Martin Luther – Celebrating 500 Years Since the Beginning of the Reformation Part 1
In the first part of a new series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson describes the political and spiritual situation that roused Martin Luther into action.
This year celebrates 500 years since the start of what we now call the Reformation. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther, a priest and a university lecturer in biblical studies nailed his now famous Ninety- Five Theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg Germany. With the recent invention of the printing press Luther’s theses went ‘viral’ across Europe sparking the beginnings of what would become known as the Reformation. In the 95 Theses Luther was concerned about the corruption in the church at the time and called for a radical change to take place. One of his main concerns was the selling of indulgences. It was being taught that if you bought some of these indulgences you would have your sins forgiven in return. People were even told they could buy indulgences on behalf of dead people to shorten their time in Purgatory and get them to heaven quicker. Indulgences were just the tip of the iceberg, however, because the church was experiencing spiritual corruption at every level. How had history brought Luther to this moment of truth?
The Middle Ages
The Roman Empire experienced a deep decline in Western Europe, especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, and it wasn’t long before most of Western Europe became a patchwork of decentralized small kingdoms, regions and city-states. In many ways the church became the glue that gave a sense of cohesion to the many different states in Europe. People had a unity of faith that brought a sense of shared identity and morality. The church provided social care and a deep sense of belonging at a local level binding people to a common set of values. Some people refer to the Mediaeval period as the ‘Dark Ages’, but this is very unfair, as the Middle Ages had many high points as well as low ones. Because the church was so important to everyone, it even began to settle political disputes and was seen as a kind of high court of appeal in earthly matters as well as
spiritual. Soon the power of the pope exceeded that of any European monarch. This became a problem as the church became too politically powerful and started to abuse its spiritual authority for political gain.
The Renaissance (meaning rebirth) began in Italy in the fourteenth century. Its main feature was a rediscovering of the learning and culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. A new generation of scholars and artists arose wanting to get back to the sources of such learning and with the invention of the printing press in 1440 AD the opportunity for reading and learning multiplied incredibly.
This multiplication of learning across Christian Western Europe naturally made people interested in studying theology, especially the Bible texts in their original languages of Hebrew and Greek. As these scholars (known as humanists) studied the Bible they began to see the disparity between what was taught in Scripture and what was practiced by the church. For the first time in centuries all across Europe people began to question the teaching and practice of the church (a thing forbidden to do) measuring it by the standards of the Bible.
At this time many kings, princes and rulers were fed up with the interference of the pope and the church in their political affairs. They didn’t want to be told what to do all the time by a pope in Rome who took huge taxes from them and demanded unquestioned loyalty and obedience under pain of excommunication. Educationally, socially, technologically, politically and spiritually everything was coming together in Europe ready for a spiritual explosion. On 31 October 1517 Luther lit the fuse of the Reformation with his 95 Theses, and next month we will see what an incredible explosion it was. ❖
Acknowledgements: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea by Alister McGrath (SPCK)
In the fourth and final part of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson gives a broad overview of what we mean when we use the term Reformation. Alister McGrath in his excellent book Reformation Thought: an Introduction explains that when we...
In part 3 of his series Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson describes the reaction to Luther’s 95 theses Last month we looked at how 500 years ago Martin Luther rediscovered the central Bible truth of Justification by faith alone. The 95 theses posted onto the Wittenberg...
In the second part of our series on Luther, Associate Pastor Bruce Atkinson explains how Luther’s 95 theses lit the fuse of the Reformation causing the rediscovered truth of Justification by Faith alone to explode across Europe. Last month’s...