Luther’s reformation began 500 years ago

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2017 is the 500th anniversary of The Protestant Reformation, and this is the second in a series of columns about some of the important consequences of that event.

A good way to illustrate those consequences is with stories, so let’s consider a true story about the guy who kicked off the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther. Martin was from Germany. He started off as a Roman Catholic priest-monk and a professor at the University of Wittenberg. But in 1517, he began to call into question some Roman Catholic practices and teachings, and this led to a series of confrontations with those who were in authority over him.

The most famous of these confrontations took place on April 18 in 1521. At a public meeting, Martin squared off not only against the religious authorities but also against the ruler of Germany, Charles V. 

Martin also had a few friends with him; one of them was a fellow Wittenberg professor, a priest named Andreas von Karlstadt. But the most dramatic moment in the showdown came when Martin was told that since he obviously believed that only his interpretation of the Bible was correct, he needed to back down from that position — or, as the authorities put it, he needed to “recant.” 

This is how Martin responded, as reported by the stenographers who recorded his words: “Since then Your Majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer: Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other; my conscience is captive to the Word of God — I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”

After this act of defiance, the religious authorities had expected Charles V to arrest Martin, but some of the professor’s supporters helped him escape, and, for the next eleven months, he went underground.

However, Martin’s friend, Andreas von Karlstadt, returned to Wittenberg and began to put into practice some of the teachings that he and Martin had been promoting. For example, Roman Catholic priests were required to be celibate, but Andreas went ahead and married a sixteen-year old girl. 

Roman Catholic worship followed a fixed, standardized form, but Andreas introduced a number of changes into the services at Wittenberg. He also told the Christians in Wittenberg that they did not need to participate in the Sacrament of Confession and that they should get rid of all the decorations in their houses of worship. 

But even though Andreas was simply following through on some of the ideas that he and Martin shared, Martin was alarmed at how rapidly Andreas was moving. So, in March of 1522, Martin came out of hiding; he showed up in Wittenberg, and he used his influence to quickly reverse most of the changes that his friend had initiated. Not only that, but in a series of sermons, Martin condemned Andreas directly and personally. 

The result was that Andreas was forced to leave Wittenberg. Within a few months, he was hired to lead a congregation in another town, but Martin got him fired from that position. Andreas was eventually able to return to teaching in Switzerland, but, for the rest of his life, Martin made it a point to oppose Andreas and to ridicule him, both in print and personally, and Andreas often did the same to Martin.

The story of close friends who end up despising each other is all too common. But this story of Martin and Andreas also illustrates one of the most powerful theological consequences of the Protestant Reformation. Because in 1522, when Martin chased Andreas out of Wittenberg, he was simply confirming what the Roman Catholic authorities had accused him of in 1521: he really did believe that only his interpretation of the Bible was correct. And since he had a more forceful personality than Andreas—and since he also had more influence with the local civil authorities — he got to stay in Wittenberg and promote his take on Holy Scripture, and Andreas had to hit the road. 

But that’s basically the history of Protestant Christianity: It’s a series of forceful and influential men and women who genuinely believe that they are teaching the only correct approach to Holy Scripture. 

That was the case with people like John Calvin and Alexander Campbell and Phoebe Palmer and Aimee Semple MacPherson; each of whom started their own movement or organization. But, if you’re a Baptist or a Methodist or an Episcopalian or a member of a non-denominational congregation, it’s also the case in your Sunday School class or small group or home Bible study: Because if folks disagree about how a particular passage of Scripture should be interpreted, sooner or later, someone is going to shut down the discussion with this declaration: “Well, that’s just what it’s saying to me.”

That’s not nearly as eloquent as what Martin Luther said back in April of 1521, but it amounts to the same thing. And that’s why, 496 years later, there are currently 32,000 identifiable Protestant groups. That’s also why your Sunday School class or small group or home Bible study is so often a frustrating experience — because no one can agree on what Scripture actually teaches. Clearly, then, we need more than “conscience” and “plain reason” to fully and accurately understand the Bible.

What we need is the Church. But we’ll deal with that subject later in this series. In the meantime, though, if you’d like to visit about what all this might mean for you, just get in touch with me. I’d love to talk with you about that.

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