TXAB: The Christ Almighty Blog

27 October 2017

Reformation Day.

When the western church split between Catholics and Protestants.

31 October isn’t just Halloween. For Protestants, some of us observe the day as a regular holiday. Others just remember it when it’s a big deal. Namely the 500th anniversary of Reformation Day, the day in 1517 when bible professor Dr. Martin Luther of the University of Wittenberg in the Holy Roman Empire (now Germany) posted 95 propositions, or theses, which he wanted to discuss with his students—specifically about certain practices in the Catholic church to which he objected.

Technically not quite the 500th anniversary. Y’see, they were still using the Julian calendar in 1517, and the calendar was out of sync with the vernal equinox by 11 days, so once we correct for that, it was really 10 November. But whatever. Reformation Day!

At the time, Luther didn’t realize it was as big a deal as all that. He’s dramatically described as nailing the theses to the school’s Castle Church door, as if an act of defiance. Really, the door was the school’s bulletin board, and Luther may not have personally thumbtacked ’em to the door at all; he might’ve had his teaching assistant do it.


Joseph Fiennes playing Martin Luther, tacking up the theses. From the 2004 film Luther—not to be confused with the Idris Elba cop show Luther, which is… actually much better. I’m gonna watch that now.

But he did send a copy to his bishop and archbishop, ’cause he answered to them; and from there they spread all over Europe. In January 1518, Luther’s friends translated the theses from Latin to German, printed them for the general public, and made ’em controversial not only to church leaders, but everyone.

Hence the firestorm which followed. Leaders in the HRE, not understanding Luther’s intent—it was an academic lecture, not a revolution!—accused him of overstepping his position, ordered him to take it back, and tried to silence him.

Luther, emboldened by his friends and understandably outraged by the overreaction, himself overreacted. He leapt to the conclusion his church was wholly corrupt, and took it upon himself to critique everything the Romans Catholics did. In October 1518, Luther was hauled in front of the HRE’s Reichstag/“imperial parliament” (in many history books called a diet/“council,” ’cause they were still largely using Latin words instead of German). He informed them he considered neither the pope nor papacy to be biblical and authoritative. From there things pretty much deteriorated into a shouting match.

Challenging the pope was considered heresy in the HRE—and heresy was illegal, so the government went after Luther. The only way he avoided prison was because Friedrich Wettin 3 of Saxony, Luther’s prince and biggest sponsor at the university, was a fan. True, Friedrich had to fake a kidnapping and hide Luther in Wartburg, one of his castles, but still.

From Wartburg Luther translated the New Testament into German, the first edition of the Lutherbibel, and wrote a bunch of books knocking down one Catholic practice after another. In 1522 he was invited to Wittenberg to run the local church. He married, kept writing and preaching, and otherwise influenced the direction of Protestantism as it evolved from there. His story goes on, but I’ll only tell this much of it.

But because Friedrich enabled Luther to flout the HRE and Catholicism and get away with it, other churches began doing likewise. In the 1520s, three different Protestant movements began in Switzerland: The Anabaptists, Huldrych Zwingli’s church, and Jean Calvin’s church. And in the 1530s, Henry Tudor 8, king of England, split his nation from Rome to create the Church of England, which was still Catholic in practice, but went its own route—and adopted many Protestant teachings in the process.

Lutheran evangelists moved north to bring his teachings to northern Europe. Calvinist evangelists moved into France, Holland and Scotland. Each developed distinctive beliefs about Jesus, against Catholics… and increasingly, against one another. New churches cropped up in Protestant nations, and after the United States chose to be officially religiously neutral (though predominantly Christian), plenty more churches had the freedom to form. Still do.

The Catholics, in response to some of the Protestants’ valid criticisms, held the Council of Trent from 1543–63. In some cases they dismissed Protestant objections and nailed down those teachings as official. In others, they agreed with the Protestants, did away with their problematic practices, and reformed. But it was too late to heal the breach in the church, and western Christianity has been fragmented ever since.

The theses.

Protestants tend to talk about Luther’s 95 theses, but few have actually bothered to read ’em. When they do, they’re usually surprised. It doesn’t read at all like a declaration of independence from Roman Catholicism. That’s because it’s not.

Luther had no intention of splitting the church. Just of fixing it. His only real objection was to how the church was then-currently treating indulgences. Lot of sloppy theology and simonistic practices going on.

An indulgence is a pardon. It releases someone from any worldly punishment they’d have to suffer for a sin. Sometimes fully; sometimes partly. If you stole a car, an indulgence would get your case dismissed, or get you out of prison. Nowadays church indulgences don’t work, due to the separation of church and state: A note from your pastor won’t get you out of prison. But a pardon from the president or governor, or an immunity agreement with the state or federal attorney, will.

The idea of indulgences came from this statement our Lord Jesus made to Simon Peter:

Matthew 16.19 KWL
“I’ll give you heaven’s kingdom’s keys.
Whatever you might bind on earth will be bound in the heavens.
Whatever you might loose on the earth will be loosed in the heavens.”

Catholics figure if it applies to Peter, it applies to the pope, who’s Peter’s successor among the apostles. So if we get ourselves in a bind, and Jesus can get us out of them, shouldn’t his number one apostle be able to likewise get people out of a bind? Show ’em the same sort of grace God does?

Problem is, this wasn’t how people were treating indulgences in Luther’s day. In 1517, Pope Leo 10 offered free indulgences to anyone who donated money to help build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. You do realize “free indulgences—if you give money” means people are gonna buy indulgences. Buy grace. It’s not just an oxymoron; it’s obvious simony. I don’t think Leo was a stupid man; he knew what he was doing, and figured he found a loophole. But less scrupulous church leaders didn’t even bother to disguise the simony.

A few years back, in 1513, Albrecht Hohenzollern of Brandenburg had got himself appointed archbishop of Mainz. Bribed a lot of people to campaign for that job, too. So he needed the cash, and in 1517 sent out indulgence commissioner Father Johann Tetzel to raise money. Supposedly for St. Peter’s; really for the archbishop.

Tetzel didn’t only sell ordinary indulgences. He sold a second kind which had nothing to do with official church teaching: Indulgences for the dead. Since a regular indulgence could free a person from prison, Tetzel figured his special indulgences could free a person from purgatory.

(Yeah, I know: Most Protestants don’t believe in purgatory. That’s why they know so little about it. You know that bit where Paul and Sosthenes say our works will be tested by fire? 1Co 3.13 Purgatory is supposed to be that fire—and supposedly lasts longer than just a moment. But no, contrary to popular belief, it’s not a form of hell for people who aren’t quite good enough for heaven. And while scripture states all Christians will have that experience, I don’t believe it lasts any longer than an instant.)

Tetzel was bothersomely successful at selling indulgences. He even had a jingle:

Wenn die Münze im Kästlein klingt,
die Seele in den Himmel springt.

Or in English (which still rhymes):

When the coin in the box dings,
the soul into heaven springs.

Luther’s rather obvious objection: If indulgences can really get people out of purgatory, why can’t the pope just generously free everyone from purgatory? Thesis 82 But Luther didn’t believe indulgences applied to the dead anyway, Thesis 13 nor that the pope had any right to forgive anyone other than those who broke his laws, or sinned against him personally. Thesis 6 In other words, the pope could only enforce his own laws—and his own pardons. Sins against God were still up to God, and all the pope could do is state that God forgives—’cause he does. But grant indulgences? Luther didn’t care for the idea.

Leo’s response to Luther was Exsurge Domine, a bulla/“official document” released 15 June 1520. It listed 41 things Luther and various other critics of the church taught, all of which Leo felt were heresies. It condemned Luther’s bad attitude (and to be fair, he had one) and ordered him to recant, and stop preaching till he did. Luther’s response was set his copy of the bulla on fire. Whereupon Leo excommunicated Luther.

So now what?

Various churches see Reformation Day as something to celebrate. I don’t. It’s something to mourn.

Let’s be blunt: In the whole Protestant split, neither side behaved admirably. Luther regularly let his temper get the best of him, and preferred to correct the church harshly instead of lovingly. Leo and the Catholics did the same. Both came from the position they were right and the other wrong, and talked right past one another.

Fr’instance in Exsurge Domine, Leo never bothered to detail why he thought the Protestant teachings were heresies. (Some aren’t.) He just figured he was pope and Luther wasn’t. Luther was an underling, and a disobedient, rebellious one who needed to shut up and obey his betters.

So if there was any grace, patience, kindness, or other fruit of the Spirit in this whole scenario, it’s invisible. We can’t see it in print; we don’t see it in practice. Instead we see a lot of the works of the flesh: Anger, partisanship, separatism, envy, hatred, rabble-rousing, unethical behavior, and other things which disqualify both sides from God’s kingdom. Ge 5.19-21

No, I’m not saying we’re all going to hell. Just that this isn’t at all what Jesus prayed for.

John 17.20-24 KWL
20 “I don’t request only for these students, but for all who believe in me through their word,
21 so they all can be one, like you in me, Father, and I in you—so the world can believe you sent me.
22 I gave them the honor you gave me, so they can be one like we’re one.
23 I in them and you in me, so they can be perfect as one—
so the world can know you sent me, and love them like you love me.
24 Father, those you gave me: I want to be where they are, and they with me,
so they can see my honor you gave me. For you loved me before the world’s foundation.”

He doesn’t want us divided, but one. Not necessarily all in the same denomination, under the same human governing bodies. But still: One. Unified. Working together instead of squabbling over traditions and favorite emphases and old grudges and bitter hangups.

Yet this time of year, celebration is what a lot of Protestants do with Reformation Day. We celebrate how our theology is right, and their theology—sometimes just the Catholics, but sometimes every other church in Christendom—is wrong. Or we take the other extreme: We downplay all the bad behavior and focus solely on what Luther and the other reformers got right. We uplift only part of the history. The patriotic part.

Look, I identify as a Protestant because I come out of that tradition. But I choose to identify with Jesus more.

Anyone who thinks likewise, I consider my sisters and brothers in Christ. Our denominations should never get in Jesus’s way. Nor our ability to work together to minister God’s love and grace to one another and to the lost. If it does, we’re following our churches instead of Jesus, and we’re in the wrong religion. ’Cause Jesus wants his followers to be one. If we’re not one, or at least striving to be, we’re not his.

Make all the excuses for division you like. Elevate theological purity over obedience as far as you dare. But that’s the simple truth. We should bear this in mind before we rejoice too much over Reformation Day. It broke Jesus’s church. And his heart.