On Wednesday 31st October 1517, a lowly monk, Martin Luther, trundled up to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed a document detailing 95 Theses, or more properly A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, to the door, and started off the series of religious, social, and political revolutions now known as the Reformation. Let us ignore the fact that he may not have nailed them to the door, if he did it may not have been on that date, and that he was a professor of moral theology, and that he almost certainly did not envisage or intend such a revolution. The fact is that the Reformation is enormously important in theological, social, and political terms, and its effects are felt even today.
The Reformation is seen in all sorts of ways. Some see it as the glorious rediscovery of gospel truths, long smothered by a corrupt Catholic Church, a new Gospel Age after the darkness of the Middle Ages. Others see it as a consequence and fulfilment of the Renaissance, with the shackles of Christendom thrown off, and as a precursor to the Enlightenment. For others it is a social revolution, where the people can take hold of their own destiny, no longer subject to the hierarchies of church and state. Others see a political movement afoot, where states formed new leagues and hegemonies, and the increasing dominance of Protestant northern Europe against the old powers of southern Europe, bolstering trade with a new ethic of work, and where kings and dukes controlled religion themselves, rather than Rome. Others yet see it as the splintering of Christianity, with new groups and sects setting up, splitting the church, and causing wars and community breakdown that exists to this day.
There is some truth in all of these. But for me, the single most important aspect of the Reformation is that it asserted the truth that the state of a soul is not a matter for the church, but a matter between man and God. This is illustrated well in the matter of indulgences, the issue which sparked the Reformation. The Catholic Church differentiates between mortal sin, worthy of eternal punishment, which can only be dealt with through penance, and venial sin, which must be punished for the purification of the soul, normally in Purgatory. Indulgences were a way of lessening the punishment of these venial sins. Put simply, indulgences can purchase additional purification from these sins, lessening the time spent in Purgatory. These can be purchased by good deeds, or by pledging money to the church, especially for dedicating new churches. St Peters in the Vatican was built from the proceeds of Indulgences. Indulgences could also be purchased for souls of the dead. Needless to say, a huge and corrupt trade in indulgences grew up, and was the subject of much criticism towards the end of the Middle Ages. There was a verse “As soon as the money in the coffer rings, that soul from purgatory’s fire springs”.
The whole issue is that the Catholic Church had effectively set themselves up as gate-keepers of the faith, and were deciding who was, and who was not, “in”, and was selling places in heaven. The Reformation’s assertion that justification was based on faith, not works, removed any man from being able to be the keeper of another man’s soul. Gone is “Christendom” where the church ceases to be the worshipping community of Christians, and becomes a power in its own right. Gone are the rights of priests to stand between humanity and God. Gone is the sale of salvation.
The Reformation has had ill effects – there have been centuries of religious wars in Europe, the effects of which still rumble on in Northern Ireland. From Calvin’s Geneva, through the 1662 Act of Uniformity, through to the over-reaching political aspirations of various Christian groups in the USA today, many reformed churches have hankered after the old powers of Christendom, and the desire to include and exclude at will. Many reformed churches have abandoned good works altogether, failing to understand the biblical injunction that “faith without works is dead”.
Yet for all this, the Reformation is something to be celebrated. Today, we are permitted to read the Bible and can read it in our own language. No man or institution holds the keys of heaven, and can lock us in or out. The claims of the gospel are held out to us, and we may each respond without permission or payment. No longer is truth the property of any man. Truly, things have been re-formed!