I wrote the following and submitted it to several newspapers; it wasn’t picked up, but I wanted to share it here:
October 31, 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the traditional beginning of the Protestant Reformation – the date Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg, with the intention of starting a discussion on the abuse, at the highest levels of the church, of the practice of indulgences.
But anger over this abuse only provided the spark. The Reformation had its roots a number of ongoing struggles, some of which had already been going on for centuries.
One of these was political, between the papacy and secular kings. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued one of the most infamous statements in church history, Unam Sanctam, in which he pronounced it “altogether necessary to salvation” “that every human creature” – including the king – “is subject to the Roman pontiff.”
Philip, the king of France, to whom the statement was addressed, did not agree. In the ensuing posturing, Philip had Boniface arrested. Boniface died shortly afterward, but as the 19th century church historian Philip Schaff says, “in the humiliation of Boniface VIII, the state gained a signal triumph over the papacy.”
Just three years later, a French bishop was elected to the papacy, but he refused to move to Rome. The “Avignon” papacy led further to a “Great Schism,” during which time there were two and even three competing popes, each having excommunicated the followers of the other.
In 1415, a council deposed all three “antipopes” and named an official successor. But papal corruption continued to grow.
The medieval writer Marsiglio of Padua (d. 1343) summarized a popular sentiment during this time, in his work Defensor Pacis saying: “only the whole body of citizens, or the weightier part thereof, is the human legislator.” He was excommunicated.
A parallel struggle within the church was unleashed, over who had ultimate authority within the church: pope or council.
John Wycliffe (d. 1384), who made the first translation of the Bible into English, embodied both of these struggles. He urged secular rulers to work to reform the church. He also espoused religious sentiments that foreshadowed many of the themes of the Reformation. The English historian A.G. Dickens said, “perhaps the only major doctrine of the sixteenth-century Reformers which Wycliffe cannot be said to have anticipated was that of Justification by Faith alone.”
But “justification by faith alone” was, according to many Reformers, the key doctrine of the Reformation. And as papal corruption grew steadily, reaching its zenith in the Borgia popes, Luther’s 95 theses merely ignited tensions that had been growing for centuries.
As the Reformation began to take shape, Luther came to see that, not only was the abuse of indulgences a problem, but that the indulgences themselves, and the related doctrine of purgatory, were the problem.
Scholars believe that Luther came gradually to understand the great themes and doctrines of the Reformation between 1513-21, as he taught the Scriptures. In his “Lectures on the Psalms,” Luther came to realize the utter sinfulness of humanity. As he lectured through Romans, he realized that it was only by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ that humans are justified before God. Lecturing through Galatians and Hebrews he came to understand that faith is not something we do, but rather, it is an open, empty hand that reaches out to God, “receiving and resting on Christ and his finished work for sinners.”
And as his dispute with the church came to the fore, Luther came to understand that popes and councils “can and do err,” and that only Scripture is foundational and normative for all doctrines.
Without question Christian history has its very bad moments. But within that context, the Protestant Reformation was a very good moment. According to Schaff, “The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, “next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history…. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.”
Another writer put it this way: “Reformation Day is a fine thing but let’s remember what the Reformation was: the assertion and defense and conviction that justification of sinners is by unmerited divine favor alone, that, in the act of justification, faith justifies by receiving and resting and trusting in Christ alone, and that Scripture is the magisterial and unique authority for faith and the Christian life.”