While such frights and delights have become a rich American pastime, there is an event much more bright and glorious that occurred on this day 499 years ago. On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted his famed 95 Theses, which protested a number of Roman Catholic practices—especially the sale of indulgences.
In essence, Roman Catholic indulgences enabled people to buy their way—or the way of their loved ones—into God’s better graces. Potentially, the more you gave, the less you would suffer for your sins. A common refrain from era was “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
There is debate over the origin of this line and over the severity of the problem—naturally, because this event drove the divide within the Roman Catholic Church between those who would later become Protestants and those who remained Catholic. The irony is that Luther did not intend to cause a division, but a reform in corrupt practices and some underlying theological corruptions, as well.
What started as a battle over indulgences soon spread into every major theological category—from the sovereignty of God to the depravity of man and the authority of Scripture. From these battles between Rome and the Reformers, we get the five “solas” (Latin for “alone”) of the Reformation: Man is saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—all this for the God’s glory alone. This is all revealed in the Bible, and Scripture alone is the authority for Christian faith and practice.
All of the tenets are clear interpretations of Scripture itself, but they required Scripture to be viewed as authoritative—rather than the papacy or any oral tradition. Rome would not allow this challenge to stand, convening the Council of Trent (1545-63), which declared these tenets to be anathema—in other words, heresy. Even as Reformation teachings were condemned, they were spreading throughout the Western world. A number of Protestants—from millions of French Huguenots to established English clergymen like John Wycliffe—were martyred for their biblical convictions.
The debate obviously still rages today. Even if you’re genuinely interested in working through these theological matters yourself, you will be guided in different directions by Roman Catholics and Protestants. Roman Catholics will point you to established teaching and encyclicals of the church while Protestants will lead you to Scripture itself. Again, it largely comes down to where authority is ultimately vested.
What cannot be argued is the profound effect of Luther’s simple act 499 years ago. There are approximately 900 million Protestants around the world today, compared with about 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. The United States was profoundly influenced by Protestantism throughout its history and despite a strong culture of religious toleration, often had pervasive anti-Roman Catholic biases.
Beyond mere sociology, the posting of the 95 Theses and the consequent Reformation also hastened the demise of religious authority in civil society. With the rise of the Enlightenment and a greater sense of autonomy for the individual, religious dissent eventually gained a degree of respect and toleration. Such toleration in the West now stands in dramatic contrast to a host of theocratic regimes—particularly those in the Middle East.
Underlying all of these historical musings, however, is the greater theological issue. Dissent for dissent’s sake is not commendable. The Protestant Reformation was not a revolution, because it sought to submit the life of the church and the Christian to the ancient authority of Scripture and the eternal rule of God. This Reformation Day, ask yourself these three questions:
What do I believe?
On what authority do I stake these beliefs?
Am I willing to be challenged on these beliefs?