The Impact of the Reformation

Rev. William Marler, Missouri District First Vice President

On October 31, 2022, Lutheran Christians will commemorate the 505th anniversary of the Reformation. That date is based on one of several events that might have been chosen to mark the beginning of one of the most impactful movements to ever effect history in Western world civilization. In 1517 the professor/priest Martin Luther is believed to have posted an academic theological document that came to be known as ‘The 95 Theses,” on the door of the Castle Church in the town of Wittenberg, Germany. The 95 Theses were also published, and this was how Luther’s teachings, ideas, and challenges gained widespread attention.

Convinced that the Church’s official doctrine and practice not only contradicted some of the teachings clearly presented in the Holy Scriptures, but led to unfaithful and harmful practices, Luther sought to bring to attention substantive issues for the Church to debate and discuss. That’s how the Church historically handled widespread controversy and challenge. In the early years of the Reformation movement Luther was hopeful that the Church would call an Ecumenical Council (a meeting of all Roman Catholic bishops to come together in study and prayer to solve divisions) to address the doctrinal disintegration and corruption in leadership, and then reform itself. At least four major attempts to silence Luther convinced him otherwise, and by 1521, he expected to be convicted of heresy and executed.

But the Church—while called by the Holy Spirit to be the people of God in the world while not being of the world in beliefs, morals, and lifestyles—never finds itself in an isolated cultural bubble or an historical vacuum. In the complex tapestry of politics, economics, social life, education, religion, etc., Christians are both impacted by and called upon to be an influence on the contemporary culture. The 16th century was a time of major change in the western world. Nationalism was replacing the worn-out idea of a Holy Roman Empire. A middle class was evolving to demand its share of the wealth. Luther’s ideas and writings had implications for all these areas of life; he became one of the most popular men in Europe. He was used, misused, and abused. In a peasants’ revolt both they and the nobles who crushed them claimed Luther as their hero. Luther was excommunicated by the Pope. His books were burned. But he would be the first major heretic to challenge either Church or State not to be executed. The invasion of the Muslim Turks would buy Luther a decade to spread the Reformation through his writing. An army of pastors, teachers, and education superintendents from Wittenberg University spread the Reformation throughout Europe. Never did Luther conceive of or endorse the creation of “new” churches, what we call denominations. Christ’s Church, he believed, was intended to be built only upon the Word of God, the one absolute Truth, and upon Jesus Christ and His Gospel. By grace alone, by faith alone, Scripture alone became the motto for Lutheran Christians.

The Reformation produced theological and ecclesiastic reform in western Christianity, but the formation of several breakaway churches further divided Christianity. In addition to the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Lutheran, Reformed, Radical Reformation groups, and the Church of England all broke ranks and became their own entities. In short time, there were further divisions and “new” groups that emerged among the Reformed and Radical Christians. When British colonists emigrated to North America, Anglicans and a host of Puritan Christian groups came, along with a smaller minority of Catholics. Over 150 years later, when the United States was created, the first amendment to the Constitution separated the institutions of Church and State, and without directly citing Luther, reflected in some part his “two-kingdom” New Testament teaching. James Madison was once asked who the father of the Bill of Rights was; he dodged the immediate question and pointed to Luther. Indeed, Martin Luther and the Reformation inspired not only theological and church reform, but political, social, and educational reform as well.

The distinctive characteristic of Lutheran theology, a rich insight in teaching and practice given to Luther, that may be of most critical importance to us today as we live in this world to share the Gospel while avoiding becoming of the world, is the affirmation of paradox and the polarities: Law and Gospel; Christ as both God and man; the Christian as simultaneously saint and sinner; justification by grace through faith and baptismal regeneration; the real presence of Christ in the Holy Supper, Body (bread) and Blood (wine). The Truth shall set us free.