Reformation Day.

by K.W. Leslie, 31 October

31 October isn’t just Halloween. For Protestants, some of us observe the day as Reformation Day, the day in 1517 when bible professor Dr. Martin Luther of the University of Wittenberg, Saxony, Holy Roman Empire (now Germany), posted 95 propositions he wanted to discuss with his students. Specifically, about certain practices in the Catholic church—in which, at the time, they were all members—to which he objected.

Technically it wasn’t 31 October. Y’see, in 1517 Europeans were still using the Julian calendar, which was out of sync with the vernal equinox by 11 days. That’s why they updated it with the Gregorian calendar in 1582. Once we correct for that, it was really 10 November. But whatever. Reformation Day!

Luther didn’t realize this was as big a deal as we make it out to be. It’s dramatically described as Luther, enraged as if he just found out about 95 problems in his church, nailing a defiant manifesto to the school’s Castle Church door. 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 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. I’m gonna watch that now.

He posted his propositions (or theses, as we tend to call ’em), then sent a copy to his bishop and archbishop, ’cause he did still answer to them you know. But in January 1518, Luther’s friends translated the theses from Latin to German, printed copies for the general public… and now they got controversial. Because instead of a controlled classroom discussion about whether these theses were true or false, now you had people in pubs throughout the Holy Roman Empire (I’m just gonna shorten it to HRE now) raging about how the bloody 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.

And a firestorm followed. Government officials in the HRE, not understanding Luther’s intent—it’s 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 Roman Catholics did. In October 1518, Luther was hauled in front of the HRE’s Reichstag (i.e. their parliament; in many history books it’s called a “diet” because the language of the HRE’s government was Latin not German). 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 in the HRE—and heresy was illegal, so the government prosecuted 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.

At Wartburg, Luther translated the New Testament into German, producing the first edition of the Lutherbibel. He also wrote a bunch of books knocking down one Catholic practice after another. In 1522 he was invited to be bishop of Wittenberg’s 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. Lutheran evangelists moved north to bring his teachings to northern Europe. Calvinist evangelists moved into France, Holland and Scotland.

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. His daughter Mary 1 moved England back to Catholicism; his daughter Elizabeth 1 moved England back to Protestantism; England’s religious wars led some of their subjects to flee to America, and found Protestant, Catholic, Puritan, Baptist, and Quaker colonies. 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, and nailed ’em down 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 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. That’s because it’s not.

Luther had no intention of splitting his 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 NRSV
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Catholics figure if it applies to Peter, it applies to the pope, whom they consider 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 top 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 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 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 before this, 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 we 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 some Catholics claim it lasts way longer than just a moment; maybe even centuries. 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’ works will be tested by fire, 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 NRSV
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may 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 that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”

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.