Five hundred years ago, a young German monk walked from his monastery, across the town of Wittenberg, to the Castle Church. The door of the church acted as a kind of public bulletin board. There the monk nailed a poster bearing ninety-five statements or theses. The monk, of course, was Martin Luther.
That happened on October 31, 1517, exactly 500 years ago this coming Tuesday, October 31. A 500th anniversary is called a quincentenary and such anniversaries don’t come around very often. When was the last time you experienced a 500th anniversary?
Luther’s ninety-five statements were an invitation to a public debate. It was a sixteenth-century version of a provocative blog post inviting an online discussion.
The statements were prompted by the practice of the Dominican friar Johann Tetzel. Luther’s close friend and biographer Philip Melanchthon described Tetzel as “a most audacious sycophant.” Today we might describe him as a brazen creep.
Most people in Luther’s day believed in purgatory, a place of torment to which people went at the death so they could be purged of their sins before going on to heaven. Tetzel was selling indulgences which were promises from the pope that gave people time off purgatory “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” went the advertising jingle.
Luther’s ninety-five statements were a protest against the indulgences as well as the church’s preoccupation with wealth. They were not a particularly radical series of statements, certainly not by the standards of Luther’s later thought. They did not question the existence of purgatory or even the limited value of indulgences, but they hit the church where it was most vulnerable—in the wallet.
Luther’s statements were condemned by the Catholic Church and Luther was put on trial. He was given the opportunity to recant, but he famously replied, “Unless I am convicted of error by the Scriptures…and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us or open to us. On this I take my stand. I can do no other.”
Luther’s ideas spread across Europe, aided by the recently invented printing press. His ideas were welcomed by many because the Catholic Church had become quite corrupt and many people longed for a change. Luther introduced the Western world to what would eventually become known as “The Five Solae of the Protestant Reformation:” Sola scriptura (which is Latin for “by scripture alone”); sola fide (“by faith alone”); sola gratia (“by grace alone”); solus Christus (“by Christ alone”); and soli Deo gloria (“glory to God alone”).
Luther paved the way for other reformers including Zwingli, Tyndale and Calvin, to name just a few. Interestingly, two hundred years later, on May 24, 1738, an Anglican priest named John Wesley was at a Bible study on Aldersgate Street in London reading Luther’s commentary on Romans when he (Wesley) felt his heart “strangely warmed” which became the catalyst for the Methodist Movement.
Information for this article was drawn from Why the Reformation Still Matters by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester; Crossway Books, 2016.