Why a reformation?
Why a reformation?
The Reformation—the word still conjures up images and excitement whenever we hear it. We picture that determined German monk nailing his ninety-five theses to the Wittenberg church door and later on taking his stand before the emperor and church representatives at Worms. What he said and did back there in the 1500s quite literally changed the history of the church and the world. Heady stuff.
But the Reformation didn’t start with Martin Luther, nor did it end with him. Rather, what happened was this: From the beginning the church faced a host of challenges which threatened to destroy the teaching it had received from its Lord. To these challenges, which more and more became crises, the church responded. Challenge and response, the structure of world history which Arnold Toynbee detected, is clearly obvious in the specific matter of the history of the Christian church.
Even before Luther’s time, the church’s response to the challenges it faced had become so insistent that response had turned into reformation. With Luther this response reached its high point, and since Luther the church has continued to face even more challenges to which it must respond. Response, then, still leads to reformation, to re-forming in line with God’s truth. Ecclesia semper reformanda—the church is always in the process of being reformed.
Though any person may observe challenges and responses, deformation and reformation, in the church, only the person of faith will see the hand of God in the whole process. For God is always watching over his church and his truth.
When Luther came on the scene, his response to this blatant sinfulness in the church was in many ways like the response of a lot of other people before him. But it was also different. Luther didn’t start out by condemning the immorality and the love of money in the church. Rather, he started out by responding to the spiritual condition in his own heart. However, by the time he was finished, he was making the ultimate response to unscriptural theology and corruption in the papacy and monasticism, the very things that had been plaguing and disturbing the church for so long.
During these early years, Luther criticized the corruption in the church through sermons, and, in private letters, began to wonder if the pope was the Antichrist. He had seen things firsthand in Rome during a visit in 1510 and 1511, so he had plenty of background knowledge. But his expressions were hardly more critical than what other concerned priests of his day and before him had said and written. If he had done nothing more, he wouldn’t be remembered today.
Then a situation arose in which the problem of sin, which he had just solved so successfully for himself, was being handled in a totally different, and to Luther’s way of thinking, a totally wrong way. In many respects this situation displayed just what was wrong with medieval theology. Temperamentally, Luther couldn’t let this slide. So he went on the attack.
The situation was the selling of indulgences, sort of what we might call letters of acquittal. Though the idea of indulgences, as we’ve already seen, had been around for hundreds of years, the meaning was not clearly fixed. Nevertheless, it went something like this: You sinned badly, a “mortal” (deadly) rather than a “venial” (small, easily pardonable) sin. You went to a priest and confessed. You were told your sin was forgiven. But first, before the forgiveness was effective, you’d have to perform some act of satisfaction, some penalty to show you were sincere about your confession. Failure to do this penance could result in hundreds or thousands of years in purgatory, which was considered a sort of intermediate stage. It was first of all this temporal penalty which could be removed by buying one of these letters of acquittal. It was said that this was possible because of a “treasury of good works” (or “merits”) accumulated by God’s people over the centuries, much more than those individuals (the “saints”) needed for themselves. When an indulgence was bought, good works from this general treasury were transferred to the buyer’s account, making it unnecessary for him to perform the given penalty. So much for the temporal penalty.
There would also be the eternal penalty laid on the person by God. But, over the course of years, it had been suggested that this eternal penalty, like the temporal one, could be removed by an indulgence, yes, even the sin itself could be canceled by an indulgence. At the height of the indulgence-selling frenzy in the early 1500s, it was believed that you could even cover the penalties and sins of other people, even dead ones, by the indulgence you bought. There seemed to be no limit to what one of these remarkable documents, in a wide variety of price ranges, could do. Quite literally, a person could buy from God the forgiveness of sin for money. How could this possibly be squared, Luther wondered, with justification by faith? In fact, it couldn’t.
When the seller of the latest papal indulgence, John Tetzel, started pushing his product quite close to Wittenberg with the most extravagant claims and commercials (“as soon as the money in the chest rings, the soul from purgatory springs”), Luther called for a public debate on just what indulgences could and couldn’t do. The date was October 31, 1517; the place was the community bulletin board (the door of the Castle Church); the form was ninety-five short propositions or “theses.”
At this point Luther was not against indulgences, only what he considered their abuse. The theses still accept the ideas of purgatory and papal authority, though one detects a note of skepticism about all these things. Thesis sixty-two sounds the note of what’s coming: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God” (LW 31:31). That’s the treasure that Christians should depend on, not a supposed treasury of good works. Luther himself had fallen back upon this true treasure to respond to the sin and fear in his own heart. Now he was advocating the use of this true treasure by everyone, rather than a reliance on indulgences. A blow was being struck against a thousand years of mistaken theology and deformed church organization.
In November 1519 the Curia met in Rome to discuss the steps that should be taken to stop Luther. Eck urged that the pope should act immediately to silence once and for all “that beast of Witten- berg,” as he called Luther. The Curia decided, however, to make another attempt to get the Elector Frederick to surrender Luther to Rome. Frederick replied that arrangements had already been made for a meeting between Luther and Miltitz. At that meeting the archbishop of Trier was to serve as judge. The meeting with the archbishop, however, did not take place; but that, he said, was through no fault of his own. Frederick also made it quite clear that he had no intention of surrendering Luther to Rome. He was deter- mined that his famous university professor should have a fair trial, and he knew that he would not get that in Rome. So the elector informed Luther that it was his plan to take him along to the diet at Worms, where his case could be heard.
In March 1520 the pope appointed a commission of four with Eck as chairman. This commission was ordered to draw up a bull of excommunication against Luther. On June 1st the bull, or papal pronouncement, was unanimously accepted by the cardinals. On June 15, 1520, the pope signed the bull and affixed the papal seal. It was ready for printing and for distribution throughout the church.
The bull was a lengthy document that listed and condemned forty-one of Luther’s writings. In it the pope lamented that anything so wicked could have taken place among the Germans for whom he always had a special affection. He called God to witness that he had done everything possible to bring Luther back to the fold of the church. The bull stated that Luther’s attacks on the papacy and his false teaching dare not be tolerated. It then condemned Luther as a heretic and stated that he would be excommunicated unless he recanted within sixty days. Excommunication meant that he could not partake of the sacraments of the church, his property would be taken away from him, and all his writings would be burned. After his excommunication he would be in great danger of being put under the ban of the state, cruelly punished, and possibly put to death.