leo X granted Albert a special dispensation wherein he could sell indulgences in his jurisdiction and keep half of the profit to help him pay back the Fuggers, while the other half would go towards St. Peter’s Basilica.

      While Luther slowly uncovered this systemic corruption in the Roman Church, there was another historical development that intensified Luther’s moderate actions: the printing press. An efficient printing press was still relatively new in 1517. Consequently, publishers tried to find any material that would be of popular interest in order to bring attention to the effectiveness of the printing press. Unbeknownst to Luther, printers found his 95 Theses to be perfect to reprint and distribute across Europe. It is perhaps the first instance in history of a published work going “viral.”

      Much of the Western world learned about the 95 Theses within months of the initial letter to Albert. Most importantly, Pope Leo X found out about Luther’s theses. Pope Leo X sent Cardinal Cajetan—one of the leading Thomist theologians of the Roman Church at the time—to Augsburg, Germany to meet with Luther and solicit a formal recantation from the monk. Pope Leo X most certainly underestimated Luther’s temperament. The forthright demand of submission to the Papacy only exacerbated Luther’s end game, and he refused to recant. It was clear from the exchanges between Cajetan and Luther that there was not going to be an easy resolution. Luther’s continued resistance earned him a papal decree declaring him to be excommunicated from the Roman Church in 1521.

      In April of 1521, at the Diet of Worms, Luther publicly refused to recant of his writings on the basis of his conscience being held captive to the Word of God. He boldly declared: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” before Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. This is the momentous event that most people reflect on in light of the Reformation. The Diet of Worms proved that Luther would not be as easily suppressed as previous Reformers, such as John Hus. It was only a matter of time till the spirit of reform would spread across Europe, thus resulting in other Protestant traditions, such as the Reformed, Anabaptists, Calvinists, and the Church of England.

      These historical developments find much of their origin in Luther’s humble, pastoral concern expressed on Oct. 31, 1517. While Luther is certainly not the sole cause of the Protestant Reformation, his initial enquiry into indulgences on Oct. 31, 1517 is a convenient way to reflect on the past and try to make sense of how these events have shaped the present, and how they will inevitably impact the future.

Christ Prays For Unity

Written by Anthony Barr

      The prayer recorded in Chapter 17 of the Gospel of John is often called Christ’s “high priestly prayer.” As high priest, Christ intercedes for us, praying for the accomplishment of particular works in which we participate, but which we cannot actualize through our own merits. One such work is mission: Christ speaks of his followers being “sent out into the world” (John 18) in what is likely a manifestation of the “Great Commission,” our call to evangelism.

      Another such work is sanctification in truth, a condition for our being in the world but not of it, the means by which we are kept protected in faith against the snares of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Perhaps the most significant work, however, is that of loving unity and unity through love: “ I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 26.)

      How are we to pursue these works in this 500th year of Reformation? What does it mean to speak of unity despite denominational divisions?  Truth amidst rigorous doctrinal disputation? Evangelism when church missions are often at cross-purposes with one another? What does it mean to speak of  love when churches sue other churches for land rights and picketers stand with signs proclaiming God’s hatred for this or that group of people? 500 years after the Reformation, and some 963 years after the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western traditions, and what do we have to show for ourselves as the labor of our work? This is a serious question because Christ himself points to our unity as the means by which the world might believe (John 21.)

     If  “we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing” proclaims Luther in his classic hymn A Mighty Fortress is Our God. There is much that could make us despair in this 500th year of Reformation, but, as Luther would tell us, to confide in our own strength or trust in our own work would be to miss the central point of Christ’s priestly prayer. Christ prays for the grace of the Father to be given because we are always in need of that grace, and that was as true for the “early church” in the centuries following Christ’s ascension as it is for us now.

      Pray for unity. Pray for grace. Trust that in living out the faith in truth and love, that you are bearing witness to the truth of Christ in this broken world. Work diligently for unity: abolish stereotypes, deepen knowledge of Christian traditions that are not your own, argue charitably but earnestly for dogmatic truth as you see it, celebrate the many points of agreement, serve the needs, material and spiritual, of your community, together with your Mennonite, Episcopal, and Eastern Orthodox brethren.

      We know what is our work: to live out the Gospel as it has been given to us. But we dare not trust in this work, nor do we dare presume to know in what ways God will see fit to use our work in the furtherance of His Kingdom. We trust only in the work of Christ: we trust in his earthly ministry, his atoning death, his victorious resurrection, and his continual priestly intercession. And we pray, as Christ taught us to pray: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.”

The Reformation: PAST, PRESENT, & FUTURE

Written by Gaelan Campbell

This year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. To many, it is a reminder of a once whole church, now fractured  into parts. To others, it is a point of pride, where their church finds its beginning. Regardless of your sentiment regarding the history of the Reformation and the events that followed, it is undoubtedly important to both the Protestant and Catholic traditions. Still, outside more academic circles, it is only given a passing thought by many of us today. In modern America, where sectarian conflict among different Christian traditions is almost unheard of, we take the impact of the Reformation for granted. Like Shakespearean idioms, the pervasive influence of the Reformation 500 years later might be too innate in our culture to notice. Still, there is much wisdom we can learn from our past that might inform how we act in the future.

The Reformation brought much conflict to the church, but through conflict the church was transformed. When Luther wrote his 95 Theses, his intent was to reform the Catholic Church, not to break it apart. In a way, he did change the Catholic Church, while also laying the groundwork for what would become a large schism within the church. His desire for change arose as a response to what he saw as corruption in the church, both in its leaders and theology. The practice of selling indulgences to expedite salvation for those who could afford it was a perversion of in Luther’s eyes. He saw the church moving further and further away from the example set forth by the New Testament, and decided to do something about it. He and many other reformers sought a more theologically- pure church, and also looked at ways to make the church more accessible to the common person.

To varying degrees, this thinking spread all across Europe and clove the Roman Catholic Church in two. Some reformers, like Luther himself, were even considered moderates by the time the separation  was fully complete. While not in the same vein as Luther or Calvin, many Christians today are disenchanted with the church and its alleged corruption or impurity. Megachurches sell self-help books in contrast with the Gospels, lobbying groups deal with governments for their own purposes, and in some places theology has become so different and culturally-minded that one might wonder as to why it is called Christianity at all. The need for reform is constant in every age of the church. Those with desire to reform are not without company. Beyond the reformers, we know there is a long history of conflict within the church. The Monastics showed us this, and even Christ himself challenged the status quo of his time.

With this in mind, we could simply joyfully celebrate the Reformation, but that would ignore the history of violence surrounding sectarian conflict in the West and not pay homage to what we might have lost. While pursuing theological reformation, the Reformers threw out much of the old tradition. The saints that tied us to our history and even the sacraments themselves took on a lesser quality within  the new reformed church. Some find  themselves disgruntled with the watered-down nature of contemporary worship and half-hearted attempts at asserting our faith, while the Catholic Church maintains the old traditions.

The overall value of the  Reformation  is maybe not as clear as we would like to believe. Up until the mid-20th century, there was still considerable violence between Catholics and Protestants, but we see a slowly shifting paradigm. Very recently, there have been many calls for unity among Christians of all traditions around the world. Pope Francis made calls for forgiveness for the church’s past sins, and openly apologized for the part the Roman Catholic Church played in the violent wars between his and the Protestant traditions. Further still, we could focus our lense past the larger goings on of this century, and  instead focus on finding unity in our backyard. At Eastern University, we sit in class together, Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, and others to learn and grow together. We were all raised differently, our religious rituals and practices almost alien to one another, but we all share a desire to follow Christ and seek redemption. In memory of the Reformation, let us  look forward to the future of Christianity together.


Anna Van Deventer, Class of 2020:

“When talking about the Reformation, we have to think of reformation in general. Reformation in general is something that continues to happen and, hopefully, is done well. As Karl Barth says, “The Church must always be reformed.” It’s possible to change the church and make a dramatic difference through recognizing corruption and lack of understanding and being able to change it.”

Gary Jenkins, Professor of History:

“Most of the things that most Protestants and evangelicals today would say are the good things about the Reformation all the leading Protestant Reformers would denounce: freedom of conscience, popular Bible reading, the so-called “right of private judgment,” and separation of Church and state.“

Ian Wright, Class of 2018:

“Though there is much to be said about the Reformation, I wish to simply highlight one positive and one negative I see deriving from movement. The good development is the emphasis on justification by faith alone. The bad development is individual interpretation of the Bible removed from Christian tradition.”

Dr. Steven Boyer, Professor of Theology:

“It seems to me that the Reformation should never be over, for the sake of both sides. The Church in its fullest sense…should always be reforming itself. We are always seeing God making the Church all that it ought to be.”

Parker Desautell, Class of 2018:

“I see the Reformation as a well-intentioned idea that had some costly effects. Some of the reformers may have been a little nearsighted, but I’m not sure how much we can blame them. How easy is it to see the outcome of your belief 300, 400 years later? It’s not that easy; it’s hard.”

Dr. Peter Enns, Professor of Biblical Studies:

“The Reformation is not the savior of Christianity, but it introduced something we take for granted today, something that is a great privilege and a great challenge—that is, the individual reading and interpretation of the Bible. This legacy has embedded within it both the seeds of great possibility and the seeds of destruction at the same time.

Liz Margolis, Class of 2018

“I think that pluralism is essential…especially in the Church. Like a tree that starts with a single seed and grows branches and stems and leaves, the Church grows and branches out and in so doing reflects the beauty of God’s creation and human diversity.”

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