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23 December 2016

A brief history of the Reformation

Theologians can change the world. In 1517 Martin Luther was a devout Augustinian scholar teaching at the University of Wittenberg. His dedication to the Church of Rome had led him to become a monk in 1505, but his intellect was spotted early and from 1508 he focused on lecturing in biblical studies. By 1517 he was making full use of a fresh edition of the New Testament in Greek, and became convinced that scripture was at odds with various teachings of his own Catholic tradition. On 31 October that year he published a document that would alter the course of history, and whose implications are still very evident as we prepare to mark the 500th anniversary of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. 

Luther is often depicted dramatically as nailing his ‘Ninety-Five Theses’ to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church on All Hallows Eve those five centuries ago. In truth, it was the mass printing and dissemination of the theses across Europe in 1517-18 that established what he also called his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. Indulgences were granted by the Church as a means of reducing the punishment due to sinners, their loved ones or others in purgatory. 

Traditionally they required some form of ritual action to become effective - from repeating set prayers, through reverencing relics, to going on pilgrimages. In the decades before Luther’s protest, however, they had become heavily corrupted, with charges being made for them that would not only be diverted to the building of the grand Basilica of St Peter in Rome, but also to pay off bribes taken out by Prince Albrecht of Brandenburg to secure the Archbishopric of Mainz. 

Whereas indulgences were deemed acceptable because the Pope had authorised them, Luther the biblical scholar could find no scriptural warrant for them – indeed, he argued that they contradicted scripture, and since scripture must guide the Church’s teaching, they must be rejected. Faced with accusations of betraying his Catholic heritage at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther famously replied: “I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the word of God.” Today, our Evangelical Alliance Basis of Faith affirms the “supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God — fully trustworthy for faith and conduct”. In doing so, it echoes Luther’s emphasis, which he in turn believed was reflective of scripture’s witness to itself, and the use of scripture by Jesus. 

Luther’s protest against indulgences was more specifically a protest against the idea that salvation could either be earned by human effort or will, or bought by human funds or goods. The outcome was his and other reformers’ formulation of the signature Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Rome had taught that righteousness could be accumulated through acts of ritual penance and devotion. For the reformers, however, justification was sola fide and sola gratia – dependent purely on a saving faith that was itself a free gift, or grace, of God, secured by Jesus’ atoning death for sinners on the cross. This liberating idea has been central to evangelical preaching, teaching and witness: while the precise relationship of grace to works in ongoing discipleship has been interpreted differently in different strands of evangelicalism, the common commitment of evangelicals to this foundational principle is expressed by the Alliance’s Basis of Faith when it affirms “the justification of sinners solely by the grace of God through faith in Christ”. The Lutheran World Federation has chosen to mark the Reformation quincentenary by applying this principle to the three-fold message that salvation, human beings and creation are ‘not for sale’. This bears out the rich implications of justification not only for personal faith and redemption, but also for wider society in a world marred by the sinful exploitations of people trafficking and ecological profligacy. As such, it resonates with our own Evangelical Alliance work in public policy and advocacy, and the connections we seek to make between the necessity for personal faith in Jesus Christ and the call to bring the good news we know as individuals to bear in our communities, and in society as a whole. 

Although it arose in the 16th Century, the Reformation was not so much an innovation as a recovery – a recovery of the essential content of the ‘evangel’ or ‘good news’ of salvation proclaimed by Jesus Christ himself, and by his apostles. That work of recovery is reflected in our own designation as evangelicals. Indeed, as evangelicals, we owe a great deal to the Reformation. Those of us in Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist and Anabaptist traditions can trace a direct line back to the seismic theological and ecclesial renewal led by Luther, and taken up by John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox, John Smyth, Menno Simons and other leaders of the Reformation as it developed in various forms across Britain, Europe and the world. Others of us in Methodist, Pentecostal, independent and new Church traditions give thanks for the Pietist and Revivalist development of Protestantism in the 17th and 18th centuries.

On one level, our diversity reflects the fact that the Reformation led to a more plural Church, and at times this plurality has curdled into division and conflict. From the Peasants’ War of 1523 to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48, the Reformation became a focus of severe national and international conflict, with millions of lives lost. The resonance of those conflicts can still be felt in more recent sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, Liverpool, Glasgow and elsewhere. For all his genius, Luther himself could be cruel and conflictual, lapsing at times into gruesome antisemitism. Yet it was he himself who recognised that while Christians are justified we remain sinners, challenged by fight of faith. 

For 170 years, the Evangelical Alliance has sought to honour the many positive legacies of the Reformation, while also seeking to overcome the divisions that accompanied it. Across and beyond the various streams of evangelicalism, we seek to make common cause for the good news, that the world might believe. Significant differences remain between our theological understanding and that of the Roman Catholic Church against which Luther protested, but in recent decades various evangelical networks have co-operated effectively with Catholics in campaigning against abortion and euthanasia, for traditional marriage, and on social justice concerns like poverty and homelessness. 

We might not individually change the world as momentously as Luther did, but five centuries on his legacy reminds us that we are part of a movement called to transform people and society by the grace of God, with the word of God, for the glory of God. 

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