Church History Snapshot: Martin Luther
When considering famous moments in church history, October 31st ranks right up there as one of the most important. Though most associate October 31st with Halloween, it is also the day that Martin Luther decided to post his 95 Theses to the doors of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was an Augustinian monk who was a professor and theologian at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. Luther was a learned scholar who began to question the theological basis for some of the practices of the Catholic Church. He wrote his 95 Theses, not to act in defiance of the church, but to consider questionable Catholic practices. However, Luther’s Theses were so controversial that they ignited the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.
The Theses caused abundant turmoil because it was not common during that time to question the practices of the church. For someone to question Catholicism’s beliefs was the equivalent, in the minds of many Christians of that time, to questioning God. Because of the unprecedented nature of the Theses, many historians consider the posting of the 95 Theses to be the birth of the Protestant Reformation. However, few people (including myself) actually know what the specific theology of Luther Protestantism is. So, let’s take a moment to dive into Luther’s theology.
First, is the concept of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone). ‘Scripture alone’ is the theological concept that treats Scripture as the ultimate authority on matters of theology. It considers the works of men like St. Augustine or St. Aquinas to be valuable but subservient to Scripture. Though this concept may seem obvious to a dominant Protestant culture, Sola Scriptura was considered radical during Luther’s time. As mentioned before, Luther lived during an era when the Catholic Church dominated the Christian world, and copies of the Bible were not widely available to ordinary people. Therefore, a large majority of Christians’ only access to the Bible was through listening to it read aloud in Church. Even if people during that time could get a copy of the Bible, it would have been written in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, which only clergy or kings could understand. To address this problem, Martin Luther translated the Bible into the common German language (the first of its kind), spawning a wave of translations that began the process of putting the Bible into the hands of ordinary people in a form that they could understand.
Second, is the concept of grace. In a publication for Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Hans Wiersma states, “…in Luther’s view, to have a gracious God means to have a God who does not require human beings to fulfill a set of prerequisites in order to receive God’s gift in Christ or to reciprocate God’s giving in order to continue receiving Christ and his benefits.” The concept of grace for Luther was that God did not require anything of the believer so that they may receive the gift of Christ. It is through faith alone (Sola Fide) that we are saved. This belief was a huge blow to the Roman Catholic Church because, at that time, the Church was promoting the idea of “working” or “paying off” sin. This was the practice of indulgences, which Luther despised.
Third, Martin Luther believed the church to be “…a community of the faithful—a priesthood of all believers—rather than as a hierarchical structure with a prominent division between clergy and laity.” Luther is the originator of the doctrine of vocation, which considers the work of commoners to be of equal importance to God as the work of the priest or bishop. Luther himself sums this up, “It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the ‘temporal estate.’ That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. . . . All Christians are truly of the ‘spiritual estate’,”
By posting these beliefs and grievances on the church doors, Luther ignited the reformation that would lead to many significant accomplishments of scholarship, such as the translation of the Bible into modern languages. The Theses are also indirectly responsible for the creation of America, as many of the immigrants and pilgrims that first arrived on the shores of North America were Protestants. Most importantly, Scripture alone, faith alone, and the community of the faithful are all fundamental pieces of theology that have shaped the modern Protestant faith, modeling how the majority of Christians across the world practice their faith and enabling the faith to spread to much of the globe.