Reformation Day.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 October

31 October isn’t just Halloween. For Protestants, many of us observe the day as Reformation Day.

On 31 October 1517, bible professor Dr. Martin Luther of the University of Wittenberg, Saxony, Holy Roman Empire (now Germany), nailed to the chapel door, which served as his school’s bulletin board, 95 propositions he planned to discuss with his students. Specifically, about certain church practices to which he objected.

Technically Luther’s 31 October doesn’t line up with our 31 October. Y’see, in 1517 Europeans were still using the Julian calendar, and it was out of sync with the vernal equinox by 11 days. That’s why the Catholics updated it with the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Once we correct for that, this really took place on 10 November. But whatever. Reformation Day!

Luther didn’t realize what he’d done was a big deal. Certainly not the huge deal it later became. It’s dramatically described as if Dr. Luther, enraged as if he just found out about these problems in his church, nailed a defiant manifesto on the Castle Church door. Really this was just a class he was teaching, and he may not have personally thumbtacked ’em to the door at all; he could’ve had a 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. Okay, I’m gonna watch that now.

Luther posted his propositions (or theses, as we tend to call ’em), then sent a copy to his bishop and archbishop, ’cause he still did answer to them you know. But in January 1518, Luther’s friends translated them from Latin to German and printed copies for the general public. Now they got controversial. Because instead of a controlled classroom discussion about whether Luther had a point, now you had people in pubs throughout the Holy Roman Empire (which I’m just gonna shorten to HRE) raging about how the Roman Catholic Church had no biblical basis for what they were up to. Now it wasn’t just an internal debate among clergy-in-training. It was everywhere. It was a firestorm.

And then it got political.

Back then there was no separation of church and state, and the Holy Roman Empire was a Christian nation. Meaning heresy was against the law. I should add: Heresy as the HRE defined it, not as the Catholics defined it. Although the government sometimes asked the church’s opinion, usually they figured they were good Catholics and knew heresy when they saw it. They didn’t understand Luther’s intent—it’s an academic discussion, not a revolution!—accused him of overstepping his position, and ordered him to take it back.

Whereas 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 Roman Catholics did.

Yep, none of ’em were acting particularly Christian here.

In October 1518, Luther was hauled in front of the HRE parliament. (Properly it’s called the Reichstag, but in many history books it’s called the diet because the HRE’s official language was Latin not German.) They ordered him to recant; Luther informed the Reichstag he considered neither the pope nor papacy to be biblical and authoritative. From there things deteriorated into a shouting match. Challenging the pope was considered heresy, and an offense the government chose to prosecute.

The only way Luther avoided prison was because Friedrich Wettin 3 of Saxony, Luther’s prince, one of the seven electors who chose the Holy Roman Emperor and the university’s biggest sponsor, was a fan. True, Friedrich had to fake a kidnapping and hide Luther in Wartburg, one of his castles, but still.

At Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament into German, producing the first edition of the Lutherbibel. He also wrote a bunch of books ripping apart one Catholic practice after another. In 1522 he was invited to be bishop of Wittenberg’s church. He defied the vows he’d taken as an Augustinian friar, married, and had six children. He kept writing and preaching till his death in 1546, 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.

Because Friedrich empowered Luther to flout the Catholics and HRE 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 in Zürich, and Jean Calvin’s church in Geneva. Lutheran evangelists moved north to bring his teachings to northern Europe. Calvinist evangelists moved into France, Holland and Scotland.

In the 1530s, King Henry Tudor 8 of England divorced his nation from Rome to create the Church of England, which considered itself Catholic in practice, but went its own route. In so doing, it was heavily influenced by the heavily Calvinist leadership of the Church of Scotland, and adopted many Protestant teachings in the process. His daughter Mary 1 moved England back to Catholicism; his daughter Elizabeth 1 moved England back to Protestantism.

England’s religious wars between Catholics and Protestants led some of their subjects to flee to America, and found Protestant, Catholic, Puritan, Baptist, and Quaker colonies. But when the colonies united to become the United States, we chose to be religiously neutral (though predominantly Christian), and plenty more Christians seized the freedom to form new churches and denominations. And still do.

In response to some of the Protestants’ valid criticisms, Roman Catholics held the Council of Trent from 1543–63. In some cases they dismissed Protestant objections to their teachings as mere rebellious heresy, and made these teachings not just accepted practice, but 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 actually bother to read ’em. When they do, they’re usually surprised. It doesn’t read at all like a declaration of independence from Roman Catholicism—because it’s not. Luther had no intention of splitting his church. He only wanted to fix it. His only real objection was to how the church was then-currently treating indulgences.

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. Thanks to the separation of church and state, indulgences no longer work: A note from your pastor won’t get you out of prison. You’ll have to get a state indulgence, which we nowadays call a pardon or immunity agreement.

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

Matthew 16.19 CSB
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”

Catholics figure if it applies to Peter, it applies to Peter’s successor the pope, plus any bishops who work for the pope. So if we get ourselves into some legal bind, and Jesus empowered Peter to get us out of them, shouldn’t Jesus’s current top apostle be able to get us out of them? Show ’em the same sort of grace God does?

Problem is, this isn’t how people treated 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 exactly what he was doing. He figured he found a loophole which let him trade grace for cash. But less scrupulous church leaders didn’t even bother to disguise the simony.

A few years before Leo pulled this stunt, in 1513, Albrecht Hohenzollern of Brandenburg bribed a lot of people to get himself appointed archbishop of Mainz. (It’s a big-deal position; the archbishop was one of the seven electors.) He needed the cash to pay himself back, so in 1517 he sent indulgence commissioner Father Johann Tetzel to raise money. Supposedly for St. Peter’s; really for the archbishop.

Tetzel didn’t only sell regular, get-out-of-jail-free indulgences. He sold a second kind which had nothing to do with official church teaching: Indulgences for the dead. A regular indulgence could free a person from prison, and Tetzel figured his special indulgences could free a person from purgatory. Yeah, I know; most Protestants don’t believe in purgatory. Medieval Catholics absolutely did, and most of ’em believed they’d go there… and now, for a price, they didn’t have to!

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 actually get people out of purgatory, why can’t the pope graciously release everyone from purgatory?—for free? 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 the rules of the Catholic church, or sinned against him personally. Thesis 6 Not civic laws. 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, Luther totally 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 just a monk—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 fleshly behavior: 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 the medieval Catholics and Protestants were all going to hell. Just that none of this is what Jesus prayed for:

John 17.20-24 CSB
20 “I pray not only for these, but also for those who believe in me through their word. 21 May they all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe you sent me. 22 I have given them the glory you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. 23 I am in them and you are in me, so that they may be made completely one, that the world may know you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they will see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the world’s foundation.”

Jesus 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 way too many Protestants do with Reformation Day. We celebrate how our theology is right, and their theology (whether we’re speaking of just Roman Catholics, or sometimes every other church in Christendom) is wrong. We downplay all the bad behavior committed by Luther and the other reformers, and focus solely on what they 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.