I confess to mixed feelings about Reformation Day, which commemorates Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517. The intention of this act by a teacher of theology and Scripture was to begin a scholarly debate on indulgences. (The theses are printed in The Annotated Luther, vol. 1. Other references to Luther’s early works are also from this volume.) To put it in modern-day terms, Luther’s theses went ‘viral’. The debate rapidly escalated from the premise of the theses to questions of faith and the state of the Church.
While this was a pivotal moment in both Church and human history, I am saddened by the resulting divisions in the Church, which have since increased alarmingly. And, I lament the loss of life in subsequent ‘religious wars’ (although these had economic, political and social, as well as religious, causes.) Still, I celebrate the beginnings of vitally necessary reform in the Church. As such mixed feelings may be shared by other Christians, it is useful to explore what this day symbolises.
Indulgences no longer play such an important role in Church life. Put simply, they involved the Church being ‘indulgent’, reducing or eliminating temporal penalties for mortal sins, offering remission in virtue of the treasury of merits accumulated by Christ and the saints. Indulgences could be given to crusaders, and purchased by other believers. Selling indulgences in Germany to raise money for the renovation of currently the second biggest church in the world, St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was the presenting issue in Luther’s call for debate. He wrote in 1520 that the Roman Curia, the Papal Court, was more corrupt than Babylon or Sodom (Freedom of a Christian.) That the debate became heated is hardly surprising.
Discussion soon arose on the question of ‘justification’ or ‘righteousness’, both translations of the Greek word dikaiosune. The Apostle Paul declares that all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and we are justified by God’s grace as a gift (Romans 3.23-24). Luther had lectured on Romans in 1515-1516, and in 1518 he expressed his conviction that a person is “justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (Romans 3.28, and compare 1.17; 10.10). Grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been infused, works follow (Heidelberg Disputation.) This is still a pressing issue. There may be moments when we become painfully aware that we do things which are destructive and fail to do things which we would expect of ourselves. Our concern is how to be made whole; for Christians this has to do with being set right with God. The American-German theologian Paul Tillich has suggested that we understand justification by grace through faith in the sense that we are accepted by God, and that we are asked to accept this acceptance (Systematic Theology, Chapter 27).
Luther’s action, eventful in so many ways, is generally considered the beginning of the European Reformation. On 31 October, the Australian Lectionary has Anglicans honouring Luther and other Continental Reformers.
In reflecting on this day, we do well to recall that the Church had already been divided since the Great Schism of 1054 between the Catholic West of Europe and the Orthodox East. And, also, that Luther, Calvin, and other Reformers did not set out to establish new churches. Their aim was to reform the whole Church, to make it more truly a Christian community faithful to God and God’s calling.
The need for reform in the Church by the sixteenth century was widely recognised. Many writers during the Middle Ages, including Italian poet and moral philosopher Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy, identified significant abuses in the Church. Most were faithful Catholics, but sought to recall the Church to what it was intended to be.
The Council of Constance (1414-1418), an ecumenical council initiated by the Holy Roman Emperor and German King Sigismund and called by Pope John XXIII to reunite Christendom, was summoned to correct abuses. The Czech priest Jan Hus, chancellor of Prague University, was invited to the Council and given an imperial safe conduct. But when he was deemed a heretic, the Council had the safe conduct set aside, and Hus was burned at the stake. British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch points out that this was a powerful symbol that the institutional Church was no longer capable of dealing with a movement of reform (A History of Christianity, 560-72.) Human actions often have unintended consequences. We may well be disturbed by aspects of what eventuated since 1517, but it would be unjust to lay blame for such things solely on the Reformers of that time.
So, I personally honour Luther and other Church Reformers for their faith and courage. It was very possible that their stance would cost them their lives. It is also worth noting that the Catholic Church itself undertook serious reform at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), if not exactly along the lines that Luther envisaged.
In more recent times there have been significant moves to heal divisions in the Church. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) has inspired Christians in many traditions to examine our Church life to discern how it might become more responsive to the Spirit of Jesus Christ at work among us.
In 1999, we celebrated a Joint Declaration by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church on the Doctrine of Justification, which was such a disputed issue in the Reformation. There are on-going bi-lateral theological dialogues which produce agreed statements on matters of concern, the Anglican Communion being involved in a number of such dialogues. The Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC), established in 1927 as the Faith and Order Movement and integrated into the WCC in 1948, also produces statements promoting Church unity. Many of these documents are available online.
Anglicans acknowledge continuity with Catholic and Protestant expressions of Christianity. We often describe ourselves as both Catholic and Reformed. Many of us also seek to take up aspects of Eastern Orthodox prayer and theology and care for God’s creation.
There have been great gains in ecumenical relations among the churches. It remains for us to build on these, seeking closer unity among Christians and Christian communities, while holding to our integrity.Jump to next article